The Lose the Lads' Mags campaign demonstrates the power of modern feminism

Having made so many progressive achievements in the past, women are now able to wield the power of legal and capitalist systems which we were previously excluded from to enact social equality.

This week marks the launch of the campaign Lose the Lads’ Mags, spearheaded by feminist organisations UK Feminista and Object. Depending on who you believe, this is either an attempt to free employees and customers from "an intimidating, hostile, degrading, humiliating or offensive environment" that could arise from exposure to sexist pornographic content - or, in the words of Loaded and FHM journalist Piers Hernu in a report by the BBC - "a deeply sinister and disturbing attempt by a group of fundamentalist, fanatical feminists...to bully supermarkets into removing lads’ mags from the shelves".

As far as deeply sinister and disturbing acts by fundamentalist groups go, this one seems fairly civilised. The lawyers and campaigners behind Lose the Lads’ Mags are unlikely to turn up, Spring Breakers-style, in pink balaclavas, toting pistols at the local Tesco Extra. Any facet of the Equality Act that may or may not be used against employers is unlikely to be found "disturbing" (unless you’re a person regularly given to using that well-worn phrase, "IT’S POLITICAL CORRECTNESS GONE MAD!") And as for fundamentalism: while we’re taking the dictionary definition of feminism as the advocacy of women’s rights on the grounds of political, social, and economic equality to men, charges of ‘fundamentalist’ egalitarianism don’t seem very threatening at all. Unless, of course, you’re a sexist.

The idea that customers or employees could sue retailers for lads’ mags isn’t necessarily new. In theory, it’s been possible at the very least since the Equality Act came into being - so the announcement that those in the workplace can do so is presumably intended as more of a statement than an incitement to get running down to the courthouse. Getting the word out that the law is on your side is an effective way of empowering those who might have felt disempowered by the regular wallpaper of tits and arse that confronts them every day in the workplace or the supermarket. And, of course, it sends an effective message to retailers by threatening to hit them where it hurts: their wallets.

This form of protest has been gaining feminist traction in the last year. A campaign to make Facebook recognise gender-based violence, led by such feminist powerhouses as Laura Bates at Everyday Sexism, has seen huge companies like FinnAir respond angrily that placing their adverts next to content such as "Next time, don’t get pregnant" (with accompanying image of an injured woman at the bottom of a staircase) is "totally against our values and policies". In the past, photographs of breastfeeding had been removed by Facebook filters, while pages like "Domestic Violence: Don’t make me tell you twice", adorned with pictures of visibly beaten women for humorous purposes, apparently didn’t contravene their guidelines. Facebook might have turned a blind eye, but the advertisers themselves felt differently. Inevitably, money will talk.

In all likelihood, a woman in her twenties today will have pulled such innocent, pony-based fodder as Girl Talk magazine in her childhood off the same rack that displayed at least ten polished and Photoshopped FF-cup boobs with the nipples starred out. If the owners of the breasts had faces, they were probably suggestively licking their fingers, lips, or a phallic object. The idea that children would quickly internalise this imagery led a Birmingham-based women’s group to campaign earlier this year to force retailers to shelve pornographic content at least five feet nine inches off the ground. But UK Feminista and Object aren’t going to settle for a height restriction on sexism: Shelve the Lads’ Mags is intended to tackle an entire culture of misogyny targeted towards women and girls of any age. It’s a vastly more difficult pursuit - especially at the beginning of a week where Roman Polanski just claimed in Cannes that the fight for female equality is "a great pity".

Opposing the Sun’s page three or the ubiquity of lads’ mags isn’t necessarily an "anti-sex" position - or, indeed, an anti-porn position. Just like the claim that "you can’t even hold a door open for a woman anymore" is an infuriatingly reductive view on the pursuit for equality between the sexes (basic rules of politeness: hold doors open for people behind you, no matter what they look like), "feminist prudes hate sex" is an unfair charge typically levied against people who speak out against the gender discrepancies in raunch culture. If both sexes were equally objectified in society, this might be an argument about sex alone. But, because they’re not, it has to be an argument about feminism.

Meanwhile, there will always be a loose canon around like Polanski to claim that the birth control pill is "masculinising" women, turning them into feminists, and "chasing away romance". He may as well have come straight out with the old adage that feminists are "ugly butch lesbians" and continued on his way. But modern day feminism is more nuanced than anything such out-of-date commentators could imagine. Having made so many progressive achievements in the past, women are now able to wield the power of legal and capitalist systems which we were previously excluded from to enact social equality. Threatening to generate bad PR for an advertiser or a retailer is one of the most powerful tools at our disposal, such is the world that we live in.

Will shelving the lads’ mags go some way to combating the widespread objectification of women? Most likely, yes. There are certainly other battles to be fought in places where unmitigated access to much more violent material is commonplace, such as the internet. Policing imagery can only go so far, and it’s a blunt tool; social attitudes are what really need to change. But by reminding those who feel degraded by their experience of lads’ mags on the racks that they have legal recourse, UK Feminista and Object are easing the pressure on women who are bombarded with such imagery every day. And as media coverage surrounding the campaign heats up, it’s a positive reminder to many that, as a woman who may well not be clad in a swimming costume composed entirely of whipped cream on the cover of Nuts, you are still visible.

Lads' mags like Nuts and Zoo are the target of this new campaign.

Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett and Holly Baxter are co-founders and editors of online magazine, The Vagenda.

Getty
Show Hide image

Former Irish premier John Bruton on Brexit: "Britain should pay for our border checks"

The former Taoiseach says Brexit has been interpreted as "a profoundly unfriendly act"

At Kapıkule, on the Turkish border with Bulgaria, the queue of lorries awaiting clearance to enter European Union territory can extend as long as 17km. Despite Turkey’s customs union for goods with the bloc, hauliers can spend up to 30 hours clearing a series of demanding administrative hoops. This is the nightmare keeping former Irish premier John Bruton up at night. Only this time, it's the post-Brexit border between Northern Ireland and the Republic, and it's much, much worse.   

Bruton (pictured below), Taoiseach between 1994 and 1997, is an ardent pro-European and was historically so sympathetic to Britain that, while in office, he was pilloried as "John Unionist" by his rivals. But he believes, should she continue her push for a hard Brexit, that Theresa May's promise for a “seamless, frictionless border” is unattainable. 

"A good example of the sort of thing that might arise is what’s happening on the Turkish-Bulgarian border," the former leader of Ireland's centre-right Fine Gael party told me. “The situation would be more severe in Ireland, because the UK proposes to leave the customs union as well."

The outlook for Ireland looks grim – and a world away from the dynamism of the Celtic Tiger days Bruton’s coalition government helped usher in. “There will be all sorts of problems," he said. "Separate permits for truck drivers operating across two jurisdictions, people having to pay for the right to use foreign roads, and a whole range of other issues.” 

Last week, an anti-Brexit protest on the border in Killeen, County Louth, saw mock customs checks bring traffic to a near standstill. But, so far, the discussion around what the future looks like for the 260 border crossings has focused predominantly on its potential effects on Ulster’s fragile peace. Last week Bruton’s successor as Taoiseach, Bertie Ahern, warned “any sort of physical border” would be “bad for the peace process”. 

Bruton does not disagree, and is concerned by what the UK’s withdrawal from the European Convention on Human Rights might mean for the Good Friday Agreement. But he believes the preoccupation with the legacy of violence has distracted British policymakers from the potentially devastating economic impact of Brexit. “I don’t believe that any serious thought was given to the wider impact on the economy of the two islands as a whole," he said. 

The collapse in the pound has already hit Irish exporters, for whom British sales are worth £15bn. Businesses that work across the border could yet face the crippling expense of duplicating their operations after the UK leaves the customs union and single market. This, he says, will “radically disturb” Ireland’s agriculture and food-processing industries – 55 per cent of whose products are sold to the UK. A transitional deal will "anaesthetise" people to the real impact, he says, but when it comes, it will be a more seismic change than many in London are expecting. He even believes it would be “logical” for the UK to cover the Irish government’s costs as it builds new infrastructure and employs new customs officials to deal with the new reality.

Despite his past support for Britain, the government's push for a hard Brexit has clearly tested Bruton's patience. “We’re attempting to unravel more than 40 years of joint work, joint rule-making, to create the largest multinational market in the world," he said. It is not just Bruton who is frustrated. The British decision to "tear that up", he said, "is regarded, particularly by people in Ireland, as a profoundly unfriendly act towards neighbours".

Nor does he think Leave campaigners, among them the former Northern Ireland secretary Theresa Villiers, gave due attention to the issue during the campaign. “The assurances that were given were of the nature of: ‘Well, it’ll be alright on the night!’," he said. "As if the Brexit advocates were in a position to give any assurances on that point.” 

Indeed, some of the more blimpish elements of the British right believe Ireland, wedded to its low corporate tax rates and east-west trade, would sooner follow its neighbour out of the EU than endure the disruption. Recent polling shows they are likely mistaken: some 80 per cent of Irish voters say they would vote to remain in an EU referendum.

Irexit remains a fringe cause and Bruton believes, post-Brexit, Dublin will have no choice but to align itself more closely with the EU27. “The UK is walking away,” he said. “This shift has been imposed upon us by our neighbour. Ireland will have to do the best it can: any EU without Britain is a more difficult EU for Ireland.” 

May, he says, has exacerbated those difficulties. Her appointment of her ally James Brokenshire as secretary of state for Northern Ireland was interpreted as a sign she understood the role’s strategic importance. But Bruton doubts Ireland has figured much in her biggest decisions on Brexit: “I don’t think serious thought was given to this before her conference speech, which insisted on immigration controls and on no jurisdiction for the European Court of Justice. Those two decisions essentially removed the possibility for Ireland and Britain to work together as part of the EEA or customs union – and were not even necessitated by the referendum decision.”

There are several avenues for Britain if it wants to avert the “voluntary injury” it looks set to inflict to Ireland’s economy and its own. One, which Bruton concedes is unlikely, is staying in the single market. He dismisses as “fanciful” the suggestions that Northern Ireland alone could negotiate European Economic Area membership, while a poll on Irish reunification is "only marginally" more likely. 

The other is a variation on the Remoaners’ favourite - a second referendum should Britain look set to crash out on World Trade Organisation terms without a satisfactory deal. “I don’t think a second referendum is going to be accepted by anybody at this stage. It is going to take a number of years,” he said. “I would like to see the negotiation proceed and for the European Union to keep the option of UK membership on 2015 terms on the table. It would be the best available alternative to an agreed outcome.” 

As things stand, however, Bruton is unambiguous. Brexit means the Northern Irish border will change for the worse. “That’s just inherent in the decision the UK electorate was invited to take, and took – or rather, the UK government took in interpreting the referendum.”