Censorship and over-simplification: the problems of the Lose the Lads' Mags campaign

The potential censorship ramifications of the campaign are huge, and it also misses the opportunity to create productive dialogue around gender and desire, argues Nichi Hodgson.

It’s not often that a feminist call to arms trends on Twitter. How unfortunate that the censorious Lose the Lads' Mags campaign being led by UK Feminista, Object and a bevvy of equality lawyers, is it.

In principal, I wouldn’t be sorry to see the demise of lads' mags, in the same way I wouldn’t be sorry to see the demise of the Daily Mail, Snog, Marry, Avoid and inane rom-coms where the dramatic tension is derived from women thinking the presentation of a princess-cut diamond translates to a life time of teak sideboards and babies and the men believing they'll get an endless supply of  proper dinners and blowjobs. But would I actively seek to prosecute any of the above on the basis that they are "deeply harmful" to women? Well, no. Because that would be an undemocratic infringement of civil liberties. It would also do nothing whatsoever to tackle the underlining attitudes and values that encourage such an over-simplistic framing of sex, desire and male and female roles and thus create a consumer base for lads' mags in the first place.

If lads' mags are "deeply harmful to women" as UK Feminista director Kat Banyard asserts, then what are women’s magazines? As a teenage anorexic, I created a pre-Pinterest "thinspiration" board by cutting out images of models with gaping thighs from copies of Vogue and the new defunct Looks magazine. Let me be clear: fashion magazines did not cause my anorexia; they merely "fed" my perfectionistic compulsion, a product of emotional turmoil at home and my hot-house schooling at a competitive girls’ academy. Ironically, it was working for a sex magazine that helped me to construct a multi-faceted sexual self predicated on more than just my vital statistics. The consumer magazines I read, selling both inspiration and aspiration to their readers, enabled me to objectify women’s bodies in a way that damaged my relationship with sexuality and selfhood for years afterwards. But the problem lay in my psyche, and with my response to psychological and emotional stress. Banning fashion magazines would not have saved me.

The Lose the Lads’ Mags campaign presents the relationship between harassment and pornographic representation as an a priori truth. Both Object and UK Feminista are convinced that female objectification can be nothing but demeaning. The notion that it is possible for women to be "active objects" and in control of their own sexual representation, or that sex, power and desire entwine in a trickier amoral triad than equality legislation can conceive of may fall beyond the remit of this campaign – but neither UK Feminista nor Object engage with these complexities any where in their public-facing campaign work. Instead, the message is quite simply "button up, or you’re being degraded."

Granted, it’s hard to think of a commercially distributed magazine (for either a male or female audience) that presents sexuality in a more empowered or nuanced way. The women’s sex magazine Scarlet did a stellar job of creating a space for female desire but sadly packed up in production in June 2010. When I worked for the Erotic Review, a magazine that deigned to engage the brain rather than just the loins when it came to desire, we couldn’t get WHSmith's to stock us. The reason? Because our explicit erotic photography (featured inside the magazine, not on the cover, mind), artful, inspired and sex positive as it was, disqualified us.

The potential censorship ramifications of an "all pornographic representation demeans women" approach are huge. How long before similar arguments are used to prosecute UK-registered adult businesses, for example? Or any number of advertisements (surely the largest depositary of "objectifying" images of women, explicit or otherwise)? Or explicit material designed for sex education that features naked adults engaging in consensual erotic acts? Already, businesses are taking up the censor’s mantle in a bid to protect profits and address corporate responsibility in a heightened political climate of anxiety about sexuality. Just try googling E L James in Starbucks and see what happens. I can’t even visit my own sexual politics website over coffee any more, such is the prohibitive creep.

What we should be moving towards isn’t well-intended fig-leafing, but the promotion of alternative sexual representations of both men and women. So many within the contemporary feminist canon are not only censorious but ill-informed about the range of sexual representation out there to begin with. 

It’s on this basis that I relish my role, however cursory it may seem, as a sex columnist for Men’s Health magazine. Ultimately, engaging with male stereotypes and expectations of women and sex is the only way a notion of mutual pleasure and respect can be conceived. I only hope that, led by the Lose the Lads' Mag campaign example, a group of irate male supermarket employees don’t try to refuse to handle Men’s Health on the basis that its damning ideal of the Spartan physique is oppressive. To lose the chance to create dialogue around gender and desire will only widen the breach.

Fashion magazines are arguably also demeaning to women. Photograph: Getty Images

Nichi Hodgson is a writer and broadcaster specialising in sexual politics, censorship, and  human rights. Her first book, Bound To You, published by Hodder & Stoughton, is out now. She tweets @NichiHodgson.

David Young
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The Tories are the zombie party: with an ageing, falling membership, still they stagger on to victory

One Labour MP in Brighton spotted a baby in a red Babygro and said to me: “There’s our next [Labour] prime minister.”

All football clubs have “ultras” – and, increasingly, political parties do, too: although, in the case of political parties, their loudest and angriest supporters are mostly found on the internet. The SNP got there first: in the early days of email, journalists at the Scotsman used to receive bilious missives complaining about its coverage – or, on occasion, lack of coverage – of what the Scottish National Party was up to. The rest soon followed, with Ukip, the Labour Party and even the crushed Liberal Democrats now boasting a furious electronic horde.

The exception is the Conservative Party. Britain’s table-topping team might have its first majority in 18 years and is widely expected in Westminster to remain in power for another decade. But it doesn’t have any fans. The party’s conference in Manchester, like Labour’s in Brighton, will be full to bursting. But where the Labour shindig is chock-full of members, trade unionists and hangers-on from the charitable sector, the Conservative gathering is a more corporate affair: at the fringes I attended last year, lobbyists outnumbered members by four to one. At one, the journalist Peter Oborne demanded to know how many people in the room were party members. It was standing room only – but just four people put their hands up.

During Grant Shapps’s stint at Conservative headquarters, serious attempts were made to revive membership. Shapps, a figure who is underrated because of his online blunders, and his co-chair Andrew Feldman were able to reverse some of the decline, but they were running just to stand still. Some of the biggest increases in membership came in urban centres where the Tories are not in contention to win a seat.

All this made the 2015 election win the triumph of a husk. A party with a membership in long-term and perhaps irreversible decline, which in many seats had no activists at all, delivered crushing defeats to its opponents across England and Wales.

Like José Mourinho’s sides, which, he once boasted, won “without the ball”, the Conservatives won without members. In Cumbria the party had no ground campaign and two paper candidates. But letters written by the Defence Secretary, Michael Fallon, were posted to every household where someone was employed making Trident submarines, warning that their jobs would be under threat under a Labour government. This helped the Tories come close to taking out both Labour MPs, John Woodcock in Barrow and Furness and Jamie Reed in Copeland. It was no small feat: Labour has held Barrow since 1992 and has won Copeland at every election it has fought.

The Tories have become the zombies of British politics: still moving though dead from the neck down. And not only moving, but thriving. One Labour MP in Brighton spotted a baby in a red Babygro and said to me: “There’s our next [Labour] prime minister.” His Conservative counterparts also believe that their rivals are out of power for at least a decade.

Yet there are more threats to the zombie Tories than commonly believed. The European referendum will cause endless trouble for their whips over the coming years. And for all there’s a spring in the Conservative step at the moment, the party has a majority of only 12 in the Commons. Parliamentary defeats could easily become commonplace. But now that Labour has elected Jeremy Corbyn – either a more consensual or a more chaotic leader than his predecessors, depending on your perspective – division within parties will become a feature, rather than a quirk, at Westminster. There will be “splits” aplenty on both sides of the House.

The bigger threat to Tory hegemony is the spending cuts to come, and the still vulnerable state of the British economy. In the last parliament, George Osborne’s cuts fell predominantly on the poorest and those working in the public sector. They were accompanied by an extravagant outlay to affluent retirees. As my colleague Helen Lewis wrote last week, over the next five years, cuts will fall on the sharp-elbowed middle classes, not just the vulnerable. Reductions in tax credits, so popular among voters in the abstract, may prove just as toxic as the poll tax and the abolition of the 10p bottom income-tax rate – both of which were popular until they were actually implemented.

Added to that, the British economy has what the economist Stephen King calls “the Titanic problem”: a surplus of icebergs, a deficit of lifeboats. Many of the levers used by Gordon Brown and Mervyn King in the last recession are not available to David Cameron and the chief of the Bank of England, Mark Carney: debt-funded fiscal stimulus is off the table because the public finances are already in the red. Interest rates are already at rock bottom.

Yet against that grim backdrop, the Conservatives retain the two trump cards that allowed them to win in May: questions about Labour’s economic competence, and the personal allure of David Cameron. The public is still convinced that the cuts are the result of “the mess” left by Labour, however unfair that charge may be. If a second crisis strikes, it could still be the Tories who feel the benefit, if they can convince voters that the poor state of the finances is still the result of New Labour excess rather than Cameroon failure.

As for Cameron, in 2015 it was his lead over Ed Miliband as Britons’ preferred prime minister that helped the Conservatives over the line. This time, it is his withdrawal from politics which could hand the Tories a victory even if the economy tanks or cuts become widely unpopular. He could absorb the hatred for the failures and the U-turns, and then hand over to a fresher face. Nicky Morgan or a Sajid Javid, say, could yet repeat John Major’s trick in 1992, breathing life into a seemingly doomed Conservative project. For Labour, the Tory zombie remains frustratingly lively. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.

This article first appeared in the 01 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory tide