Is it time for retailers to lose the lads’ mags?

Every time you go into a supermarket or newsagent to buy a magazine, you are likely to be confronted with the following:

  • A women’s section, which contains magazines on, mainly, celebrity froth, sewing, cooking and child-rearing;
  • Everything remotely interesting,like current affairs, photography, fishing, sport, computers and science fiction being displayed elsewhere;
  • Magazines with pictures of half naked women prominently displayed in a way that you can’t miss.

What does this tell children about the world in which they are growing up? The message seems to be that women are there to keep everyone else fed (while keeping themselves unrealistically thin, of course), that they aren’t or shouldn’t be interested in the issues of the day, and they are there to be men’s sexual playthings if they are pretty enough.  If they ever watch the news, they will see that it’s mostly middle aged white men in suits who are making most of the decisions that affect our lives. Of course, they will also see good stuff from ministers like Lynne Featherstone and Jo Swinson, but there should be more women at higher levels of industry, politics, and the legal profession.

This unequal treatment of women is surely inconsistent with our vision of a liberal society in which “none shall be enslaved by poverty, ignorance and conformity.” The range of things which need to be done to redress that balance is wide, and no single campaign alone will achieve it. The shared parental leave arrangements championed by Nick Clegg and Jo Swinson will help alleviate discrimination against women of childbearing age in the workplace. The Body Confidence campaign is already showing results – what would have been acceptable in terms of airbrushing 2 years ago is now not so.

A new campaign launches today aimed at getting supermarkets to remove lads’ mags which have on their front covers pictures of scantily clad women. Lose the Lads’ Mags, run by UK Feminista and Object Update, warns retailers that by displaying these images, they could be in breach of the Equality Act by failing to protect their employees from sexual harassment. A group of lawyers have written to the Guardian arguing that:

Every mainstream retailer which stocks lads’ mags is vulnerable to legal action by staff and, where those publications are visibly on display, by customers. There are, in particular, examples of staff successfully suing employers in respect of exposure to pornographic material at work. Such exposure is actionable where it violates the dignity of individual employees or customers, or creates an intimidating, hostile, degrading, humiliating or offensive environment for them. We therefore call on such retailers to urgently heed the call to Lose the Lads’ Mags.

I wrote a post last year asking why men thought it appropriate to get their Nuts out in public, after a flight where the man next to me was reading one of these magazines saying:

When men ostentatiously read stuff like this in public, it’s like they’re making a huge statement that they see women as simply being there as window dressing, as decoration, as pleasure enhancers rather than their equals. They clearly feel that they have a right to own all the public space. I felt it was so rude of him and it made me feel uncomfortable. Now, I don’t have the right to be protected from being offended, and nor am I asking for it, but I think I have every right to express my displeasure at such insensitive and crude behaviour.

We need to look no further than the Government’s own Sexualisation of young people review to see that this stuff causes actual harm:

The evidence gathered in the review suggests a clear link between consumption of sexualised images, a tendency to view women as objects and the acceptance of aggressive attitudes and behaviour as the norm. Both the images we consume and the way we consume them are lending credence to the idea that women are there to be used and that men are there to use them.

I doubt that we are going to see a flood of female employees on the minimum wage sue supermarket giants under the Equality Act. However, if this campaign convinces those retailers that they could be vulnerable to legal action, they in turn might convince the publishers to ensure that the front covers of these magazines do not portray women in a demeaning way. At the very least, it will spark a discussion about the effect on society of the way women are so routinely portrayed and reassure women that, actually, the law is on their side.

The prevalence of these magazines is a symptom of a culture that treats women unfairly. We need to tackle the attitudes which enable such a culture to operate. But, if I have recurrent headaches, I don’t wait for the outcome of tests to determine and treat the cause before I take a painkiller. In the same way, there is a place for tackling symptoms of sexism, one at a time, whether that’s toy retailers selling doctors’ sets for boys and nurses’ outfits for girls or Disney turning Merida from Brave from active girl to glamorous, curvy, groomed model. These campaigns have been successful. We can but hope that over time we can lose the demeaning images from lads’ mags too.

* Caron Lindsay is Editor of Liberal Democrat Voice and blogs at Caron's Musings

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38 Comments

  • geoffrey payne 27th May '13 - 4:14pm

    It is what is called market forces. Personally I do not like it either. Curiously when the television media was invented it had to conform less to market forces and instead to Public Service Broadcasting (PSB), where news had to be impartial (always debatable whether it actually is, but certainly more so than the newspapers). Paradoxocally PSB has been a great success. Its values have been worn down in the past 30 years, but at it’s pinnicle in the 1970s it was a huge success. Newspapers and magazines never operated under that ethos. The popular newspapers make profits by publicly humiliating people regardless of whether they deserve it or not. I do not have any proposals myself on improving the media – there are a whole number of moral dilemmas to balance out.
    As for these proposals, I am surprised in that I thought there were already censorship rules in place to stop showing naked women on the cover. I also notice that in a lot of the women’s magazines there are unpleasent photos of women being objectified and sexualised as well. I think I support this campaign but I am not confident it will make any difference.
    Having said that I have a friend who showed around a building site, and there was not a single picture anywhere of a naked woman pin up. It is strange how attitudes do change and I sometimes wonder how it happens, back in the 1980s that would have been unthinkable.

  • Nonconformistradical 27th May '13 - 4:43pm

    “Having said that I have a friend who showed around a building site, and there was not a single picture anywhere of a naked woman pin up. It is strange how attitudes do change and I sometimes wonder how it happens, back in the 1980s that would have been unthinkable.”
    I suspect the presence/absence of such pin ups very much depends on the management culture of the building site – or any other workplace populated predominantly by certain types of males (lets not call them men as that implies they’ve grown up).

  • Women and gay magazines contain just as much soft porn, sell much more and probably have a far greater impact on the lives of young women. Can’t you find a formulation of your argument that isn’t so discriminatory? Makes Toby Young sound sensible.

  • “Makes Toby Young sound sensible.”

    Seconded. In view of the total cobblers about what men think which fills womens magazines, it’s more than a little hypocritical to criticise magazines published for men.

  • Max Wilkinson 27th May '13 - 6:00pm

    I’d say that the cover messages I read in a recent edition of Woman’s Own were just as harmful. These included:

    1. ‘Lose 7lb in 5 seconds’, how to use dresses to make yourself slim.
    2. ‘Baby panic’, which celebrities were panicking about not being able to have babies.
    3. Something about Fern Britton flirting with a load of blokes in full view of her husband.
    4. How to lose weight for the summer.

    Various other women’s mags have pictures of topless blokes, albeit usually not on the cover.

    The only real difference is the lack of cleavage on the front cover and an absence of sports/technology features. The overriding message to women was be thin and obsess about celebrities, which I object to much more than a few pictures of boobs, even if they are on show in the local newsagents.

    If you don’t like it, don’t buy it. I’m confident that this is the commonsense liberal position on the matter.

  • Caron Lindsay Caron Lindsay 27th May '13 - 6:57pm

    Jae, surely we can think of some way to lift a dying magazine industry that doesn’t involve demeaning women. The equivalent, by the way, of a bare breasted woman is not a topless man. Men routinely wander around with no tops on. The equivalent photograph of a man would be a bare backside or.. well, I’m sure you get my drift. A part of the body not normally on public display.

    The problem is that men and women are not portrayed equally which causes the harm as outlined above. There’s no evidence of men being so harmed as they tend to have a more privileged position in society anyway.

    Max, you are spot on – and I did allude to that particular problem in the first part of my article. There’s no issue with there being magazines about sewing, cooking and celebrity trash, but the idea that they should be “women’s” alone belongs 50 years ago and more.

    It’s not about banning these magazines, but trying to bring about changes to a harmful culture. It’s not censorship to point out why a particular message is not right, either and to hope that those who produce it will be persuaded to stop it.

  • Simon McGrath 27th May '13 - 7:39pm

    @caron “There’s no issue with there being magazines about sewing, cooking and celebrity trash, but the idea that they should be “women’s” alone belongs 50 years ago and more.”
    I dont have any figures to hand but surely these magazines are bought overwhelmingly by women – just as car and football magazines are bough overwhelmingly by men. If there was a demand for cooking and sewing magazines among men I am sure the market forces that Geoffrey has such a down on would have developed them.

  • The thing is lads mags rarely feature actual topless shots on their covers and they certainly are not on display in supermarkets when they do.. I do note that naked male bottoms now crop up in TV adverts.
    The reality is some people are insensitive , some people are offended , some aren’t. I do sometimes wonder if these arguments are really amount to much more than boy v girl stuff

  • @Chris:

    “it’s more than a little hypocritical to criticise magazines published for men.”

    Men?????

    Androgenous beings with sexuality frozen at infantile levels.

  • AlanPlatypus 27th May '13 - 11:15pm

    Carol, could we have some references with regards to ‘harm’ caused? Something peer-reviewed would be nice. At the moment it’s all a bit ‘Helen Lovejoy’.

  • AlanPlatypus 27th May '13 - 11:16pm

    Oops, that should say Caron not Carol. I blame predictive text.

  • Matthew Huntbach 28th May '13 - 12:46am


    A women’s section, which contains magazines on, mainly, celebrity froth, sewing, cooking and child-rearing;

    Well, that used to be the case. Now, however, I note it is mainly celebrity worship, with practical stuff on sewing, cooking, child-rearing and the like disappearing. And the down-market women’s magazines now seem to be mainly about rape and child abuse, judging from their covers. Personally I find these things just as offensive and damaging as the “lads’ mags”.

  • Eddie Sammon 28th May '13 - 8:14am

    Caron, I think you are now actually embarrassing the Liberal Democrats with your constant sexist and censorship proposals.

    You can’t ban lad’s mags without banning women’s mags.

  • I’m far more “offended” by the assumption that the average woman might be interested in Kim Kardashian, “I had my secret brother’s baby” and dangerous fad diets than I am by the suggestion that the average straight man might be interested in breasts.

    I wouldn’t want a stranger on a plane to shove his Nuts under my nose (so to speak) but I don’t see anything offensive in it being available. If it sends any “message” beyond (a) some women have rather lovely breasts and are happy to have them photographed and (b) some men like looking at them occasionally, it is surely twofold:

    1. that we live in a free society where sexuality is no longer hidden and shameful; and
    2. that censorship is gradually being eroded, whether its origins lie in state secrecy or prudery.

    I consider myself feminist but I just don’t accept that women’s working conditions and lack of prominence in politics have anything to do with Kate Upton’s tits, and I’ve never seen any credible evidence to the contrary.

  • Caron Lindsay Caron Lindsay 28th May '13 - 9:29am

    Eddie, who is talking about banning? The campaign is calling for retailers not to stock them, because they may be in breach of the Equality Act in respect of their employees or customers in some circumstances. That’s all.

    The magazines produced for women don’t have quite the same portrayal of women as sex objects.

    For me the main point of this campaign is that it gets us talking about the sorts of images and the sort of society we want to see. Is it really a good thing for kids to grow up with these images of women being all around them, portrayed as mainstream? There is evidence that this harms both girls and boys and we need to take it seriously. It is surely possible that the harm principle applies…

  • Simon McGrath 28th May '13 - 9:55am

    @caron “Eddie, who is talking about banning? The campaign is calling for retailers not to stock them, because they may be in breach of the Equality Act in respect of their employees or customers in some circumstances. That’s all. ”

    If something can’t be bought it is effectively banned.

  • Eddie Sammon 28th May '13 - 9:56am

    Caron, I think there is nothing wrong with encouraging such magazines to be on higher shelves, but threatening retailers with the law for stocking them is wrong, in my opinion.

    How far are you going to take this feminism brigade? You could call for Beyonce videos to be banned because they are suggestive, or to be shown after the watershed, when in fact many women love Beyonce and her body confidence.

    The attitude needs to be “don’t like it don’t buy it”. I’ve known a few glamour models in the past and they certainly weren’t exploited into doing it, they liked it!

    Your argument is for the children, but I don’t think we need to focus on punishing others too much in order to hide society from children. They will find out what the world is like soon enough.

  • Richard Wingfield 28th May '13 - 10:04am

    I have some sympathy for those behind the campaign, but I wouldn’t support any restrictions on the availability of “lads’ magazines” (or any other magazines targetted at a particular group) at the present time.

    I haven’t looked into the matter particularly closely, although I did read the relevant sections of the “Sexualisation of Young People Review” which Caron referred to. Although the Review refers to “evidence” linking the availability of sexualised images of women with the objectification of women and aggressive attitudes and behaviour, I was unable to find the evidence which the author of the Review was referring to. Indeed, the only references in that particular section were to studies conducted in 1995 and 1999, and so rather out-of-date. If a comprehensive study was undertaken which demonstrated a clear and unambiguous link between the visibility of “lads’ magazines” and demonstrable harm suffered by women (such as higher rates of violence against women, higher rates of self-harm or eating disorders, or lower levels of body confidence) then that would be a strong argument for some form of restriction (perhaps keeping such magazines out of sight, but still available, as is the case with cigarettes in supermarkets), but I’m not sure that such a study has been undertaken.

    I also think it’s better to tackle the underlying cause, rather than the symptoms, of the problem of objectification of women. More women role models and better education in schools, including sex and relationship education are two obvious examples. This is certainly an issue that needs discussing, and whilst I don’t necessarily reach the same conclusion as Caron on the specific issue of lads’ magazines, I applaud her (and Jo Swinson and Lynne Featherstone in particular) for keeping this issue raised at the highest levels.

  • @peter – you open a whole new can of worms there – who has the right to say what is “lovely”?!

    Actually, if you look at readership figures for these mags then they are on the whole collapsing. FHM fell by 20% in 2012, Nuts was down 11% (and down 30% since 2011), and Zoo fell by 5%. Meanwhile, mags like Esquire and GQ were actually increasing their readerships, suggesting a general switch away from the picture-led titles.

    I do wonder, though, where we draw the line. Others have commented on Men’s Health – personally, I don’t like the pictures on the front of that any more than the pics on FHM, etc. OK, so it maybe doesn’t have the same sexual connotations, but it can still have the same body image issues that the FHM ones do, and given that men tend not to raise body issues openly as a concern (like most health and wellbeing issues) we probably don’t know the real number affected.

    I am conerned about the potential outcome though. A successful legal action against, say, Tesco, would effectively be a ban because Tesco’s lawyers – and those of Asda, Morrisons and Sainsbury’s – would insist on removing the magazines from the shelves. And while they could be sold from under the counter, they are generally an impulse buy which would mean that people wouldn’t just pick them up, so sales figures would plummet and the mags would close. The legal action would have the same effect as a ban as no other publisher would pick them up if they could not be stocked in the supermarkets (which are the bigger sellers of these magazines.) By all means, discourage people from buying them, speak to the editors and publishers to tone down the content, but don’t take action which will effectively create a legal market censor on these publications.

  • This is a bit hypocritical really. Take the following google search for Cosmo Covers

    https://www.google.co.uk/search?q=cosmopolitan+covers&safe=off&tbm=isch&tbo=u&source=univ&sa=X&ei=332kUfKpCsbt0gXVmYGgAg&ved=0CDMQsAQ&biw=1866&bih=1027

    Sex Tips, Sex Quiz, Bad Girl Sex etc etc. Not to mention some fairly provocative images.
    Loose weight while you eat, Look Leaner Naked, Firm up your Beach Body fast etc etc

    I take it you won’t be asking retailers to stop stocking these as well ? I for one do not want my 9 year old daughter having the unreasonable sexual expectations or the constant requirement to be leaner, thinner and sexier thrust into her face. The last time I went to the dentist with her there were dozens of Cosmo’s and no Nuts on the reading table…

  • To change the direction of the thread somewhat, many of the ‘lads’ who read lads mags read little else, and the damaging opinions which Caron and this campaign are complaining about are the product of reduced literacy.

    So to further discourage use of the means of education (however insufficient) of those you wish to educate strikes me as peculiarly counterproductive.

    Why not ask why publications which perpetuate unwanted attitudes remain popular among their audience? Is it not because those consumers are seeking to educate themselves from the level they start at?

    I also have difficulty with the claim of objectification, since models are often named and are therefore subjects, and are clearly represented as individuals for their individual characteristics (physical or otherwise).

    If the criticism of sexualisation of society is that society is becoming able to take a more mature and relaxed attitude to sex and gender relationships (as seen by the growing acceptance of non-normative statuses, such as with the size of the majorities in favour of gay marriage, and conversely the continuing decline of tolerance towards abusive behaviour, such as in the post-Savile witchhunts) then is this not a sign of real liberation?

    If education is the answer to society’s ills, then let’s concentrate on education – which includes educating about how a market functions most effectively.

    As far as I can see this proposal is designed to compensate for the weakness of education, not to promote success. And that’s always a recipe for failure.

  • I’m afraid this looks like a sexist moral scribble pattern to me, constructed around arbitrary whims and prejudices. Show us this evidence of which you speak so we can have a rational debate about its pertinence to this issue. AFAIK Northern European countries have far greater displays of public nudity in advertising and do not have higher rates of sexual discrimination. Conversely, countries that have implemented Caron’s social strategies have some of the highest levels of violence against women – e.g., Afghanistan, Iran, Democratic Republic of Congo and India. Best place to be a woman on this map – green. Worst places, red – http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Pornography_laws.svg . Indeed, it seems apparent that the more strict a countries pornography laws, the more likely that women will be oppressed. When it comes to empirical evidence, everything points against Caron’s view :

    http://anthonydamato.law.northwestern.edu/Adobefiles/porn.pdf
    http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/2032762
    http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/21116701

  • jedibeeftrix 28th May '13 - 3:22pm

    brilliant example of why the obnoxious equalities bill should never have got onto the statute books!

  • As someone who has never read a lad’s mag in his life, it may be surprising to hear that I find myself on the side of those who find these proposals concerning. China has some of the strictest moral-censorship on publications in the world – non-literal statement – it is also currently in the middle of a moral manic because some women are not married by the age of 30 and others now earn more than their husbands…the horror! I was actually dumped by a Chinese girl when she found out that I earned less than her because she was worried that her family and friends would be ashamed of her not having enough ambition…Yes, in certain parts of Chinese culture, a women’s ambition is not defined by how successful she is, but by how successful her partner is.

    On the other hand, Hong Kong has some more of the most ‘liberal’ publications I have ever seen and has no qualms about showing sexualised women, it also has some of the most Liberal and successful women in Asia.

    I do not like Lads’ mags anymore than I like girlie magazines about Z-list celebrities and I agree we cannot be complacent on such issues; however, I do think that if feminism needs to win the hearts and minds of people, even when it is trying to tackle issues where it already has strong support, but especially so in relation to the more contentious issues. Currently feminism is seen as overally moralistic and like it is trying to force its values on others, and even sexist (as crazy as that sounds, people do see it that way, and if it seen that way, then there is clearly a problem, even if it is one of miscommunication and misunderstanding) ; for this kind of issue especially, feminism cannot be seen to be trying to enforce its own morality on society, and that is why heavy-handed legal action like this will not only not work to change the values of society, it will actually be rather counter-productive. It is not heavy-handed legal action that has started to change the way films portray women, nor was such heavy-handed enforcement responsible for the removal of nude shots in factories, it was a slow and well-organised campaign of education, which slowly changed people’s views and opinions, and as such our culture; this then allowed the masses to change the markets for us. I suspect these magazines will die out or have to evolve, but only if you tackle them in a smart way – this is not a smart way. Campaigns like this one are why feminism is being made out to be a joke, when really it is a very serious ideology.

  • Are ministers like Jo Swinson and Lynne Featherstone really positive role models (I won’t use the phrase “poster girls”) for women in positions of power? About 80-90 percent of their actions which are reported on LDV are very specifically about gender issues even though they have/have had much wider briefs. There really needs to be someone who can break out of that kind of ghetto and show herself as competent on a wide range of issues, not just women-specific ones.

    Yes, women’s and men’s magazines exist for silly men and women, Yes there is also a section of interesting stuff for non-silly people of both genders. Are the silly people’s sections larger? Yes of course, get used to it – this is the society we live in, try to get at least the people you know interested in more important things. Newsagents would put the Economist front and centre if it was their biggest seller and nuts would be at the back (and in airports with lots of business travellers that’s really how it looks, I have a struggle to find my FHM).

    By the way, I totally agree that Caron has the right to express her view. If someone wants to read a w nk mag in public then they are well open to ridicule (suggestion “You’re reading Playboy, isn’t that the one with lots of pictures of (word probably not allowed in the forum)?”). What is not acceptable is to try to exploit the very rational fear ordinary people have of living in a make-it-up-as-you-go-along common-law jurisdiction to tell people that selling such mags is possibly already illegal, instead of seeking to get through actual legislation to ban them (against the oppostion of anyone with any libertarian values).

  • No women is forced to appear in the mags.
    No person is forced to buy the mags.
    Many womens magazines have models wearing swim wear.
    Many girls undergo femail genital mutilation and there are no prosecutions.
    Appears typical case some issues are too difficult to deal with, so to justify our position, we have to do something.

  • Kevin McNamara 29th May '13 - 11:36am

    @ richard s: you miss the very obvious point that maybe it wouldn’t be down to the swinsons and featherstones, almost exclusively, to fight gender issues if men cared.

  • Stuart Mitchell 29th May '13 - 3:05pm

    If lad’s mags are in decline, along with the traditional soft porn mags, this is probably because the men who used to read them are now addicted to free ultra-hard core internet porn instead. This doesn’t strike me as a positive development. You can’t change human nature – men will always enjoy looking at pictures of naked women (or naked men come to that), and this being so, the lad’s mags seem to me to be a mild option.

    It’s ridiculous to claim that images of attractive women amount to “objectification” of women. Some of the most “objectified” women in the world live in societies where women are almost completely invisible.

  • A Social Liberal 31st May '13 - 2:45am

    Hmmmmm

    Having occasionally got my teenage jollies reading erotic fiction in the copies of Cosmopolitan my aunt gave my mother, I can confidently say that that icon of middle class feminism had more than enough pictures of men sprawled in what I suppose were suggestive poses, with more than one bare bottom peeking out.

    My point – both mens and womens magazines objectify the human body for sexual reasons, as do gay and lesbian magazines. Even Vogue uses beautiful people to sell the products promoted there. To ban one type (or even all of them) is illiberal.

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