The Penis Perspective: Lads' Mags

It’s near impossible for me to walk past a display of “lad magazines” without recalling the ridiculous example I saw in 2004. One of the weekly lads’ mags – I can’t remember if it was Nuts or Zoo – carried as the front page headline: “REVEALED – what happens when girls shower!” It was obviously meant to be tongue-in-cheek, but it was still difficult to believe a national magazine would carry such an “investigation” as their main feature. A cursory glance through the pages revealed the following findings:

Girls tend to shower whilst wearing thongs or G-strings.
Girls wear lots of make-up in the shower.
When washing, girls will use the shower head to focus only on the area below the neck (this may be related to the previous point).
Girls often bring an attractive female friend to shower with

Scientific research at its finest, I’m sure you’ll agree.Ridiculous it may be, but it’s the kind of thing people are willing to spend their money on. FHM and Nuts both have circulation figures of over 100,000, with Esquire and Zoo selling over 50,000 per issue. Factor in other lads’ mags like Loaded, and even a conservative estimate reveals over 250,000 different people buying these magazines on a regular basis, with the figure reading them likely to be even higher.

But why is this a problem? In situations such as these, it’s important to know your enemy, so back in January, I visited my local supermarket and became an embarrassed and apologetic owner of both Nuts and Zoo magazine. Worryingly, I also received a money-off coupon for a future edition of Nuts, so my supermarket loyalty scheme now has me pegged as a lads’ mag enthusiast.

Most of the content was as expected; depressingly simplistic “banter”, articles about fast cars, a few pages about football, and lots of pictures of women in various states of undress. However, look beneath the surface and there’s a more sinister undercurrent. Zoo contains a joke about masturbating over Kate Middleton in a cinema, Nuts contains a (presumably regular) column called “Sex Advice From A Fit Lesbian” and there are numerous requests to send in photos of your significant other in provocative poses. Zoo also contains the most depressing promotional competition I’ve ever seen; the chance to win a “top boys’ holiday” (including free entry to a lap-dancing club) for “Britain’s Most Under The Thumb Man”. With the implication that women nag their partners and that men are weak-willed and put-upon, neither of the genders come out of that one particularly well.

Sexism aside, there’s a nasty seam of homophobia too, particularly in the sport pages. Nuts features “Man-Love Corner!” which displays pictures of footballers embracing one another in celebration and “Stealth Bumming Corner!” where a man positions himself in such a way that the subject of the photo doesn’t realise may look like they’re engaging in anal sex (despite being fully-clothed). With top-quality, era-defining humour like that, it’s not difficult to see why so many people fork out their hard-earned cash on it. There’s a danger that I’m coming across like an uptight killjoy here who can’t appreciate “a bit of a laugh”, but these magazines and others like them are available in shops across the world and reinforce certain views and stereotypes. “Remember, people, women are there for the enjoyment and pleasure of men,” they suggest, “and because homosexuality is a complex and potentially sensitive topic we don’t understand, it must be bad, so let’s ridicule it.”

Of course, the fault for male misogyny doesn’t lie solely at the door of lads’ magazines and, obviously, the concept of men wishing to assert their perceived superiority over women is as old as humankind itself. However, lad culture, as we know it, is a relatively new phenomenon which came to prominence in the mid-1990s along with Britpop. Although Britpop had its artistic and thoughtful types, arguably the most popular band were lad-rock forebearers, Oasis, who contained, in simian simpleton Liam Gallagher, probably the biggest “lad” of them all. The growing popularity of the Premiership (still in its infancy) and the holding of the European Championships in England meant football became the national interest again. After hooliganism blighted the 1980s, the 1990s saw copious amounts of money flow into football and it became such a mainstream pursuit that it outgrew its working-class, male roots, and the middle-class and women became avid fans. The mid-1990s also saw the launch of the original lad titles, FHM and Loaded, which, coupled with the “girl power” aesthetic of the world-conquering Spice Girls, resulted in a brief “ladette” period, where women decided to be empowered by matching the men in terms of alcohol intake and other “lad” behaviours.

Is it dangerous though? I’ve “read” two lads’ mags and it hasn’t transformed me into a breast-fixated knuckle-dragger, incapable of rational thought and reasoning. As true as that may be, I’m an adult who’s confident in my views and beliefs, but schoolchildren are not, and that’s where I believe the problem lies.I had my first experience of the world of lads’ mags at the age of 14, when I found a discarded copy of Loaded at my local leisure centre. I took it home and read it intently; it was like being given the key to a tantalising glance at adulthood (I’m showing my age here, 14 year old boys in 2012 have probably viewed hours of hardcore pornography, but that’s an argument for another day). That issue of Loaded – featuring a newly-famous Jordan on the cover – showcased a world where women would pose provocatively for your titillation, submit to your whims, and were always desperate for sex. Less than two years from the age of consent, I was given a preview of what I could expect my life to be like in years to come. I’d seen the future, and it looked like a Robin Askwith movie.

Naturally, my life didn’t quite follow this path and as my teenage years passed, my disdain for this genre of magazines began to grow. They’re for men who can’t handle reality, who celebrate their own lack of knowledge, and who feel threatened and emasculated at the merest sleight. In short, they resemble the protagonists of Pulp’s wonderfully sharp Joyriders (Oh, and we like women / “Up the women”, we say / And if we get lucky / We might even meet some one day).

But not everyone can grasp that they represent an exaggerated version of life. Like small-minded nationalists, they think they rule all they survey, and anyone different is to be feared and dismissed. It’s bad enough that these magazines affect the mindsets of boys, but they’re seen by girls too. Therefore, males learn to see females as objects of gratification, and females see that’s what’s expected of them and – in some cases – depressingly conform to that role. During your school years, when adulthood is an exciting, exotic land, messages like this that tell you “how life is” can be dangerously appropriated and become the norm. It’s one of the myriad reasons why feminism still needs to exist and be campaigned for so vociferously.The solution here is education. There’s obviously nothing to be ashamed of when it comes to sexual desires, and men will always want to look at the bodies of attractive women, but more acceptance needs to be taught. These magazines could prove upsetting and confusing for anyone struggling with their sexual identity, girls with body-confidence issues and those who don’t conform to mainstream ideas of “normality”. These people need to be told that there’s nothing wrong with them, and that these magazines are the problem, not them.

- Joe