I'll start by clarifying what I mean by feminism - I don't mean the right to equality, equal pay etc - at this point those should really be considered common sense, even if we're not quite there yet. To me modern feminism appears to be far more fundamentalist than that and it's an incredibly dangerous path to follow.
The campaign 'Lose the lads mags' (backed by UK Feminista) is an ideal example of this. I can completely understand the sentiments being expressed, and yet the focus seems to be solely on magazines aimed at blokes.
In this post, we'll be looking at what the campaign group seems to be missing, and why it's so dangerous for them to be attempting to force their views onto others. Although we'll be using this as an example, the aim is to try and ensure that all points raised are applicable to most of the current 'feminist' topics.
What's wrong with 'Lads' mags?
To understand what the campaigners are missing, we must first understand their publicly stated reasons for wanting the likes of Nuts, Zoo and FHM removed from sale. From their site;
- 1. By selling Lads’ Mags and papers with Page 3-style front-cover images high-street shops are wide open to legal action – from staff and customers. Forcing staff to handle these publications, or displaying them to staff or customers, is capable of amounting to sex discrimination and sexual harassment contrary to the Equality Act 2010.
- 2. Lads’ Mags and newspapers that sexually objectify women are deeply harmful. They promote sexist attitudes and behaviours and extensive research shows portraying women as sex objects provides a ‘conducive context’ for violence against women.
Despite these reasons, we the public cannot avoid being confronted with lads’ mags on our high-streets and in our supermarkets. Customers using supermarkets and shops, children accompanying shopping parents, and the employees who work in these shops should not be subjected to this material.
Although I've personally got absolutely nothing against Zoo, FHM and Nuts (or any of the equivalents we'll explore later), I can understand their sentiments regarding the cover images. Sometimes the line has been pushed a little too far, and toning the covers down was definitely a reasonable step.
To summarise, the charges levelled against 'Lads Mags' are
- Explicit front-covers
- Display of the front-covers is (allegedly) sex discrimination and sexual harassment under the Equality Act 2010
- Promoting Sexist attitudes
- Objectifying Women
- Content unsuitable for children (the front-cover being the most obvious aspect)
Charges 2 and 3 are obviously matters of opinion, but for this post we're going to take them as read.
Let's start with charge 2, given that 1. is clearly an issue but seems to be being addressed. I completely agree that there's some sexual discrimination going on here, but it's not where the campaigners seem to think it is.
Let's put imagery aside for a minute; ultimately what the concern comes down to is sexualisation. There's nothing inherently 'dirty' about the human body, whether clothed or not. It's the sexual connotations that are (or should be) the concern. But if we're talking about sex being an unsuitable topic, it's not just the lads mags that are doing it.
Take a look at the front cover of the August 2013 edition of Cosmopolitan, this month containing such topics as "What men really think about in bed", "Yes!! We've discovered the double orgasm" and "Global foreign policy and breasts". So not exactly sex free then. Of course, there's no denying, that the model on the front is more tactfully dressed (and posed) than the current edition of Zoo.
The issue though, is that a lot of the content is the same, presented for different audiences;
How often have you been at work and heard a group of women making approving noises whilst looking at a male model with Cosmopolitan, Vogue or another magazine?
Now imagine a group of men doing that in the same workplace, but looking at a picture in FHM.
If both groups were complained about, which do you think would be taken more seriously? We're not talking about hardcore pornography here, we're talking about a group of people (of either gender) looking at a semi-clad model.
History suggests that the women reading Cosmo might get a quiet talking to, whilst the blokes with FHM would probably get a serious dressing down.
I'm not actually against either group being able to read and enjoy their magazines at work. My concern, though, is that if one is wrong, then so is the other. Ultimately, aside from the gender of the reader, what is the difference between reading either of these articles at work;
I've gone with tame examples, sure, but consider how the source publications are generally viewed - one's smut, the other isn't. They're both covering much the same area though, just targeting at different genders.
But Lad's Mags are Smutty
We may be part of the same species, but men and women are different beasts. Men are usually targeted in one way, whilst women in another. The days of women being quiet and prudish about sex may be long gone, but they still talk (and presumably think) about sex in a completely different way to men.
Cosmo and it's ilk present sex in a way that is tailored to women, whilst Nuts and Zoo tailor it to men (there is an element of lowest common denominator of course, I'd hate to tar all with the same brush!).
Lad's Mags Objectify Women, Cosmo empowers women to think about sex
It's commonly stated that Lad's Mags objectify women, and to a certain extent they do. The thing that gets missed though, is it's something we all do, especially when seeing a sexy physique.
I don't claim it's right, but when we see an attractive body, it's just not human nature to think "hope his/her personality is good, as I wouldn't mind sleeping with them", we instantly jump to "phwoar, I want" or similar. The person becomes an object, at that point we're only interested in animalistic behaviour.
It's silly to pretend that we're wired any other way, it's a natural instinct. Magazines such as Nuts, Zoo, FHM, Cosmo and Vogue (what, you thought the male models were just there?) capitalise on that.
I'm also tempted to think that the frequent inclusion of pieces such as "Make His 4 Sex Wishes Come True (and they're not what you think)" could easily lead an impressionable young girl to believe that a woman's role is solely to please her man.
Ultimately, anything that anyone feels empowers them is good (so long as it's legal of course). Some glamour models feel that it's empowering, others later regret it. What it boils down to, is making the choices that you feel are right for you. You cannot make a choice without being empowered to do so, so the only areas of glamour modelling that should be of concern (with respect to this topic) are those where models do not have a choice (and funnily enough, there are laws to help lend protection) and those where models have not been permitted to make an informed choice (which would be exploitation).
Lads Mags promote sexist attitudes
This is, very much, a matter of opinion. Some things I would consider sexist, others may not (and vice versa). My view is that a large part of this standpoint arises from the idea that the mags objectify women. There's certainly more potential for a Lad's mag to appear sexist than a girls mag - but I can't help think that arises more from a general social acceptance of sexism towards men.
Imagine two comedians on the same televised gig; one male, one female.
- The male comedian makes a joke about women, perhaps suggesting they belong in one of two rooms in the house
- The female comedian makes a joke about blokes; maybe asking why men can't drown
Which of the two is likely to receive more complaints? Neither's particularly pleasant, but it's almost certain that the male comedian will be the one in the headline for having attracted complaints.
Should these mags be sold to Children?
I believe that Tesco have probably made the right decision by saying they'll no longer sell Lads mags to minors. I'm not convinced that 18 is necessarily the right age, but an age had to be chosen and 18 does align well with other age restricted products.
That said, I don't think they've necessarily been as even handed as they should. If the concern is that children will become sexualised, or develop mis-leading attitudes towards the human body, then some of the other publications we've looked at in this post should also be subject to the same restrictions.
Is it really any more harmful for a 13 year old boy to read FHM than it would be for a 13 year old girl to read Cosmopolitan? Both publish images that don't align well with the average human body, and both handle sexual topics, when the two are combined our brains begin to objectify the people we see within the covers.
So What's Dangerous About All This?
At the very beginning of this post, I said that the attitude of 'Lose the Lads Mags' and, by extension, UK Feminista were dangerous. So far, we've laid the groundwork for this without explicitly identifying the two main issues.
Their agenda identifies a core 'concern' and pushes for action, but discriminates. If we're striving for equality, then it doesn't matter whether it's a man or a woman being objectified, the reaction should be the same. If objectifying women is really sufficient to ban a Lads mag, then objectifying men should be sufficient to ban another. The campaign specifically targets lads mags.
This is dangerous behaviour, when action is taken based on the personal biases of a minority, things often don't end very well. It's a slippery slope to step on to, and cannot be justified when it deliberately discriminates in order to further the agenda of those proposing it.
The campaigners say that thousands have signed their petition, but out of a population of 60 million that's a definite minority. To put that into perspective, in the 2011 census, over 176 thousand people declared 'Jedi' as their religion.
Rather than applauding Tesco's decision to ban the sale to under 18's, 'Lose the Lads Mags' spokeswoman said "... age-restricting lads' mags is a half-measure which fails to address the harmful impact of stocking these sexist publications...". So, after the covers have been toned down, and Tesco have voluntarily committed to only selling the mags to adults (despite there being no legal reason a minor couldn't buy them), the campaigners aren't happy - they want the mags off the shelf completely.
This leads us onto the next, arguably more dangerous, problem with the campaign
It curtails freedom of speech/expression. Ultimately, as is clear from their site, the campaigners want these mags out of circulation, because they consider them sexist and offensive.
The problem is, there is no right not to be offended. There never can be, because it just wouldn't work in practice. But in aiming to 'fight' this offensive behaviour, the campaigners are attempting to prevent the editors/authors from expressing themselves in the way they see fit, and presumably the readers who do enjoy the materials are similarly seen as collateral damage.
There are many legal things that I find offensive (a comedian recently mentioned strong perfume on a train/tube, something I'm inclined to agree with), but it would be absolutely unreasonable of me to start a campaign to try and prevent the behaviour. This is absolutely no different, no matter how many emotive terms they throw into their petition.
There may (or may not) be a correlation between Lads Mags and domestic violence, but there's also a correlation between alcohol consumption and domestic violence. It's about having a measured response, and attempting to push a category of magazines out of circulation simply does not count as a measured response.
Freedom of speech and expression is one of the few fundamental rights that we should be able to almost guarantee, and yet at every turn there's someone trying to erode it. Some things are distasteful, others downright offensive, but that's how freedom of speech works.
Sexism is bad, but it swings both ways. It's no better for a woman to discriminate against a man, and yet that's exactly what the 'Lose the Lads Mags' campaign is doing. The argument used seems to be that objectification leads to an increase in domestic violence, which is not an unreasonable assertion.
What seems to be forgotten, all too often, though is that men can also be victims of both rape and domestic violence (in fact, around 40% of domestic violence victims are male, and in 2011/12 more married men suffered abuse than married women).
Therefore, objectifying men must also be a potentially harmful behaviour, but a behaviour that is completely ignored by the campaigners, and society at large. The number of women successfully convicted of domestic abuse quadrupled in the last seven years, and that's despite the fact that men are statistically twice as likely not to tell anyone about the abuse.
It's reasonable to state, then, that there's no firm statistical reason why the campaigners should be focusing primarily on the objectification of women. If objectification leads (or can lead) to domestic violence, then it should be tackled even handedly, with appropriate scrutiny on publications aimed at both genders.
Neither the 'Lose the Lads Mags' campaign or UK Feminista seem to have any hard statistics on their sites regarding the correlation between domestic violence and pornography, and most studies I could find on the matter seem to be either inconclusive, or simply fail to address the issue of causality (a common occurrence when discussing adult material it seems).
Personally, I don't feel that these mags should be removed from circulation, though I can see the logic in trying to keep them from impressionable young minds.
For me, the bigger concern is the influence that a relative minority is attempting to exert, and the way in which they are doing so. If these publications are of concern, it should be raised with the publishers, or with a politician. Targeting retailers is a far more effective way of (potentially) removing the publications from circulation, but it doesn't feel particularly democratic to try and apply pressure in that manner, especially when you start threatening to use anti-discrimination laws to try and prevent the sale of a legal item.
To close, I'll leave you with a line from the UK Feminista website
UK Feminista supports people to campaign for a world where women and men are equal.
If anything, in my opinion, this latest campaign is nothing short of a step away from that aim. It's objectives and implementation are inherently sexist.