If I had previously thought the Lose the Lads Mags campaign more misguided than myopic, I may have modified my opinion after it upped the ante yesterday; I feel like I’ve discovered just how inconsistent, unscientific and ideological is its basis.
For the record, I don’t particularly like lads mags. I don’t think they say particularly big or clever things about anything, let alone women. Furthermore, I’ve already written for the New Statesman and Index on Censorship setting forth in more details my concerns about its unsubstantiated claims lads mags cause violence against women, its refusal to accept that some women may chose to position themselves in a place on the sexuality spectrum that the campaigners consider degrading, and the ramifications of censorship (how many of us would quite like to dispose of the Daily Mail but understand that’s not what you do in a democracy?)
But now I’ve really started to take issue with the campaign’s lack of consistency, the way it overlooks other examples of sexism that should in theory offend it, and the way it doesn’t seem to be able to distinguish between consensual and non-consensual imagery.
On BBC Radio Wales yesterday morning (you can listen here; the debate starts at 2:35 minutes in) UK Feminista spokesperson Sophie started off by espousing the campaign’s standard position – that lads mags produce harm against women, and that they shouldn’t be sold in supermarkets. I asked her to define harm, and also to qualify with evidence the harm claim. Instead, she responded with a troubling ‘we need to join the dots’ between violence and sexism and misogyny and these magazines. Hardly scientific, and this, despite the fact that sexual violence has gone down, and that rape and sexual assault have long been a part of culture ever before lads mags were.
So given that we’d established objectification as harm and violence, I asked her why the campaign had not included the similarly ‘violent’ covers featured on the Daily Sport and Star, particularly given that they were on far easier display in supermarkets than the mags in question. No reply.
I also asked her why the Daily Mail had so far escaped the campaign’s ire, given that it frequently publishes images of under 18s in bikinis and other states of undress that constitute Level 1 and Level 2 child abuse images according to the law of England and Wales. Again, no reply.
So apparently the notion of consent doesn’t resonate much with the campaigners (which had me wondering, what would consensual sexual imagery look like to them?) Instead, there was just another robotic trotting out of the ‘lad’s mags create violence against women’ line, plus a ‘we are not asking for censorship, merely that Tesco uphold its own ‘no porn’ policy.
As I went about my other work after the interview, I started to think about that statement in particular. No porn in Tesco, eh. So how would that affect all other material that could be said to constitute pornography; sex features in women’s mags, erotic stories - hell, particularly erotica itself (after all, my own title Bound To You was sold in Tesco last year). Something told me that getting Tesco to uphold its no porn policy wasn’t going to be too popular with the rest of the nation’s women.
So in the evening at the event in Parliament I went to put this to the campaign.
First, I listened to a panel of eight speak about their involvement in it, and, at length, about the pernicious effects of lads mags and violence against women in general. The violence stats are always shocking and I am continuously aghast at how we can call ourselves civilised while ever we have such a frequency of incidents. Please, do not mistake me – I abhor violence against women (read my post on Saatchi and Nigella) and I would never condone a publication that encouraged non-consensual sex or denigrated women as less than men (which is what the campaigners claim). But there is a line between bad taste jokes and incitement to hatred and I do not believe lads mags, however juvenile and pathetic and not to my taste, cross it.
But what was also shocking was the way the now infamous survey conducted by Dr Peter Hegarty of Sussex University was misquoted to suit purposes. The study compared language of rapists with language used in lads mags and found that people subjected to statements made by both could not correctly attribute them to either the rapists or the lads mags. All the study really proves, then, is that some people who do rape and some who don’t share the same attitudes towards women (ie the problem is in CULTURE/SOCIETY, not just the pages of Nuts, Zoo et al). This has now been twisted by the campaigners to prove that lads mags writers and their readers are rapists that haven’t committed the actual act yet. Perhaps ‘rapists in waiting’ or some such other presumption (aren’t we all).
When I spoke with Dr Peter Hegarty about lads mags for a debate on Voice of Russia radio, he stressed that it was the context of the language, not the images that his study investigated – ergo anyone wanting to suggest the covers create rapists were way off the mark. In fact, anyone wanting to suggest the magazines themselves created rapists were also in danger. Hegarty ended the debate by cautioning very strongly against – you guessed it – censorship.
So back to the event last night. At the end of the session I put forward two questions for the panel. The first was regarding the exclusion of tabloid covers from the campaign. The second was regarding the erotica/porn categorisation. There was a gathering of questions and then a sleight of answers. Everybody ignored my first question, then it was actress Romola Garai that replied to my second. “I wouldn’t want to see women’s sexual expression hampered and I think I know the difference between porn and erotica”, she reassured me. “But the law doesn’t,” I quipped back. “No. but…” and she finished with some statement reassuring me she’d done sex scenes but never been called a porn star so that must mean there was a clear distinction and that other people would know where that fell too. All it reminded me was of the famous Justice Potter line: “pornography? I know it when I see it”. About as cut and dry as a mis-stuck modesty wrapper.
Of course, if Tesco does kow-tow to the lose the lads mags next plea, and fully implement its no porn policy, erotica will be banned in its supermarkets, and presumably others will follow suit, depending on the precedent set. The recent debacle about self-published erotica certainly suggests retailers are now going to be very cautious about what they do choose to stock from now on – and that is very much to the detriment, in particular, of women and their sexual exploration.
If Tesco chooses only to ban visual pornography - or the kind that UK Feminista and Object find troublesome – then that will surely only go to prove the double standard surrounding erotic material and the politics of its consumption for male and female audiences – and frame the lose the lads mags campaigners as the sexists.
Tellingly, the Co-op who have now dropped four lads mags titles from its shelves, would not, when quizzed, reveal the profits it used to make from lads mags, and I wonder why. Perhaps because with such low circulation figures they were so poor? The fact that titles including Nuts and Zoo could be replaced with Q , a golf mag and a cycling one suggests that the sales were low indeed.
And what of the future of the campaign? Some suggestions – such as campaigning for real and sex education in schools, I share. Others I do not. Kat Banyard, head of UK Feminista, said its next targets were students (ie they’d be empowering students to prevent the sale of lads mags at their students unions) and shareholders. If shareholders roll over, it’s a combination of factors – seeing the mags as not worth their investment, and given the censorious function of corporations these days, an imitation of a US-style determination to be seen as good, god-fearing ‘family’ companies, bowing to social pressure that could affect profits, rather than because the Tesco behemoth has any real solid moral position on how women should be depicted in the media.
There were a lot of words thrown about last night – but not many statistics and even less evidence to prove that lads mags cause harm. When the campaigners decide to really back up their ideology with evidence, I will be only too happy to examine it. Even then, without a unanimous scientific verdict, it will still remain the opinion of one sub-set of society – and their view should not trump consumer choice for thousands of others.
But more disturbingly, the small victories they’ve had against supermarkets is convincing them that they have the moral high ground. What those of us believing in sexual liberty need to do next, is to take some of that back. So who has suggestions?