LEADING ARTICLE : Indecent harassment

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The Independent Online
The hackneyed image in the roadside advertisements for the film Disclosure is in danger of producing an equally hackneyed response. The Advertising Standards Authority is expected to meet later this week to consider whether the poster - Demi Moore in a black dress, riding up her thighs, in a clinch with Michael Douglas, whose hands she has placed on her behind - breaks its code of decency.

This is not the first time the ASA has got hot under the collar about advertisements that use sex to sell products. The Club 18-30 holiday group had its notoriety restored by the banning of a post-Aids campaign that suggested its holidays were all sex. A woman dressed in nothing more than a feather boa and some stockings is advertising Prt--Porter, the fashion film. Before them we had the "Hello boys, are you pleased to see me?" Wonderbra ads.

Chief among the bad reasons for banning the advertisement would be that this would pander to the most prudish prejudices of a nation so buttoned- up about sex that it usually squirms with embarrassment at the hint of public expression or discussion of sexual pleasure. If advertising pushes at these prejudices it is serving a useful purpose. The most sexually explicit advertisements of recent years were created for the Government's anti-Aids campaign.

The best reason for considering banning the advertisement is not that male drivers are so transfixed by its pornographically charged image that they are crashing their cars, nor even that some women regard it as degrading. Most children can see far more shocking scenes every night in soap operas.

The strongest case against the poster is its use of an image of sexual pleasure to sell a film which is about sexual harassment. The poster's underlying message is the misleading and ultimately misogynist "sexual harassment looks like fun". It is by implication a distortion of the reality known to thousands of women, that harassment is horrible.

The poster's suggestion that when men are harassed it looks like fun could help to feed a reasonably widespread male fantasy that when women are the victims the same must be true. This is at best an unsavoury message, which should be recognised as oppressive and distasteful. But it is not in itself grounds for banning the poster. Ours is a liberal society. The price of it remaining free is that we occasionally live with our outrage rather than rushing to ban what has caused us offence.

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