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.

Photo: Getty
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The Prevent strategy needs a rethink, not a rebrand

A bad policy by any other name is still a bad policy.

Yesterday the Home Affairs Select Committee published its report on radicalization in the UK. While the focus of the coverage has been on its claim that social media companies like Facebook, Twitter and YouTube are “consciously failing” to combat the promotion of terrorism and extremism, it also reported on Prevent. The report rightly engages with criticism of Prevent, acknowledging how it has affected the Muslim community and calling for it to become more transparent:

“The concerns about Prevent amongst the communities most affected by it must be addressed. Otherwise it will continue to be viewed with suspicion by many, and by some as “toxic”… The government must be more transparent about what it is doing on the Prevent strategy, including by publicising its engagement activities, and providing updates on outcomes, through an easily accessible online portal.”

While this acknowledgement is good news, it is hard to see how real change will occur. As I have written previously, as Prevent has become more entrenched in British society, it has also become more secretive. For example, in August 2013, I lodged FOI requests to designated Prevent priority areas, asking for the most up-to-date Prevent funding information, including what projects received funding and details of any project engaging specifically with far-right extremism. I lodged almost identical requests between 2008 and 2009, all of which were successful. All but one of the 2013 requests were denied.

This denial is significant. Before the 2011 review, the Prevent strategy distributed money to help local authorities fight violent extremism and in doing so identified priority areas based solely on demographics. Any local authority with a Muslim population of at least five per cent was automatically given Prevent funding. The 2011 review pledged to end this. It further promised to expand Prevent to include far-right extremism and stop its use in community cohesion projects. Through these FOI requests I was trying to find out whether or not the 2011 pledges had been met. But with the blanket denial of information, I was left in the dark.

It is telling that the report’s concerns with Prevent are not new and have in fact been highlighted in several reports by the same Home Affairs Select Committee, as well as numerous reports by NGOs. But nothing has changed. In fact, the only change proposed by the report is to give Prevent a new name: Engage. But the problem was never the name. Prevent relies on the premise that terrorism and extremism are inherently connected with Islam, and until this is changed, it will continue to be at best counter-productive, and at worst, deeply discriminatory.

In his evidence to the committee, David Anderson, the independent ombudsman of terrorism legislation, has called for an independent review of the Prevent strategy. This would be a start. However, more is required. What is needed is a radical new approach to counter-terrorism and counter-extremism, one that targets all forms of extremism and that does not stigmatise or stereotype those affected.

Such an approach has been pioneered in the Danish town of Aarhus. Faced with increased numbers of youngsters leaving Aarhus for Syria, police officers made it clear that those who had travelled to Syria were welcome to come home, where they would receive help with going back to school, finding a place to live and whatever else was necessary for them to find their way back to Danish society.  Known as the ‘Aarhus model’, this approach focuses on inclusion, mentorship and non-criminalisation. It is the opposite of Prevent, which has from its very start framed British Muslims as a particularly deviant suspect community.

We need to change the narrative of counter-terrorism in the UK, but a narrative is not changed by a new title. Just as a rose by any other name would smell as sweet, a bad policy by any other name is still a bad policy. While the Home Affairs Select Committee concern about Prevent is welcomed, real action is needed. This will involve actually engaging with the Muslim community, listening to their concerns and not dismissing them as misunderstandings. It will require serious investigation of the damages caused by new Prevent statutory duty, something which the report does acknowledge as a concern.  Finally, real action on Prevent in particular, but extremism in general, will require developing a wide-ranging counter-extremism strategy that directly engages with far-right extremism. This has been notably absent from today’s report, even though far-right extremism is on the rise. After all, far-right extremists make up half of all counter-radicalization referrals in Yorkshire, and 30 per cent of the caseload in the east Midlands.

It will also require changing the way we think about those who are radicalized. The Aarhus model proves that such a change is possible. Radicalization is indeed a real problem, one imagines it will be even more so considering the country’s flagship counter-radicalization strategy remains problematic and ineffective. In the end, Prevent may be renamed a thousand times, but unless real effort is put in actually changing the strategy, it will remain toxic. 

Dr Maria Norris works at London School of Economics and Political Science. She tweets as @MariaWNorris.