What’s wrong with supersexy ads in a legal magazine?

Controversy erupted again this week in Massachusetts over the fact that lawyers have sex.

An ad that’s run for several weeks in Massachusetts Lawyers Weekly features a young woman clad in a man’s jacket, and nothing else, attempting—and evidently succeeding in—the seduction of a would-be male lawyer. His lawyer-ness is evinced by a nearby stack of extremely slim books: perhaps Federal Reporters from the year 1207 or takeout menus from local eateries. That’s the first clue that the ad is a scam: No lawyer worth his or her salt would accessorize with books that small. The ad, for men’s clothing, says that a “custom-tailored suit is a natural aphrodisiac.” This would probably be a surprise to a family of oysters or some other natural aphrodisiac actually found in nature.

Still, the legal magazine’s decision to run the ad for custom-tailored suits by a company called Jiwani has engendered a small outpouring of enraged letters to the editor, at least according to today’s Boston Globe. Which has itself led to a bunch of legal bloggers evincing some perplexity over whether this is really all that offensive. Evidently, at least two-dozen readers of Massachusetts Lawyers Weekly were infuriated by the ad’s placement in a legal publication; law being that rare profession in which “women struggle mightily to achieve the same respect and status as men.”

Help me out here. Because I consider myself a feminist and I am always one to fetch a pail of water in the service of gender equity. But can someone please explain what it is about this particular ad that “demeans women” and undermines our success in the workplace? Can someone help me understand why the president of the Women’s Bar Association wrote in to the publication in question, calling this ad a form of “gender discrimination”? Am I supposed to be outraged about the fact that this nearly naked woman is using her near nakedness to seduce a colleague (a trick that goes back to the first fig leaf, I believe) or that a clothing company is using the promise of uncontrollable, spontaneous workplace sex to seduce clients (a trick that goes back to the first Fig Leaf Emporium)? Not much about the ad suggests that women are disempowered, after all. This couple could be married. The man might be the woman’s secretary. He may well be billing her by the hour. …

The women upset over this ad seem to be objecting not to the substance of it; there is nothing here you won’t find in every other perfume ad in Elle. The problem seems to be with the forum. There’s something distasteful about a legal magazine suggesting that expensive suits make girls randy. But why? Is it because this ad targets lawyers? Lawyers should be allowed to crave sex, too, shouldn’t they? Is the problem that the ad seems to target men? Have the women complaining about it watched the Super Bowl ads latterly? If ads like this one are OK in Road and Track, and similarly OK in Glamour, what transforms them into “sexism” on the pages of Massachusetts Lawyers Weekly?

It’s not that the women complaining are being prudish (although the magazine’s editor recently called them just this, which managed to enrage them even more). But I don’t think the ads should be pulled, as seems to be the case. Sex isn’t the same thing as sexism and—while I certainly agree that the woman in this photo would be a better role model for our daughters in a long black robe and maybe a jaunty little gavel—it’s simply not the case that every woman who kisses a male lawyer is a hooker or a victim.

This reflexive opposition to using anything intimate or even overtly sexual in a legal magazine may be upsetting because women lawyers can’t see themselves in that ad; this is the same overreaction that leads some women at law school to believe that sex is for drunk people and that male lawyers only have sex with other women. Shouting about this ad reinforces the dangerous lesson that there is no place for sex or flirtation or anything naughty in the law and that all sex must be sexism, because when it happens to us, it’s rare and mysterious good fortune.