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Lads' Mags: Objectification Is Bad, But So Are Censorship and Sexual Repression

08/08/2013 20:20 BST | Updated 08/10/2013 10:12 BST
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There is a fine line between arguing in favour of a publisher's right to print something and being seen to be defending the content being published.

There shouldn't be, for the principle is very simple: freedom of expression should apply whether one agrees with the views being promulgated or not. Otherwise it is not so much freedom one favours but conformity.

Yet the idea of defending the right of the person we disagree with to speak freely has become unfashionable of late. In an era where winning at any cost in politics, sport and debate now trump the idea of civilised process, what matters is that you triumph in argument and humiliate your opponent. Fair play is about as outdated as a penny farthing leaning against the wall of a tripe shop.

'Progressive' causes are no more exempt from this double standard than reactionary ones. The 'Lose the Lads' Mags' campaign is a case in point.

Launched by a number of high profile feminist organisations, the campaign rests on the premise that magazines such as Nuts, Zoo and Loaded 'fuel sexism' by presenting women as 'objects'. As Sophie Bennett, the campaigns' officer of Object, phrased it:

"Lads' mags dehumanise and objectify women, promoting harmful attitudes that underpin discrimination and violence against women and girls. Reducing women to sex objects sends out an incredibly dangerous message that women are constantly sexually available and displaying these publications in everyday spaces normalises this sexism."

The campaign has thus far had a measure of success, with Co-op saying last week that it would ensure lads' mags in its stores are from now on hidden from view in so-called modesty bags. Tesco followed suit this week by promising to stop selling magazines such as Nuts and Zoo to under-18s.

At first this all sounds so reasonable. The misogynous attitudes Ms Bennett refers to are real and have appalling consequences - from lewd catcalling to intimidating street harassment to serious sexual assault. Wanting to go about your daily business without attracting the unwanted attention of every sexually frustrated loser is not unreasonable, and most of the 'creeping feminism' of right-wing caricature should be welcomed by anyone to the left of the Saudi morality police.

The question, however, is whether the attitudes that "underpin discrimination and violence against women" have anything at all to do with lads' mags. And if they do, whether this justifies censorship - essentially what calls for shops to stop selling the magazines amount to.

The evidence supporting both propositions is thin.

Opposition to shops selling lads' mags (as opposed to straightforward dislike of the magazines, which I share) hinges on the idea that pictures of semi-naked women somehow warp the minds of men in the real world. Sexism does not happen in a vacuum, so the saying goes.

The problem is that a similar claim was once made by moralists about violent films; a claim that no one was ever able to produce any credible evidence to support - which is why nobody talks about it anymore. It would seem that the same holds true for pornography: most people are quite capable of understanding the difference between what occurs on screen or on glossy paper and what passes for real life.

In Britain today every imaginable variation of pornography is available within seconds at the click of a mouse. If the moralists are to be believed, we ought, then, to be in the midst of an epidemic of sexual violence. Only we aren't. In recent years statistics show that the rates of most sexual offenses have stabilised or are declining. A recent study from the US also found that a 10% increase in net access yielded about a 7.3% decrease in reported rapes. "States that adopted the Internet quickly saw the biggest declines," as Slate journalist Steven E. Landsburg put it.

The whole debate over lads' mags is made trickier still by the fact that old fashioned puritanism has in some instances reinvented itself as concern about 'sexualisation' - a rejection of the Freudian idea that life is, and always has been, to a large degree about sex. Any admission that there is nothing inherently wrong with being turned on by (or posing for) a sexual image, or acknowledgement that repression is a far worse fate than sexualisation, seemingly marks one off as a smutty pervert.

The moral panic around lads' mags is also becoming rather disproportionate. Soon you will be technically old enough to have sex, get married and move out of your parents' home, but if you decide you want to buy a copy of Loaded at your local Tesco you will be politely informed that you simply aren't capable of that level of responsibility. In other words, you may be old enough to breed, feed and raise a child, but woe betide you if you want to look at a picture of Kelly Brook in her bra and pants.

Debates around lads' mags highlight an alarming tendency in our society to sneer at working class women who have the temerity to use their looks to make their way in the world. Asking someone from a disadvantaged background why they would rather get their breasts out than become a doctor is a cruel joke when the chances of going to medical school for most people are close to zero. A job in McDonald's is a more realistic destination for 99.9% of working class people than general practice is; and at least the people who tell you to get your tits out for a magazine shoot actually pay you for doing so, rather than call you a slag and disappear off into the night clutching a Big Mac.

Despise crass and nasty lad's mags by all means. But don't project every instance of sexism onto this transparently soft target, nor pretend that opposition to censorship is in some way an endorsement of what is being published. Liberty, if it means anything at all, is the right to tell people what they do not want to hear, as Orwell famously put it. That includes the right of publishers to push sleazy magazines filled with attractive people in a state of semi undress.