Rebecca Kamm

Poking a stick at ladies' issues, pop culture, and other cutting-edge curiosities.

Rebecca Kamm: The problem with lads' mags

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What do you think about the way mens' mags portray women?Photo / Thinkstock
What do you think about the way mens' mags portray women?Photo / Thinkstock

Free speech is utterly, undeniably important to a free society. Sometimes though, when it's in its purest form, it clashes with the basic human right to feel comfortable in the public sphere and warrants adjustment.

Advertising regulations exist for this reason: advertisements exist outside in common ground, so the use of racist stereotypes to sell a product - for example - is forbidden. This is accepted by all but the most callous of us, the key principle being that no person should should be singled out for the entertainment of others.

So what about lads' mags like Zoo and Nuts? With their open-mouthed, naked cover stars, should they be sold at UK supermarkets, in full view of shoppers? To be seen by seven-year-olds buying sweets, and malleable teenagers with neurons easily warped by passive, often degrading versions of sex and gender?

Not to mention your average woman who'd actually rather not see a parade of women portrayed as sex dolls as she buys her milk, thanks all the same.

That this is even an issue in 2013 is fairly astonishing. Lads' mags, aside from their endless pages of naked women in various stages of submission, contain thousands of ads for hard core porn, sex chat, masseurs and escorts. Then there are the messages in their "editorial": in 2006, Zoo magazine published a pornography "A - Z", including how to wrap "your b****" in cling film and defecate on her face. Another piece advised: "Ejaculate over your b**** and get your mates to do the same."

Last month, feminist groups UK Feminista and Object started a campaign called Lose the Lads' Mags. Lead by one of Britain's most prominent young feminist campaigners, Kat Banyard, the movement calls for the publications to be identified and regulated as part of the porn industry, rather than displayed at eye level next to everyday magazines, comics and broadsheet newspapers.

As the campaign's initial open letter, the presence of lads' mags in mainstream stores "violates the dignity of individual employees or customers, or creates an intimidating, hostile, degrading, humiliating or offensive environment for them."

According to Loaded and FHM journalist Piers Hernu in a report by the BBC, the movement is "a deeply sinister and disturbing attempt by a group of fundamentalist, fanatical feminists...to bully supermarkets into removing lads' mags from the shelves".

Perhaps more "sinister" is the finding of a Middlesex University study that participants struggled to tell the difference between comments from actual, convicted rapists and copy taken from British lads' mags.

One line from the latter read: "a girl may like anal sex because it makes her feel incredibly naughty and she likes feeling like a dirty slut. If this is the case, you can try all sorts of humiliating acts to help live out her filthy fantasy".

Another read: "Escorts . . . they know exactly how to turn a man on. I've given up on girlfriends. They don't know how to satisfy me, but escorts do."

As the studie's co-author Dr Peter Hegarty points out, "are teenage boys and young men best prepared for fulfilling love and sex when they normalise views about women that are disturbingly close to those mirrored in the language of sexual offenders?"

Because this isn't just about men finding women attractive, and vomiting harmless puerile rubbish onto a page. To a certain degree, "sexual objectification" doesn't even cover it. The problem is that in the world of lads' mags, hostile, misogynistic attitudes are normalised. It's a land in which women - from "just 18!" to "sexy grannies!" - are nothing but "dirty slags" who exist in no other capacity other than to service men.

Considering 66 per cent of children and young people say they find out about sex, love and relationships through the media (Institute of Education 2003), any claim this sort of message has no negative effect is naive at best.

What of the 92 per cent of teenage girls who dislike their bodies? How could rigid, unrealistic images of sexiness do anything but fuel their self hatred, and hammer home the supreme importance of their bodies?

We don't live in a vacuum, therefore letting young people decide "for themselves" what's realistic and what's not is a pipe dream. And, in the case of lads' mags, the "don't like? don't look" argument is redundant. The fact there is no choice but to see is the crux of the issue. It's censorship to take lads' mags away, yes, but it's something else altogether more damaging to keep them there. At a certain point the two need to be weighed up, and decisions made.

To be clear: sex has been published - be it on cave walls, ancient Greek ceramics or in Loaded magazine - since time immemorial.
Lads' mags, objectionable or otherwise, have a right to exist and they always will (in some form or other). This isn't about banning them outright. Not even close.

But the free speech argument falls flat for another, more important reason: that being, the only "freedom" Banyard's critics represent is the right to make an enormous chunk of society - who are already on the back foot - feel unequal. What's freeing about that?

Debate on this article is now closed.

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