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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Cambridge Analytica and the digital war in Africa

Across the continent, UK expertise is being deployed online to sway elections and target dissidents.

Cambridge Analytica, the British political consultancy caught up in a huge scandal over its use of Facebook data, has boasted that they ran the successful campaigns of President Uhuru Kenyatta in the 2013 and 2017 Kenyan elections. In a secretly filmed video, Mark Turnbull, a managing director for Cambridge Analytica and sister company SCL Elections, told a Channel 4 News’ undercover investigative reporting team that his firm secretly stage-managed Kenyatta’s hotly contested campaigns.

“We have rebranded the entire party twice, written the manifesto, done research, analysis, messaging. I think we wrote all the speeches and we staged the whole thing – so just about every element of this candidate,” Turnbull said of his firm’s work for Kenyatta’s party.

Cambridge Analytica boasts of manipulating voters’ deepest fears and worries. Last year’s Kenyan election was dogged by vicious online propaganda targeting opposition leader Raila Odinga, with images and films playing on people’s concerns about everything from terrorism to spiralling disease. No-one knows who produced the material. Cambridge Analytica denies involvement with these toxic videos – a claim that is hard to square with the company’s boast that they “staged the whole thing.” 

In any event, Kenyatta came to power in 2013 and won a second and final term last August, defeating Odinga by 1.4 million votes.

The work of this British company is only the tip of the iceberg. Another company, the public relations firm, Bell Pottinger, has apologised for stirring up racial hostility in South Africa on behalf of former President Jacob Zuma’s alleged financiers – the Gupta family. Bell Pottinger has since gone out of business.

Some electoral manipulation has been home grown. During the 2016 South African municipal elections the African National Congress established its own media manipulations operation.

Called the “war room” it was the ANC’s own “black ops” centre. The operation ranged from producing fake posters, apparently on behalf of opposition parties, to establishing 200 fake social media “influencers”. The team launched a news site, The New South African, which claimed to be a “platform for new voices offering a different perspective of South Africa”. The propaganda branded opposition parties as vehicles for the rich and not caring for the poor.

While the ANC denied any involvement, the matter became public when the public relations consultant hired by the party went to court for the non-payment of her bill. Among the court papers was an agreement between the claimant and the ANC general manager, Ignatius Jacobs. According to the email, the war room “will require input from the GM [ANC general manager Jacobs] and Cde Nkadimeng [an ANC linked businessman] on a daily basis. The ANC must appoint a political champion who has access to approval, as this is one of the key objectives of the war room.”

Such home-grown digital dirty wars appear to be the exception, rather than the rule, in the rest of Africa. Most activities are run by foreign firms.

Ethiopia, which is now in a political ferment, has turned to an Israeli software company to attack opponents of the government. A Canadian research group, Citizens Lab, reported that Ethiopian dissidents in the US, UK, and other countries were targeted with emails containing sophisticated commercial spyware posing as Adobe Flash updates and PDF plugins.

Citizens Lab says it identified the spyware as a product known as “PC Surveillance System (PSS)”. This is a described as a “commercial spyware product offered by Cyberbit —  an Israel-based cyber security company— and marketed to intelligence and law enforcement agencies.”

This is not the first time Ethiopia has been accused of turning to foreign companies for its cyber-operations. According to Human Rights Watch, this is at least the third spyware vendor that Ethiopia has used to target dissidents, journalists and activists since 2013.

Much of the early surveillance work was reportedly carried out by the Chinese telecom giant, ZTE. More recently it has turned for more advanced surveillance technology from British, German and Italian companies. “Ethiopia appears to have acquired and used United Kingdom and Germany-based Gamma International’s FinFisher and Italy-based Hacking Team’s Remote Control System,” wrote Human Rights Watch in 2014.

Britain’s international development ministry – DFID – boasts that it not only supports good governance but provides funding to back it up. In 2017 the good governance programme had £20 million at its disposal, with an aim is to “help countries as they carry out political and economic reforms.” Perhaps the government should direct some of this funding to investigate just what British companies are up to in Africa, and the wider developing world.

Martin Plaut is a fellow at the Institute of Commonwealth Studies, University of London. He is the author of Understanding Eritrea and, with Paul Holden, the author of Who Rules South Africa?