I once spent six hours in Dubai airport, waiting for a connecting flight to Beijing. I decided to kill some time by buying a few British and American magazines to flick through. At first I was amused, and then apoplectic, to see that in all the airport shops the front covers of the lads' mags - FHM, Loaded, all of them - had been vandalised with black gaffer tape by some crude, clumsy censor.
You could see the mags' titles and the heads of their female cover stars. But everything beneath that, most notably the model's undoubtedly busty, bikini-clad body, was roughly covered up with what we might call modesty tape.
The reason I was angry was not because I was gagging to see half-naked ladies as I perused the mag shelves. I was on the lookout for political titles, not laddish lifestyle nonsense. No, it was the sentiment behind these rude acts of gaffer authoritarianism that made me see red.
The message being sent by the no doubt religiously-minded, clevage-covering individuals who bound the mags in a kind of sticky handmade burqa was this: "The grunting, corruptible public must be prevented from seeing an attractive blonde in barely-there clothing lest they go bananas or turn bestial."
Authoritarian Islamist states like Dubai have a tendency to treat women's bodies as things which must be hidden away. Real-life women are put in ankle-draping robes. Saucy images of women are banned or smothered in modesty tape in order to protect the sensitivities of passing delicate ladies and to keep in check the rapacious instincts of men. And as something of a free-speech absolutist, I think that's outrageous. Standing in that airport shop I breathed a probably audible sigh of relief for the fact that I live in a country where women and images of women aren't blacked out.
Well, not anymore I don't. Britain seems to be playing catch-up with Islamist states. Lads' mags are being covered up here too.
Last week, the Co-op announced that it will withdraw lads' mags from its 4,000 shops unless their publishers put them in "modesty bags". I guess that's a smidgen more civilised than covering them in gaffer tape. But only a smidgen.
The only noteworthy difference between Britain's prissy hiding-away of lads' mags and Dubai's is that here it isn't Koran-reading officials in robes who have demanded that bikini-wearing Chloe from Essex be put behind a modesty block - it is supposedly radical feminist lawyers.
For months now, the female legal eagles of the campaign group Lose The Lads' Mags have been calling on superstores to cover up, or even better ditch, Zoo, Nuts and the other filthy paper fare read by 15-year-old boys. Their big beef is that these magazines damage women and their self-esteem. Apparently they are "deeply harmful to women", and asking female store staff to handle such mags is a form of 'harassment'.
These sassy campaigners for women's rights would baulk like crazy at any suggestion that they are cut from the same cloth as sexist, patronising officials in places like Dubai who get to determine what the plebs may see. And yet the war on lads' mags in both Blighty and in more religious countries weirdly springs from the same source: from the idea that women are fragile, weak, easily offended, and thus in need of protection. This is what misogynistic political Islam and the West's new 'Victim Feminism' share in common: a view of women as incapable of negotiating the rough public sphere on their own, without having a gracious figure of authority put modesty bags or modesty tape on images that might offend/corrupt/harass them.
Some of Britain's feminist warriors against laddish smut claim lads' mags give young fellas a warped view of what womankind is like. But I'm more worried about the image of women being promoted by the campaign against lads' mags - as so sensitive of spirit and soft of mind that they can feel wounded by words and images, emotionally damaged by pictures, posters, mags.
This, ironically, takes us back to a Victorian view of women as wallflowers who might faint upon hearing a swear word or seeing a bit of sex. Indeed, in the Victorian era women were often prevented from doing art classes that had naked female life models because, in the words of one historian, "nudes were [seen as] offensive to the delicate female sensibility".
Today, 'Victim Feminists' might use radical language like "equality" and "harassment", but fundamentally they're also depicting women as having fragile sensibilities. Never mind a laddish uprising against the censoring of lads' mags - where's the women's protest against the patronising idea that womankind needs to be protected from sexy, bawdy imagery?Suggest a correction