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.

Photo: Getty
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Jeremy Corbyn's Virgin video is a Jennifer's Ear for modern times

Just as with the Virgin video, the fundamental underpinnings of the Jennifer’s Ear broadcast were true, regardless of the creative shortcuts.

Memory is a funny thing, in politics as in life. Gordon Brown was the co-architect of New Labour, the longest-serving Chancellor of the Exchequer since 1823 and very probably helped avert the end of money during the financial crisis.

But when James Morris, Ed Miliband’s pollster, ran focus groups in Nuneaton earlier this year, they  found that the incident that most people associated with Brown was of him punching a protestor during the 2001 general election. Except, here’s the thing: Brown never threw the punch at all. It was John Prescott, the then-deputy Prime Minister, who landed the blow.

And although Piggate was the funniest furore that David Cameron (remember: he was accused of having put his penis in a dead pig’s mouth at university) was involved in, it wasn’t the dead pig that focus groups remembered when they were asked about Cameron – right throughout his premiership, it was photos of Cameron cycling to work with a car carrying his papers following on behind that stuck in people’s minds.

The appeal of the latter row, and with the spat between Virgin Trains and Jeremy Corbyn, is that it feeds into an idea that is commonly believed by most people: that politicians are hypocrites. Our brains reward us with feelgood sensations for confirming our beliefs and with negative ones with findings that run contrary to them.

In case you haven’t followed: in the beginning, a viral video of Jeremy Corbyn depicted the Labour leader eschewing a first class upgrade to work in the aisle of a crowded Virgin train. Today, Virgin Trains hit back, revealing CCTV footage showing that there were, in fact, spare seats available from the start of the journey.

Of course, it is in Virgin’s interests to push back against a high-profile criticism of its services (not so much to avoid renationalisation but also the loss of the contract to another company) just as it is in Corbyn’s to have a sharper, video-friendly version of the – 100 per cent authentic – images of him on a bus home that frequently exploded on Twitter and Facebook during last summer’s Labour leadership election.

It feels very close to the so-called “War of Jennifer’s Ear”, the row that erupted over a Labour party political broadcast about the effects of 13 years of Conservative rule on the NHS in 1992. The  advert was based loosely on the operation of a girl whose father, John Bennett, had written to Robin Cook, then Labour’s shadow health secretary.

But the consultant in charge of the operation, who had blamed under-funding in a letter to the Bennett family before the advert came out, U-Turned once the broadcast had aired. (To make matters worse, Jennifer’s mother and grandmother, both Conservatives, also denounced the broadcast.)

Labour was plunged into controversy. The rights and wrongs of the row are still contentious, just as this row is likely to remain too. And it emerged very swiftly that key elements of the planning of the broadcast were shambolic – Cook’s knowledge of the ins and outs of the case were not as thorough as might have been hoped, the consultant had not been spoken to in detail, and the Toryism of Jennifer’s mother and grandmother came as a total shock. It may be that similar behind-the-scenes errors emerge about the Virgin video.

But just as with the Virgin video, the fundamental underpinnings of the Jennifer’s Ear broadcast were true – operations were cancelled and delayed due to underfunding, there are numerous trains that are overcrowded, where people have to sit in aisles, and so on.

Of course, Corbyn has a particular glass jaw over any issue that appears to be “spun” due to his “kinder politics” line. Just as Tony Blair promised to be “purer than pure”. it's a pledge that is the political equivalent of handing your opponent a stick and then politely explaining how best to hit you with it.  

Although the row over Jennifer’s Ear is now largely forgotten, it was one of the many scapegoats for Labour’s shock defeat in 1992, albeit one that every serious study into the loss concluded had nothing to do with the final result. (And it’s worth pointing out that even losing a row about the issues that your party “owns”, be it health or what to do with the railways, tends to be better for your side than talking about issues on which your party is on hostile territory)  Corbyn’s sitting arrangements, like the ear, will have a similarly limited afterlife. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. He usually writes about politics.