A supermarket AGM may not seem like the obvious place for feminists to take action on the issue of violence against women, but that's what will happen this Friday. Lead by Object and UK Feminista, activists will speak to shareholders of the UK's biggest retailer, Tesco, as they file in to their AGM at the Queen Elizabeth II Hall. The request? That shareholders ask Tesco to 'lose the lads' mags' by ceasing to stock publications that fuel attitudes underpinning violence against women.
Approximately 69,000 women are raped every single year in the UK, while a staggering one in five women in England and Wales has been the victim of a sexual offence or attempted offence. If we are truly serious about preventing violence against women, then we have to tackle the sexist attitudes underpinning it. We have to join the dots between the casual, normalised way in which women are portrayed as dehumanised sex objects, and the devastating prevalence of women being treated like dehumanised sex objects. And that's where Tesco comes in.
Right now, lining the shelves of Tesco stores across the UK are degrading, pornographic lads' mags like Nuts and Zoo that portray women as a sum of body parts for the sexual gratification of their male readers. This has deeply harmful consequences because objectification is a key mechanism of oppression. When you dehumanise a group of people and treat them like objects, it becomes more likely and more acceptable for violence to be committed against them.
The American Psychological Association report that men are more likely to treat women as sex objects and their behaviour towards women is more sexualised after exposure to sexualised media). Viewing these images also leads people to become significantly more accepting of gender stereotyping, sexual harassment, interpersonal violence, and rape myths. The Government-commissioned Sexualisation of Young People Review also concluded that, "The evidence gathered in the review suggests a clear link between consumption of sexualised images, a tendency to view women as objects and the acceptance of aggressive attitudes and behaviour as the norm." Study after study links the sexist portrayal of women promoted by lads' mags with the human rights scandal that is violence against women. That is why End Violence Against Women - the biggest coalition of anti- violence against women organisations in the UK - support UK Feminista and Objects' call on Tesco and other retailers to lose the lads' mags.
It is not only anti-violence organisations urging Tesco to act. Eighteen leading lawyers specialising in equality and discrimination law have signed an open letter calling on shops to stop stocking lads' mags. As they point out, exposure to pornographic lads' mags and papers with Page Three-style front cover images can constitute sexual harassment or sex discrimination under the Equality Act. Employees could take legal action on this basis and, where the magazines are visibly on display, customers could also have a claim. Legally as well as ethically, lads' mags are well past their sell by date.
So why, then, does Tesco choose to stock them? And that's the crucial point to remember. Tesco actively choose to stock pornographic lads' mags, just as they choose not to stock other magazines that they don't think appropriate or relevant for their customers. It's safe to assume Tesco would never allow pornographic 'girly calendars' to be displayed on their shop walls. So why do they opt to have degrading, pornographic lads' mags on their shelves? The call on shops to lose the lads' mags is not calling for a ban on these magazines. It is not calling for any new laws or regulations. It is simply calling on Tesco to make buying decisions in line with its commitment to corporate social responsibility.
Tesco is the UK's largest retailer, with stores on high streets up and down the country. The fact that Tesco currently stocks misogynistic lads' mags sends out the deeply dangerous message that it is normal and acceptable to treat women like dehumanised sex objects. But it would be so easy to change this. Tesco's eleven Board members - only 3 of whom are women - and seventeen Executive Committee members - also only 3 of whom are women - can demonstrate that the firm's claim to be a 'responsible corporate citizen' aren't just hollow words: that they do in fact care about the safety of their female customers. They can do this by announcing that Tesco is going to lose the lads' mags.
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