Monday, 29 July 2013

Lads' Mags - Know your place!

In an example of perhaps foolish bravery for a man (stereotyping much), I'm going to comment on the news that Co-op want packaging on lads' mags, and the growing call to have them banned from supermarket shelves. To be clear on this, I used to read lads' mags when I was a teenager (read into that what you will) but have sinced moved on to reading publications like Private Eye when I get the chance (Yey for me).

So what can a (probably lower) middle class white male, who is fast approaching middle age, bring to the issue of objectification of women, one wonders. There were certainly no men interviewed on BBC news this morning, and the one argument put forward in favour of lads' mags was that the men on exercise magazines are half naked, an argument put forward by a woman with a vested interest in the market.

When I watched the coverage on this issue I found I had two major problems with the debate, which I'll attempt to outline for you. The first issue was with the emotive language and lack of scientific rigour in the discussion around effects on children. This is a common theme for all "moral" crusades in our society, and often leads to bad policy. 

The suggestion that a magazine can be harmful carries with it a lot of assumptions that don't really help the debate. If lads' mags increase the likelihood of individuals committing acts of abuse, this is a serious matter, it should be presented in a way that makes that very clear, and in doing so it shouldn't rely on emotive slogans that can be easily dismissed due to lack of evidence.

My second issue was with the use of the term objectification. I'll allow a moment for the assumption that I'm about to launch a defence of lads' mags to set in. My point here is that men and women view each other a sex objects on a daily basis. This is a genetic imperative, if one that can be consciously mitigated in a truly modern society. The problem with the use of objectification in this debate is that it isn't a precise enough definition of the true issue, in my view.

The true issue for me is not with viewing other human beings as objects of desire and as opportunities for sexual gratification, the problem is when this becomes a reason to think of those we desire as only fit for that purpose and as lesser beings than ourselves. This is the potential difference between the lads' mag and the exercise mag. 

The half naked men on an exercise mag are being lauded as perfection in manhood, they are inherently better than the average bloke (not saying I agree, but that is the impression). The half naked women on a lads' mag are there to perform sexual services and, frankly, if they did so in silence whilst washing the undies then more power to the man who breaks them (again, not agreeing, just describing).  What I've just described may be a little cartoon-like, but it isn't that far from the truth. 

The central issue, therefore, is how do we prevent young men from conflating images that offer sexual gratification with the assumption that participating in those images somehow makes women subservient. In other words, how do we move away from a societal view that female nakedness is a sign of weakness and male nakedness is a sign of strength. 

The first start to this is perhaps to examine the very arguments that the media engages in about the topic. The debate on the BBC this morning could almost have served to perpetuate the view that female nudity is based purely upon male power and that in order to feel empowered a woman must hide her body (to be fair it might also be seen by some as suggesting that men are too weak to control themselves in the face of female nudity). This hardly moves the cause of gender equality forwards.

Hiding, or not selling, lads' mags does very little to combat this issue. It doesn't strengthen the position of women with regards to sexism or nudity, and it doesn't encourage men to move beyond the assumption that the ability to penetrate another individual makes them a better class of person with the right to behave as they please. 

A picture may speak a thousand words, but it is our thought processes that need to be changed here. Removing lads' mags from the shelves isn't going to remove sexism from the male psyche. In some ways it may even strengthen it. It's improved education and respect for others that will tackle this issue, not moral crusades against female nudity.

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