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.

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Craig Oliver, Cameron's attack dog, finally bites

A new book reveals the spiteful after life of Downing Street's unlikely spin doctor.

It must be hard being a spin doctor: always in the shadows but always on-message. The murky control that the role requires might explain why David Cameron’s former director of communications Craig Oliver has rushed out his political memoirs so soon after his boss left Downing Street. Now that he has been freed from the shackles of power, Oliver has chosen to expose the bitterness that lingers among those on the losing side in the EU referendum.

The book, which is aptly titled Unleashing Demons, made headlines with its revelation that Cameron felt “badly let down” by Theresa May during the campaign, and that some in the Remain camp regarded the then home secretary as an “enemy agent”. It makes for gripping reading – yet seems uncharacteristically provocative in style for a man who eschewed the sweary spin doctor stereotype, instead advising Cameron to “be Zen” while Tory civil war raged during the Brexit campaign.

It may be not only politicians who find the book a tough read. Oliver’s visceral account of his side’s defeat on 24 June includes a description of how he staggered in a daze down Whitehall until he retched “harder than I have done in my life. Nothing comes up. I retch again – so hard, it feels as if I’ll turn inside out.”

It’s easy to see why losing hit Oliver – who was knighted in Cameron’s resignation honours list – so hard. Arguably, this was the first time the 47-year-old father-of-three had ever failed at anything. The son of a former police chief constable, he grew up in Scotland, went to a state school and studied English at St Andrews University. He then became a broadcast journalist, holding senior posts at the BBC, ITV and Channel 4.

When the former News of the World editor Andy Coulson resigned as No 10’s communications director in January 2011 because of unceasing references in the press to his alleged involvement in the phone-hacking scandal, Oliver was not the obvious replacement. But he was seen as a scandal-free BBC pen-pusher who exuded calm authority, and that won him the job. The Cameron administration, tainted by its association with the Murdoch media empire, needed somebody uncontroversial who could blend into the background.

It wasn’t just Oliver’s relative blandness that recommended him. At the BBC, he had made his name revamping the corporation’s flagship News at Ten by identifying the news angles that would resonate with Middle England. The Conservatives then put this skill to very good use during their 2015 election campaign. His broadcast expertise also qualified him to sharpen up the then prime minister’s image.

Oliver’s own sense of style, however, was widely ridiculed when he showed up for his first week at Downing Street looking every inch the metropolitan media male with a trendy man bag and expensive Beats by Dre headphones, iPad in hand.

His apparent lack of political affiliation caused a stir at Westminster. Political hacks were perplexed by his anti-spin attitude. His style was the antithesis of the attack-dog mode popularised by Alastair Campbell and Damian McBride in the New Labour years. As Robert Peston told the Daily Mail: “Despite working closely with Oliver for three years, I had no clue about his politics or that he was interested in politics.” Five years on, critics still cast aspersions and question his commitment to the Conservative cause.

Oliver survived despite early wobbles. The most sinister of these was the allegation that in 2012 he tried to prevent the Daily Telegraph publishing a story about expenses claimed by the then culture secretary, Maria Miller, using her links to the Leveson inquiry as leverage – an accusation that Downing Street denied. Nevertheless, he became indispensable to Cameron, one of a handful of trusted advisers always at the prime minister’s side.

Newspapers grumbled about Oliver’s preference for broadcast and social media over print. “He’s made it clear he [Oliver] doesn’t give a s*** about us, so I don’t really give a s*** about him,” a veteran correspondent from a national newspaper told Politico.

Yet that approach was why he was hired. There was the occasional gaffe, including the clumsy shot of a stern-looking Cameron, apparently on the phone to President Obama discussing Putin’s incursion into Ukraine, which was widely mocked on Twitter. But overall, reducing Downing Street’s dependence on print media worked: Scotland voted against independence in 2014 and the Tories won a majority in the 2015 general election.

Then came Brexit, a blow to the whole Cameroon inner circle. In his rush to set the record straight and defend Cameron’s legacy – as well as his own – Oliver has finally broken free of the toned-down, straight-guy persona he perfected in power. His memoir is spiteful and melodramatic, like something straight from the mouth of Malcolm Tucker in The Thick of It. Perhaps, with this vengeful encore to his mild political career, the unlikely spin doctor has finally fulfilled his potential. 

This article first appeared in the 29 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, May’s new Tories