Published in The Guardian on 22 August 2005
View the published article here
The Guardian printed a selection of the many responses to my article, It’s porn innit?
I once saw my stepsister – who is only 10 years old – wearing a T-shirt that said, “So many boys and so little time.” I see her very infrequently, but I would assume that by now she is strongly into Playboy-branded items.
I think it is partly a twisted form of parental apathy (in the face of an overwhelming barrage, admittedly) that lets these overtly sexual messages into children’s lives in the first place. Once the messages are in, there is probably very little that can be done about it: modern society is reinforcing these messages in every possible place. It’s no wonder that by the time they’re 16 they think being a glamour girl is a realistic career choice.
It could certainly help if brands such as Playboy were not seen as normal (let alone fashionable), but I think more than that it is about the role models that the media select as being worthy. The article mentioned some, such as Jordan. Her celebrity status isn’t even seen as ironic by most, but how can somebody who offered to give birth live on television be taken seriously? And yet they are.
It’s appalling, but why should you be surprised that WHSmith stocks this stuff? This company apparently thinks it’s perfectly OK to display Loaded, Maxim and all the other half-witted lads’ porn on the lower shelves next to the comics. No doubt product placement is analysed to the nth degree by WHSmith’s marketing geniuses, so what is the rationale?
I find this relentless normalisation of smut and objectification of women much more disturbing and depressing than pornography itself, and it seems to me to be much worse than it ever was in the 60s and 70s.
Robert Machin, Hampshire
Two weeks ago, one of the newspapers in Canada discovered that Bell Mobility was selling a series of cellphone ringtones called PimpTones that referred to women as “bitches”, “skanks” and “hos”. Unlike the conventional melody ringtones, the PimpTones were voice recordings of actors. Like WHSmith, which claims to be offering its young customers more choice with Playboy stationery, Bell Mobility took no responsibility for this reprehensible “product” – it claimed simply to be responding to public demand. Within days of the newspaper article, the public demand that Bell withdraw the PimpTones far exceeded any putative demand for PimpTones and the product was withdrawn.
I read your article about the Playboy products for young women. I urge you and others in the UK to yell, write letters or emails and picket shops or whatever it takes to shame WHSmith into withdrawing the products. Similar messages to Mizz would be a good idea as well. If young women can recognise the drawings on pencil cases as porn references, so should the “great intellects” in WHSmith management and at Mizz.
Perhaps if WHSmith and Mizz discover they are getting a bad rep around the world, they might be prompted to give their collective heads a shake. One can only hope.
Brenda Berck , Vancouver, Canada
I just wanted to applaud your story on the use and misuse of the Playboy logo on mainstream products, especially those marketed to children. Further applause must go to the teacher for opening her students’ eyes to the reality of the messages they’re passively absorbing.
You’re quite right that Playboy has apparently achieved this position in the market (of a “fun”, acceptable range of products) pretty insidiously. It’s bothered me for a while, to the extent that I emailed House of Fraser to ask why a supposedly upmarket store stocks items directly linked to an industry as repellent and destructive as the porn industry. I was, of course, completely ignored.
As your article shows in all too depressing detail, sales are the only concern of most of these outlets, and if it’s “popular”, the morality is ignored. Argos, I believe, created a furore when it stocked a range of padded bras and thongs (seriously!) for the pre-teen market and was forced to withdraw them. But somehow, perhaps because of its association with US hip-hop culture, Playboy products are considered all right. Even my brother, an intelligent person with a feminist mother and sister, has a Playboy keyring and can’t see what the issue is. God, it’s so depressing!
I absolutely agree that WHSmith’s use of the Playboy logo on children’s stationery is offensive and damaging; if you’re collecting names in order to protest about this, please do add mine. Thank you.
The proliferation of magazines such as Nuts and Zoo, and the presentation of women as nothing more than a sexual commodity, is something that has been causing me increasing concern over the past few years. It also worries me deeply that anyone expressing concern on these issues is derided as prudish or repressed, while otherwise apparently sensible women are professing their love of lap dancing etc.
Helen Bamforth, London
As a youth educator, university teacher and feminist scholar, I find the most offensive news to be the lack of sex education given through school and media. Sex is not, and should not be, a topic for shame – and teachers and magazines that encourage girls to be “innocent” and therefore ashamed of their curiosity are putting them at risk of the kinds of manipulation and abuse depicted in pornography.
Adolescents are emotionally and intellectually capable of comprehending and debating issues of sexual health, representation and censorship that are highly relevant to their own development as individuals. Study after study has shown that the double standard that persists – protecting children from pornography leading to protecting children from their own developing sexuality and from knowledge about sexual health and desire – is a major cause of the rise of pregnancy and STDs in teen girls in developed countries.
No wonder the idea of becoming a glamour model is so appealing – the world of sexuality that the figure embodies is kept veiled by the authorities in secrecy, rendered dangerous and inaccessible. What adolescent would not want to be in a position of learning and knowing? Cheers to the teacher who raised the issue of the stationery in her classroom, but jeers to the teen magazine editor who continues to portray sex as something dirty and forbidden while embracing its commercial potential.
Perhaps, while the subject is open, the branding of teen girls through Bratz and Barbie could also be considered?
Sophie Mayer, University of Toronto, Canada
WHSmith and Mizz magazine are copping out if they claim they don’t make moral choices on behalf of their customers and readers. They are adults; the consumers of Playboy stationery products are children. Part of the problem seems to be a reluctance, or inability, to take wider social responsibility for commercial decisions. Instead, anything goes provided it makes money.
We have some genuine difficulties as a society when it comes to properly understanding human sexuality and the stages that it goes through, and we should not confuse the degraded and exploitative versions currently on offer as liberatory in any way.
I am sick of being faced by crotch shots on railstation newsstands and in every newsagent. A friend of mine with two young boys says he is faced with the task of trying to counter these images every time he takes his kids to buy sweets. We both grew up in the 1960s and 70s, were both working class and very sexually active teenagers, but both feel that the sex/porn industry is pernicious, nasty and is presenting girls and boys with images that are at best misleading and at worst downright vicious.
Recent reports indicate that perhaps 80% or more of porn that is routinely viewed shows women and girls being raped and enjoying it. We have increased reporting of rapes; lowered rates of actual conviction; police concern about gang rapes.
Sorry, but it is nauseating. We need some respect for girls and women.
Heather Rutledge, Birmingham
I must admit that this is the first Guardian article I’ve read that I have actually commented on. I am not entirely sure if it’s down to an old-fashioned upbringing, but I am often concerned by how accessible sexual imagery and paraphernalia are to young children, and girls especially, on the high street.
Walking around a nearby town, Kingston-upon-Thames, I entered a store called Brilliant with a friend. It was filled with what I’m guessing were 11- to 13-year-olds; however, the shop stocks among other things, “interesting” looking lingerie. Not far from here is an Ann Summers shop. Again, the girls I saw going in there looked well under the 16-year-old threshold imposed by the government.
I can’t help but think it is wrong for young girls to be able to access and be influenced by what they see in these places.
And before you presume I’m an ageing prude, I am just 21.
Pornography in the mainstream has been given a significant boost by the US sitcom Friends, thanks to the characters of Chandler and Joey being depicted frequently consuming/ enjoying/discussing pornography. It was as fundamental to their lifestyle as sipping coffee in Central Perk. The programme has enjoyed years of pre-watershed screenings and I can’t help wondering what conclusions children draw from the progamme’s frequent references to porn.
Niall Shanahan, Dublin
Regarding your recent article, “It’s Porn innit”, I feel the issues raised are part of a wider problem. I have seen T-shirts for young children displaying the Playboy rabbit logo. Increasingly, merchandise is getting more and more inappropriate. Shops such as Next and Primark (among others) sell T-shirts for babies with words such as “Babe” on, “Babe” having the Pamela Anderson type of connotation.
I will be boycotting WHSmith and encouraging other parents to do likewise. In your article, Louise Evans (head of media relations) was quoted saying, “We’re not here to act as a moral censor”, but rather than censoring, WHSmith is actually actively promoting a pornographic symbol. I wonder if it would be as keen to stock pencil cases with other logos such as a swastika?
Thank you for raising our awareness of this kind of insidious attitude, and I do hope that pressure from parents and the media will shame WHSmith into withdrawing these products.