Is it possible to be harassed by a magazine, an inanimate object? You're probably thinking, "Don't be ridiculous. You can no more be harassed by a mag than you can be assaulted by a TV show or beaten up by a film poster." Well, think again.
According to 14 lawyers specialising in equality law, supermarkets that sell lads' mags such as Nuts and Zoo could potentially be sued under sexual discrimination laws, on the basis that displaying such saucy material in workplaces possibly constitutes "sexual harassment under the Equality Act 2010".
The lawyers, writing in the letters page of Saturday's Guardian, are part of a feminist campaign to ban from big shops young men's magazines that feature "near-naked women" on their covers. Apparently such magazines are "deeply harmful to women", and therefore shops that stock them run the risk of being done for discriminating against or even harassing their female shoppers.
There's so much wrong with this campaign that it's hard to know where to start. There's the borderline Orwellian warping of language. To describe seeing a magazine you don't like as "harassment" is to utterly empty that word of its meaning.
That h-word is thought to come from the old French word "harer", meaning "to set a dog on" someone. In modern times, it's been used as a very specific, very active word to describe the persistent irritation or vexing of one person by another. Just as it takes two to tango, so it takes two for harassment to occur: the harasser and the harassed. No longer. Now you can apparently be harassed by everyday things. On that basis, can I complain about feeling harassed by men's fitness magazines, with their perfectly chiseled, six-pack-sporting cover models? These foul mags are a constant, harassing reminder that I haven't been to a gym in six months. They cause me great distress.
The other word robbed of its meaning by these lads' mag haters is "equality". Once, striving for equality meant wanting to be taken seriously as a fully functioning, autonomous adult capable of negotiating life's ups and downs for oneself. In particular, the fight for women's equality was about challenging the depiction of women as overgrown fragile children who couldn't possibly be expected to survive the rough world of work or the plainly spoken, often offensive public sphere.
Now, it seems, "equality" means the very opposite: it means fighting to be treated differently to everyone else - as a special case, less capable of weaving a path through life and thus in need of some self esteem-boosting censorship by the gracious state.
Indeed, the threat of "pro-equality" legal action against shops that stock lads' mags is a direct attack on equality - on the equality inherent in freedom of speech. If young men's magazines are forbidden on shop shelves, but women's magazines, celebrity magazines and all sorts of other magazines remain, then that gives rise to starkly unequal treatment, effectively to one law for one group of people (lads) and another law for everyone else. We decent folk may browse our favoured publications, but them lads, those vulgar and cretinous creatures, may not browse theirs.
But probably the most alarming thing about the intolerant war on lads' mags is how it depicts women in general: as weak, meek, easily offended. The idea that women must be protected from silly lads' mags covers, because they might be "deeply harmed" by them, is infinitely more offensive than anything I have ever seen on a Nuts cover.
Given the promiscuous overuse of the word harassment today, perhaps we could describe this campaign as harassment of both women, which it presents as sad and docile beings, and young men, whose reading material it censoriously wishes to squish.