No to ‘modesty bags’ for lads’ mags!

A miserable feminist campaign to force supermarkets to remove lads’ magazines is gaining traction – at the expense of free speech.

It’s more than a little confusing. One minute feminists are taking to the streets in their hundreds, on so-called slutwalks, to defend their right to be scantily clad. The next they are insisting that lads’ mags’ covers, featuring, er, scantily clad women, should be covered up in pre-sealed ‘modesty bags’ when sold in supermarkets.

Predictably, the first supermarket to cave in to the anti-lads’ mags campaign has been the holier-than-thou Co-op, which yesterday declared that titles such as Zoo and FHM had six weeks to start concealing their products in burqa-style black plastic. In the meantime, the Co-op has already put these ‘lewd’ magazines in hard-to-reach positions, and concealed them with opaque shelving.

But surely this is a violation of press freedom, an attempt to dictate the content of particular publications? ‘Think of the children’, feminists respond. Apparently, the nation’s young are being damaged by the presence of lads’ mags ‘next to the sweets at children’s eye-level’.

Yet, as the Telegraph’s Toby Young has pointed out, even the UK government’s official report into the ‘sexualisation and commercialisation of childhood’, published in 2011, found little evidence of lads’ mags harming children (although it did recommend bagging-up the mags anyway, on the spurious grounds that ‘insufficient evidence to prove conclusively there is harm to children does not mean that no harm exists’).

Not that covering up lads’ mags will satisfy feminists anyway. The campaigning Twitter hashtag, #losetheladsmags, says it all: they want lads’ mags banished from shop shelves for good. As a spokesperson for the Lose the Lads’ Mags campaign put it: ‘a more accurate term for these “modesty bags” is “misogyny bags”… It’s about sexism. And if a product is so degrading to women that it has to be covered up, then the Co-op should not be selling it.’

Other supermarkets appear to be reaching this conclusion, too. Last month, Tesco chairman Sir Richard Broadbent claimed the content of some lads’ mags had left him so ‘startled’ that he was considering removing the offending titles from Tesco stores, bagged up or not.

What is odd is that all this fuss comes at a time when lads’ mags have lost much of the swagger of their Nineties heyday. Circulations have plummeted across the board and titles are starting to close - the UK edition of Maxim published its last print edition in 2009 with barely a whimper. Far from ‘wallpapering’ newsstands, as their opponents claim, lads’ mags are possessed of an ever-smaller share of the magazine market.

Indeed, even the publishers of lads’ mags, so weak is their commercial position, seem unwilling to stand their ground. The publishers of Nuts did complain they hadn’t been properly consulted about modesty bags, but that’s been about the sum of resistance so far. The publisher of Zoo magazine was positively compliant: ‘We are sensitive to the mood of the public… To that end we have responded accordingly and [three weeks ago we] changed Zoo magazine’s cover imagery and phrasing.’

Lose the Lads’ Mags is not in any way a popular campaign. It is the product of a handful of sensitive feminists who only want people to read what they deem to be acceptable. Far from trying to mobilise public support against lads’ mags, these feminists are happiest using legal threats to force supermarkets to take lads’ mags off the shelves.

Indeed, it seems one of the primary reasons supermarkets are giving in to the campaign is because of the threat of extended, expensive law suits, and the resulting bad PR. In an open letter from Lose the Lads’ Mags to supermarkets and high-street retailers published earlier in the year, ‘[14] leading discrimination lawyers’ claimed that if supermarkets didn’t ‘immediately withdraw’ lads’ mags, they could face a test case under the Equality Act 2010. ‘Displaying these publications in workplaces, and/or requiring staff to handle them in the course of their jobs’, the letter read, ‘may amount to sex discrimination and sexual harassment’.

By giving in to the demands of a tiny gaggle of vociferous, litigious feminists, the Co-op is not only dealing a blow to the freedom of the press to publish what it likes. It is also denigrating our freedom to browse the newsstands and read whatever we choose. Whether we choose to read Nuts or not, we all need to show some balls and stand up to this miserable campaign.

Patrick Hayes is a columnist for spiked.

For permission to republish spiked articles, please contact Viv Regan.

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