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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Mumslink shows how online parenting networks are coming of age

Women online are changing the relationship between digital domesticity and digital independence. 

The habit of “speaking as a mother” came in for its fair share of criticism this summer. Andrea Leadsom’s insinuation of superiority over Theresa May, her rival for the Tory leadership, elicited widespread scorn – not least from those who have done most to strengthen the voice of mothers as a group: internet mums.

Over the past 15 years, the ten million users a month who log on to Mumsnet have been courted by politicians in webchats and speeches alike. The 2010 general election was even named “the Mumsnet election” in their honour.

From the start, parenting networks attracted users interested in comradeship, as much as those after information. 

For Jo Williamson, a mother-of-two, the trigger was the day her second child left for school, a jarring experience. “I went into a blind panic, thinking: ‘Blimey, I’m going to be sitting in an empty house just waiting for everybody to come back.’” In response, Jo and her business partner Jane Pickard came up with the idea for a new site that focuses on the fluid nature of many women’s professional and family lives.

The resulting network, Mumslink, uses carefully edited news feeds to introduce readers to ideas, businesses and charities that complement all aspects of their lives – from recipe tips to volunteering. “There are so many women out there with a plethora of talents but most of the time, because you’re with your children, nobody asks you to get involved,” Williamson says.

Similar feelings of isolation led Siobhan Freegard to found Netmums, one of the UK’s largest parenting sites. Back in 2000, she had barely heard of “social networks”, nor of Mumsnet, which launched around the same time, yet she knew that mothers needed a place “to share their stories and maybe meet up in the offline world, too”.

Such identity-building led to divisions over “the right way” to be a mother. A tense rivalry developed between the slightly younger Netmums and the more educated and affluent Mumsnetters (Tesco and Waitrose didn’t sponsor different networks for nothing). Within the sites’ pages, differences of opinion over working v stay-at-home parenting sparked allegations of hostility and bullying. Still, the media researcher Sarah Pedersen says there’s an argument that these sites have helped produce a reduction in depression and anxiety, as well as greater opportunities for women to negotiate “the tension between themselves and their role as mothers”.

There are signs that this online culture is growing up. The perception of mums as “a bit insular and thick” is more easily countered, says Justine Roberts, the founder of Mumsnet, “now that so many mothers are able to express their individuality, their interests and their expertise in the public domain”.

According to Freegard, the very act of online sharing has helped begin to repair the rifts within the parenting debate. “With social media, we see working mums and part-time mums, and we see mums changing roles as their children change ages, and we understand that there are different angles to things – that everyone has their story.”

This is more pronounced in the world of video blogging, Freegard says. On her YouTube channel, Channel Mum, people talk calmly about controversial subjects that would have been a “bloodbath” on Netmums, such as ear piercing for very young children. “With video, you can see the person in real life and that helps you feel for their story,” she says.

Perhaps the greatest effect, however, has been on how the internet allows parents to work from home. As many as 160,000 part-time ventures have been started by British women in the past two years alone, self-styled kitchen-table start-ups. Sites such as Mumslink (similarly funded by Williamson and Pickard and run out of the former’s front room in Hertfordshire) aim to help this home-based workforce with new clients. One Mumslinker visits the site to write about her own line of natural nail varnish, another to promote her hot-tub business. The company Digital Mums uses it to encourage women to expand their digital skills.

Commercial savvy is something that Freegard is also keen to develop at Channel Mum – equipping her contributors with financial advice and small stipends. “I remember looking at mummy bloggers and thinking, ‘You guys didn’t get properly organised,’” she says. Freegard points out that most early mum bloggers never grew their audience beyond those already involved in parenting online, and struggled to become more professional as a result.

Quite what the future relationships will be between the brands, businesses and audiences for information on parenting has yet to be established. Some users will baulk at being increasingly cast in the role of consumer. At the same time, the networks’ names – Mumsnet, Netmums, Mumslink, Channel Mum – suggest that parenting is still a woman’s domain.

Yet a better balance seems to be emerging in the relationship between digital domesticity and digital independence. Greater gender equality in the distribution of start-up funding, more job vacancies that allow flexible working, and increasing numbers of prominent women in the tech industry are just some of the things the community is striving to promote. In Britain, which has an ageing population and an ever-growing community of carers, the rise of these networks seems sure to be a net gain for us all. 

For more, visit: mumslink.com

India Bourke is the New Statesman's editorial assistant.

This article first appeared in the 25 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron: the legacy of a loser