By Jonathon Van Maren
Balenciaga is a high-end fashion house best known for footwear, accessories, and associating with celebrities such as Kim Kardashian. In a world where taboos have gone the way of the dinosaur and ubiquitous digital porn has virtually eliminated the public’s capacity for shock, designers now have a difficult time finding ways to capture attention and provoke outrage. Balenciaga, however, managed to pull it off recently by releasing an ad campaign showing two young girls holding teddy bears dressed in bondage gear. The outrage from the entire political spectrum was universal.
In one photo, a red-haired little girl wore a Balenciaga T-shirt while carrying a white bear by a strap. The bear appeared to have swollen eyes. The bear wore a vest with a padlocked choker around the neck. In another image, a brunette child held a purple teddy bear similarly attired in BDSM getup. In one of the photos, a printed copy of a US Supreme Court decision on child porn laws was tucked behind some of the accessories. The message was brazenly clear: the sexualization of children is fine. Down with the prudes.
The backlash was immediate. On social media, people responded with horror and calls for boycotts. Public figures spoke out. Balenciaga deleted their Instagram page, and influencers called for them to be “cancelled” for the promotion of child porn. Kardashian herself was called upon to cut ties with the fashion house but waited days before releasing a tepid message saying that she wanted to find out what happened internally first. In a panic, Balenciaga filed a $25 million lawsuit against the producers of the ad campaign, production company North Six, Inc. and set designer Nicholas Des Jardins.
It is hard to believe that these images were not released without Balenciaga’s explicit signoff—that is simply not how this works—and the case specifically mentions the inclusion of photos of the child porn court ruling as “malevolent or, at the very least, extraordinarily reckless.” It was that artistic decision, the filing states, that created a situation in which “members of the public, including the news media, have falsely and horrifically associated Balenciaga with the repulsive and deeply disturbing subject of the court decision.” It is not clear, however, who made the decision about the teddy bears—and it seems likely that someone at Balenciaga made that call.
Considering the developments of the last several years, however, it is no surprise that the folks at Balenciaga are shocked by the backlash they have received. The mainstream press now encourages parents to take children to Pride parades and publishes explainers on why kids seeing male adult genitalia is just fine and that their exposure to “kink” and…well, the sort of thing in the Balenciaga ad is healthy. Indeed, Dutch photographer Jan van Breda recently won a €2,500 prize for a photograph of a toddler playing on a swing while men in latex bondage gear mingled nearby at Pride Amsterdam. Despite condemnation from the usual conservative and Christian sources, all of this has been accepted as our new normal. Kids seeing nudity? Simulated orgies on parade floats? Weird sexual fetishes mimed in public? Welcome to the revolution, baby!
And then, of course, there’s the explosion of drag shows for children. (Read that sentence again and let it sink in for a moment.) LGBT clubs are hosting “erotic dance routines in drag outfits.” Activists such as Libs of TikTok post a seemingly endless stream of video clips showing drag queens engaged in explicit dances for kids (some of these troupes have charming names like “Glitter Hole”). Only because of this sort of exposure has the practice of drag shows for kids come under fire, triggering cancellations in some places (including a “sex play” for kids in the UK). There’s also the growing trend of “drag kids,” where children themselves are groomed to be drag queens and often perform in adult venues while being showered with bills like strippers.
Unsurprisingly, these practices attract a certain sort of attention. A Child Court judge who sponsored DQSH was arrested for possession of child porn. In 2019, the Houston Public Library admitted that a registered child sex offender had been reading to children as part of their Drag Queen Storytime program. In 2020, UK Drag Queen Storytime tweeted out the pedophile slogan “Love has no age.” In 2021, a sponsor of Drag Queen Storytime in Milwaukee was arrested on child pornography charges. And this year, a Pennsylvania drag queen named Brice Patric Ryschon Williams, who has danced explicitly for children, was charged with 25 counts of child pornography in Pennsylvania. Williams identifies as a “genderqueer social worker” and is a well-known LGBT activist.
As vile and repulsive as all of this is, it should not be surprising to anyone familiar with the history of the sexual revolutionaries. The sexualization of children was always the point. American sexologist Alfred Kinsey advocated for it. The “father of wokeness” Michel Foucault was a pedophile rapist. Major revolutionary figures put their signatures to documents calling for the reduction or elimination of the age of consent. The Paedophile Information Exchange operated openly in Britain, supported by both the gay rights movement and some fashionably progressive politicians. The sexualization of children was only stopped by much-maligned heroes such as Mary Whitehouse and the social conservative backlash of the 1980s—not by any moderation on the part of the sexual revolutionaries whose spiritual descendants now champion Drag Queen Story Hour.
In that context, Balenciaga’s shock makes sense. Progressives have been aggressively defending every manifestation of the sexualization of children for the past decade or more—and this is a return to their roots, not some new front in the culture wars. Perhaps the designer thought that with sexually charged drag shows for kids and ubiquitous adolescent porn use and the growing use of child porn and “sex education” in public schools that is little better than instructional grooming that now was the time to bite the bullet and just come out with it. And so the quiet part was said out loud and a court ruling on child porn was slipped surreptitiously onto the set. Someone noticed, and even those who defend all of the above were forced to voice their outrage.
The Balenciaga ad campaign was a trial balloon, testing how far our culture can be pushed on the sexualization of children. We have already come horrifyingly far in a very short amount of time, but it appears that depicting children with bondage teddy bears is boiling the frog too fast. I would have thought that children seeing men in bondage gear at Pride or being entertained by men in sexual costumes at public libraries might have done it, but no such luck. Balenciaga has shown us where the line has been drawn—for now. If we truly care for children, we will capitalize on this rare re-sensitization and push the line back further. This began decades ago. Let Balenciaga be the catalyst for a recommitment to the defence of the innocence of children.