A last word on lad mags: The real reason they closed

by Rachel Bell on January 18, 2016

I was one of the first people to write about the disgustingness of lad mags, along with a brave blogger called Charliegirl, so, ten years later, I thought it fitting that I be one of the last. FHM and Zoo have closed, joining Loaded, Nuts, Maxim and Front in the ‘end of the lad mags era.’ Generally, mainstream media have attributed this end to boys’ and men’s media habits moving online, where they can see porn for free. Yet lad mags had a strong online presence and even Nuts member of staff, Pete Cashmore admitted in the press that, ‘The official reason given was that the magazine was losing money hand over fist, but we believed this to be so much hooey.’ Attribution should in fact be directed to the human rights activists who campaigned from the moment lad mags appeared on the bottom shelf next to Bob the Builder magazine.

lads mags

The years of campaigning started soon after the founding of Object, a human rights organisation set up in 2006 to challenge the sexual objectification of women and the normalisation of the porn and sex industries, and culminated in Lose the Lad Mags, a joint campaign from Object and UK Feminista. Along with Mumsnet, these organisations gave voice to the girls, women, men and incredulous parents who saw the harm of lad mags. Not only did lad mags tell a generation that being a sexist was funny, cool and the right of ‘real men’, they targeted children. Nuts and Zoo were sold at pocket money prices, around 60p, along with the sweets at the tills of supermarkets, garages or on the bottom shelf with coverlines ‘Incredible new Batmobile’ and ‘Amazing photos of babes getting together’ side by side (Nuts, 2005). It’s the end of lad mags because of this campaign to get them off the lucrative bottom shelf of every supermarket and newsagent in Britain, off the counter and off the endless, invasive window displays of WH Smith – and displayed like all other porn – covered or on the top shelf. As Pete Cashmore also recognised, ‘It was obvious we’d become more trouble than we were worth.’

Photo: Guy Bell

Photo: Guy Bell

Object began by going straight to parliament. They met with the Home office and Department of Culture, Media and Sport and got an MP to raise a debate on lad mags in Parliament. A motion passed, calling for a ‘socially responsible regulation of the press’. Object got the National Federation of Retail Newsagents to issue new guidelines (voluntary) on ‘how lad mags should be displayed to avoid customer complaints.’ Years of campaign work followed, including conga-ing down the aisles of Tesco in pyjamas, asking why the chain banned shoppers in pyjamas as ‘offensive’ but continued to stock soft porn. Men and children joined in the activism and contributed to gains made – the Co-op put an age restriction on lad mags following a petition from Damian Carnell of Nottinghamshire Domestic Violence Forum, who took issue with the police that pornographic material was being sold to boys. When UK Feminista joined Object to forge the Lose the Lad Mags campaign, supermarkets then faced the threat of legal challenge – with their sale of lad mags breaching sexual discrimination laws and supermarkets own ‘no porn’ policies. Finally, the mighty Mumsnet came aboard and supermarkets put their soft porn on the top shelf.

Object succeeded by first getting MPs and the public to wake up to the damaging content of lad mags. Lad mags framed their sexism as ‘loving women’. Zoo loved them so much that they encouraged readers to send in pics of their girlfriends’ tits for assessment to see which one deserved to win a boob job. They loved them so much they made jokes about exploiting prostituted and trafficked women ‘fresh off the boat’. Lad mags defended their sexism by saying, ‘We’re not porn’ but not showing the inside of a vagina or a nipple on the cover was not the point. Like porn they commodified women, telling men that women exist solely for their sexual gratification. Interviews with girls focused on sex acts common to porn, hardcore porn ads ran on the back pages and in, Zoo’s case, a Porn Dictionary including B for Bukkake, taught young men how they could gang together and ejaculate on a woman’s face. FHM online helpfully linked to a video. Photo shoots borrowed from hardcore porn, such as FHM’s cover of Paris Hilton bound naked in microphone lead. Boys could go to the magazine’s websites and watch videos of girls stripping and lapdancing. One Zoo video was set up as if the girl was being stalked as she undressed at home, another showed a girl being severely frightened in a ‘prank’. Lad mags totally normalised and promoted the use of the porn and sex industries. In essence, they groomed boys and men to become johns. Object and UK Feminista were supported by trade unions, equality groups, 18 top lawyers and the End Violence Against Women Coalition, and understood how our culture’s blanket sexual objectification of women undermines equality and feeds into male violence against women. As Dr. Sasha Rakoff who set up Object says, ‘Rape, sexual assault, cat calling, domestic violence, teen relationship abuse, it all happens because of attitudes.’

Lad mags may be gone, page 3 may be gone in print but The Sport, which features pornographic pictures of women on almost every page, is sold as a ‘newspaper’. It equates tits and ass with sport. Object and No More Page 3 may be gone but
Not Buying It have launched to continue the fight against sexist media. As well as a crisis sexual violence against women across our universities, these words from John Stoltenberg, a founder of Men Can Stop Rape, outline what lad mags gave a generation of boys: ‘Lads’ magazines have a low estimation of their readers. They promote self-loathing, and the notion that for them to feel better they have to have power over women.’

BI4

Lad mags said they empowered women by giving ‘real girls’ their stamp of approval for being hot enough. True empowerment comes from joining a feminist campaign, changing attitudes, changing the law and keeping feminist history alive.

Further reading:

Lose the lad mags campaign timeline of events 

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