Published in Stopgap, the magazine of the Fawcett Society on 1 October 2006
The so-called lads’ mags that have sprung up over the past few years aren’t only sexually explicit, they are contemptuous of women and therefore harmful argues Rachel Bell. But reactions to MP Claire Curtis Thomas’ bill to have them classed as pornography and put on the top shelf have been frustratingly predicatable. She calls for more understanding of the movement and women’s voices behind the MP.
If you’ve not looked a “lads’ mag” before, let me enlighten you. A typical illustration of their content is the “Tit op comp” which one of the weeklies ran recently. It offered male readers the chance to win a breast enlargement operation for improvement of their “second rate” girlfriends. Using pictures of the glamour model Jordan before and after her surgery to show how all girlfriends can be corrected for the better, the magazine printed a wide selection of breasts to judge. Oh, and you can pick these up at pocket-money prices, normally displayed at eye level in shops.
In June this year, backbench MP Claire Curtis-Thomas presented a bill to the House of Commons, proposing that sexually explicit publications such as lads’ mags are put on the top shelf. The second reading of the bill – which is unlikely to succeed unless the Government adopts it – is planned for presentation on 20 October.
As a feminist who feels strongly that porn of the kind shown in lads’ mags is not “harmless fun” I was frustrated by the response to Curtis-Thomas’s bill. It saw the tired old comebacks: “What’s wrong with nudity?”, they asked. “It’s their choice, it’s empowering”. Lots of people seem to be missing the point.
This is not about being a moralising prude. Pressure group Object, who campaigned for more than six months to raise this issue with MPs, say, “This is not about the relatively trivial issue of offence. This is about sexual discrimination and harm, how lad mags feed into sexual violence against women and trivialises women’s experience of sexual violence.”
Claire Curtis-Thomas cited a “porn dictionary” featured in lad mag Zoo in her parliamentary speech to highlight the content of these publications. Many contributors to this debate have sniggered that it was ‘too rude’ for her to read it out in the Commons. I would argue that the issue is not that it’s rude to detail hateful hardcore porn acts made against women – it’s contemptuous. In Zoo’s porn dictionary, lads learn about ‘Bukkake’ as ‘When a group of men take turns ejaculating on a woman. Based on a punishment for adulterous women from 18th century feudal Japan’.
This is not about trying to stop some “harmless fun”. On the ‘Letters and funny stuff’ page of Zoo magazine you can find a picture of a woman wearing a T-shirt with the slogan ‘Don’t bother I’m not drunk yet’. This is not so “fun” when you consider that last year’s Amnesty survey found that a third of the people in the UK think a woman who flirts is responsible for being raped while 26% would hold her responsible if she wears sexy or revealing clothing and 30% if she’s drunk.
This is not about delicate wallflowers being offended. Girls teen mag Sugar featured a ‘Pressure Sex’ report recently, with the terrifying truth found that 45% of girls have been groped against their wishes. It’s about boys acting out contemptuous behaviors routine in porn and normalised by lads’ mags: in her article, Sex Now, Guardian journalist Decca Aitkenhead interviewed boys who first started using porn at the age of eight. They described copying and expecting anal sex, how so much porn they watch is ‘gonzo porn’, that is women being penetrated by animals, objects, penetrated, defecated and urinated on by groups of men and other acts of contempt. And they described how they expect girls to act and look like porn stars. And it’s about women’s lives not being put at risk – last year’s Amnesty survey tells women we should be afraid.
Perhaps defenders of lads’ mags should have asked a cross section of girls and women of all ages what they think. They could read Clare Short’s book, ‘Dear Clare, this is what women feel about page three’, which is still as relevant today as when it was published in 1991. The book collected together letters written by women to Clare Short MP when she was trying to get topless pictures of women banned in newspapers. It gave women a platform to speak about how they feel when page three is in the workplace, on public transport, in front of their small children, as well as how it makes survivors of sexual violence feel. The verdict from the women was harassed and oppressed. One woman wrote, “I was sexually assaulted twice (once by my ex-boyfriend’s step-dad and two months later by four strangers as I walked alone.) The people who support page 3 pornography are very lucky they do not suffer the mental effect I get when faced with these pictures.”
Or the lads’ mags supporters could have asked those working in gender violence prevention how soft pornography, the media’s representation of women as sex objects, induces male callousness towards women. There is plenty of evidence. As many men and women working in gender violence prevention agree, such treatment of women has a dehumanizing effect, making sexual aggression and violence unremarkable in the eyes of the perpetrator. “Habitual male users of mainstream, non-violent but sexually objectifying images of women, appear to be at greater risk than non-consumers of becoming sexually callous towards women’s sexuality and concerns”, according to one academic study.
If only I and the many other women and men who object to lads’ mags were merely offended prudes or killjoys. The fact is, this is not just about the objectification of women, it is about the serious issue of harm.’ Sexism has stopped being named. It’s time we started to view it as a human rights issue.