LYNNWOOD — Marci Milfs went to Urban Outfitters to find clothes for her teenage son.
She was surprised to find sexually charged books that she believes have no place in a clothing store for teens and young adults.
On one end of the spectrum was “Porn for Women,” a photo book showing men doing housework. On the other was “Pornogami: A Guide to the Ancient Art of Paper-Folding for Adults,” a guide for making anatomically correct artwork.
“When I saw it, I was shocked,” Milfs said.
The books are displayed on tables in the Alderwood mall store with other socially and politically irreverent books, such as Stephen Colbert’s “I Am America (And So Can You).”
Milfs was so appalled that she is preparing to file a complaint with the city of Lynnwood, and has already aired her frustrations to State Rep. Norma Smith, R-Clinton, and organizations including Morality in Media, Concerned Women of America and the American Family Association.
She also called Urban Outfitters’ corporate office in Philadelphia.
“They said they are not sex books or pornography books, but that they are art books and their goals are to support artists,” Milfs said.
Urban Outfitters declined to comment on Milfs’ concerns.
A woman who answered the phone at the company’s corporate office said Urban Outfitters responds only to media inquiries of its choosing and that interview requests must be mailed to corporate headquarters. The Herald did not mail an interview request.
Suggestive advertising is common at shopping centers. For instance, racy ads for perfume often draw complaints from mall customers, Alderwood general manager Jerry Alder said. There’s not much the mall can do if the business practices of the stores abide by the law, he said.
“We get a lot of customer contact in the management office,” Alder said. “We typically direct them back to the stores.”
Smith said her staff brought the issue to the attention of the state attorney general’s office, but the state office declined to act against the retailer.
She encouraged Milfs to work with Urban Outfitters to resolve the issue.
“I just hope that (Urban Outfitters) will be sensitive to her concerns, and to take that into account and take a look at who their customer base is,” Smith said.
Customers usually know what to expect when they shop at large retailers, because companies often spend years building up their brand images, said Dana Alden, professor of marketing at the Shidler College of Business at the University of Hawaii.
However, the retail industry has shifted to more of a European style during the past 10 to 15 years, Alden said. Sexual undertones are more prevalent than they used to be in merchandise and advertising, he said.
The societal shift can lead to increased friction between retailers and customers who aren’t part of a sought-after target audience, Alden said.
“(Milfs) has the right to not shop in that store, just as someone has the right in cable television not to let their kids have access to certain programming,” Alden said. “What may be offensive to one consumer may not be for another.”
To shield children from sexually explicit material, several states have laws that require businesses to limit children’s access to goods that lack “serious artistic, political, scientific or literary value for minors,” said Robert Peters, president of New York-based Morality in Media, a group established in the 1960s to combat pornography.
Washington is behind the times, Peters said. This state’s minor-protection law calls for access to be restricted on goods that are “utterly without redeeming social value,” but the wording is not followed by “for minors,” Peters said.
The vagueness of the state law creates a legal gray area, Peters said. Arguably, an item that is inappropriate for children might be allowable if it’s found suitable for adults, he said.
“Even assuming these books don’t violate the law, they are not nice books,” he said. “If a typical mother invited neighborhood kids over, she wouldn’t be leaving these books on her coffee table for the kids to peruse.”
Milfs doesn’t believe the books should be seen by children.
“It’s not freedom of speech,” she said. “It’s selling adult books to teenagers.”
Reporter Scott Pesznecker: 425-339-3436 or firstname.lastname@example.org.