Challenging The 'Sex Sells' Cliche

Everywhere you turn these days there are sexualised images of women's bodies as porn becomes more and more mainsteam. Rachel Bell investigates the growing protest movement against the normalisation of porn in everyday life.

Rachel Bell, 12 February 2006

"Sex sells": an overused adage that is regurgitated whenever someone wants to lazily defend some gratuitous semi-naked babe. Jodie Marsh recently told the Guardian, "Sex is what sells anyway. You only have to look at the tabloids to see how much it sells, 'cos everyday they've got a half-naked woman on the front page." Exactly. It it's not 'sex' that sells, it's women as sex objects. And one type of sex object at that. This 'sex' that sells in bucketloads has got nothing to do with the varied, rich forms of real sexuality or female sexuality and everything to do with one type of formulaic, cartoonish, emotionless and mind-numbingly bland transaction: man as voyeur and consumer of woman as sex object.

The normalisation of porn

In the world of publishing, selling women as sex objects was once generally confined to porno mags, to the top shelf and licensed sex shops, and consumed behind closed doors. Now the sale of women gets prime spots alongside the broadsheets, Grazia and Disney Princess in every newsagent and supermarket and is consumed on public transport, in the work place and over breakfast with the kids. Women are a cheap commodity in 'newspapers', 'men's lifestyle' magazines and 'lad mags'. Strangely, these publications pretend to be anything but porn. But whether you agree or not that they are pornography is not the point; like all porn, they commodify women. They relentlessly promote the message that women exist solely for the sexual gratification of men and boys. By internalising this one-dimensional male construct of sexuality, both sexes are losing out; but it is girls and women who will pay the heavier price.

Mainstream culture is saturated with tits and ass. For the Daily Sport, a vagina is front-page news. For The Sun and The Star, it's 'girls', who are either naked or almost naked, appear in highly sexual poses, often in pairs and groups, writhing about, touching themselves or each other in a sexual way and often on the cover. The same images appear on the cover and inside Esquire, FHM, Maxim, Front, Nuts, Zoo and of course, Loaded, which was the first such 'lad mag' to claim that a juvenile attitude to women and sex is cool.

These women are often described as topless, but they are invariably naked or wearing just a thong with their arses in the air or pulling their pants down. The cover of FHM's November issue featured Paris Hilton naked and bound in microphone lead. Her expression is so eerily lifeless and her body so airbrushed that she resembles a blow up doll more than a human being. Dehumanisation is, of course, the intention. This is pornography; the bondage pose is borrowed from hardcore 'deviant' porn, the most heavily demanded on the internet. And despite these publications' representation of women as 'normal' and 'respectable', there are people, women and men, who refuse to accept it. There are people who refuse to accept the normalisation of porn.

you cannot avoid it - that's why we are protesting

Catherine Harper is an ordinary woman who got so sick of having porn shoved in her face when she was in her newsagent or garage that she decided to act. She acts because she sees the damage porn can do to women, to relationships, to children, young people and everyone else who doesn't want the sexual objectification and degradation of women relentlessly enforced on their lives. She set up Scottish Women Against Pornography (SWAP) and is campaigning to get pornography (and that includes lad mags), out of newsagents and garages and into licensed sex shops. Catherine says,

"Erotica is about mutuality, respect and equality. Porn by definition is about control, abuse and power. The covers of these mags are more explicit than 'top shelf' or other recognised pornographic magazines and yet they are sold in supermarkets on the middle shelf. You cannot avoid them - that's why we are protesting. People have a civic right not to have the sexual objectification of women forced into view when they're going about their daily lives."

Damian Carnell from Nottinghamshire Domestic Violence Forum agrees. His work includes training male perpetrators of domestic violence and sex offenders about the lessons porn teaches them, about its effects on conditioning their perception of women. He teaches school children about domestic violence, too. Damian sees the way in which lad mags are displayed directly above girl teen magazines and younger children's comics to be of great concern. Tackling the charge that lads mags are 'lifestyle' publications, he says,

"The primary subject of all 'lad mags' is the sexual objectification of women, demeaning sexual attitudes towards women and gratuitous activity such as 'gang bangs' which for the women and girls forced through the ordeal is 'gang rape'. This is one of the problems with these and all forms of heterosexual pornography. It is the education of rape as a form of sex for men to enjoy and expect women and girls to enjoy too. 'Lad mags' advertise other types of pornography, including Internet porn sites. Mainstream porn is so inter-twined with child pornography and 'snuff' pornography, so in the words of Andrea Dworkin, "if you want to defend pornography, know what it is you are defending". 'Lad mags' are influential to the continuum of male violence against women, including sexual and domestic violence, teenage pregnancy and the pressure on girls and women to use body-changing surgery. I don't understand that as lifestyle, do you?"

Other voices of protest include Spalding Women Against Pornography, a brave trio, based in Lincolnshire, who have set up an anti-porn movement and experienced considerable media coverage. One founder is a grandmother who was deeply concerned about the material young children are exposed to, without choice. Their current focus is on child protection from pornography. A new Irish group, called Freedom From Pornography has formed to emphasise that we have the right to be free from porn in our daily lives and London Radical Cheerleaders, set up in London, are a new proactive group using the Cheerleader vehicle to challenge sexism in a fun, but highly thought-provoking way. Their challenging chants have proved to be a big hit in many schools.

It is the Pressure group Object, however, which is gaining considerable momentum in its campaign against lad mags. Object stand for "Women Not Sex Objects" and campaign against the sexual objectification of women in the media and advertising. When they compared FHM and Playboy magazines, they found that FHM contains more porn than Playboy and Playboy contains more lifestyle than FHM; that Playboy's attitude to women is more respectful and FHM's more demeaning.

they're forced into our view when we're buying a pint of milk, sweets, or groceries

While lad mag editors deny they are peddling porn, no-one can dispute that they sell copies using images of naked or mostly naked women in highly sexual poses. The women are sexually objectified at every turn for the male gaze. And these images are in our faces every day; they're forced into our view when we're buying a pint of milk, sweets, or groceries. They are left lying around houses for children to see. Newspaper porn is located below the children's and teen magazines in newsagents.

Object campaign against the presence of lad mags such as Nuts and Zoo at the counter, where they are sold for £1.20 and at one time cost 60p - pocket money prices. Coverlines about football heroes and issues of interest to tweenage and teenage boys are mixed in between the naked women. On the 10-16 June 2005 issue of Nuts the coverlines 'Incredible new Batmobile' and 'Amazing photos of babes getting together' appeared beside several photos of pairs of girls touching each other sexually. But whether these publications are intentionally marketed at teenage boys isn't the point; the number of teenage boys who buy them isn't the point. What matters is that there's no way that children and teenagers can escape exposure to them. They can see them everywhere, can buy them easily and browse through them easily. Which of course, they do. And their message to men and boys is the same: women are sex objects; they're always gagging for it; and they're there to jerk off to. And that this is the normal, respectable order of things.

According to Catherine Harper,

"Lad mags are an example of this normalisation process - you buy your porn with your pasta. A few years ago this would have been unthinkable. Porn is forever pushing the boundaries of what people will tolerate and you can see the desensitisation process in action. It's because women's voices are routinely censored that we don't hear what women have to say. The porn industry works hard to try and normalise the production and consumption of inequality that is, pornography. The portrayal of women and sexuality in these publications represents a major watershed in our culture's blasè acceptance of the objectification of the female body through images of humiliation and degradation."

And it is images of degradation. As Loaded editor Martin Daubney said of Abi Titmuss, "She'll do subservient poses with her arse in the air that other girls won't do."

there's no way that children and teenagers can escape exposure to them

The Daily Sport has taken the promotion of seeking voyeuristic power over women to another level entirely. The Daily Sport largely consists of advertisements for hardcore pornographic videos and photographs sent to your mobile, Dogging Clubs, in which members can have sex with strangers across the UK and sex chat lines. Typical ads from the May 31 2005 edition are selling 'Virgin/Teenager', 'XXX teens', 'Take off my school uniform' and 'Slutty young girls' wearing school ties. There are at least 663 pornographic images of women. The Daily Sport is promoted in hardcore pornography mail out catalogues. Its website is blatantly pornographic. "It is effectively, a noticeboard for the sex industry, " say Object. "It is not a newspaper."

The Daily Sport covers regularly feature close-up shots of women's genital areas and buttocks barely covered in underwear that are presented and celebrated as if the women have been caught unawares by the Sport's very own 'Peeping Tom' invariably referred to in the coverline. This probably doesn't help its readers to understand that under the Sexual Offences Act of 2003, non-consenual voyeurism is a criminal offence.

The Daily Sport labels itself as a 'newspaper' and a woman's vagina caught close up and barely covered by underwear is its front page 'news'. The Daily Sport can be found alongside newspapers at a low level in newsagents and consequently, everyone, including children is frequently forced to view its cover. Pornographic material belongs in pornographic retailers, not in newsagents and not in supermarkets which are family environments.

In November 2005, Object sent a copy of the Sport to every MP in the country asking why it is being sold as a newspaper on the bottom shelf for children to see. They asked their 300 supporters of men and women to do the same. Object's Sport campaign concides with the government consultation to review the Obscene Publications Act and has been met with a supportive response from MPs of all parties. Labour MP Claire Curtis-Thomas is trying to introduce a 10 minute rule bill this month, asking MPs why the Sport, lad mags and 'men's lifestyle' magazines can be sold on the bottom shelf and raising the issue of the lack of regulation.

pornographic material belongs in pornographic retailers, not in newsagents or supermarkets

In their research challenging the portrayal of women as sexual commodities, Object found that even page three girls are no different to so many teenage girls and women - that they are obsessively insecure about their appearance. And as popular culture overly sexualises women, young girls compare themselves to women with fake breasts, fake hair and eating disorders. What an insane ideal to live up to. They're left with poor self image, which equals poor self esteem. Selling women as sex objects completely overlooks women as human beings. This can only be harmful to society. Object suggest that anyone who wants to throw in the 'But it's empowering to women' argument, should ask themselves if it's so empowering why don't men do it? Indeed why are one in three women raped, beaten, coerced into sex or otherwise abused in their lifetime? WHY is rape so popular?

"Freedom of expression does not come without responsibility and should always be limited by its potential for harm", says Object's chair, Jennifer Drew. "Leading research continues to show the immense power of the media/porn/sex industry to negatively impact on women - and men.

Double standards

So, while teenage boys are getting the message that women are tits and arse to get you off, that sex is only ever a purely physical and emotionless act, teenage girls are being given a romantic ideal of 'lads' and love. In Bliss and Sugar, girls' magazines, sex must be safe, respectful and age restricted, preferably with a nice, committed boy. Oh, and boys are sweeties. In response to this disparity, Object are calling for magazines read by teenage boys to be subjected to the same strict regulations as magazines read by teenage girls. At present, the Teenage Magazine Arbitration Panel (TMAP) - set up by the Home Office - only regulates magazines sold to teen girls and not, as the name implies, to all teenagers. So while the sexual content, imagery and language of Bliss, Mizz, Sugar, Cosmo Girl et all is regulated, 'Lad mags', which are deemed adult material even by their publishers, are getting away with sexual explicitness and a worryingly disrespectful, irresponsible attitude towards women and sex.

where can teenage boys learn to engage with women as equals?

Both men and women enjoy purely physical sex, and both benefit from loving, mutually respectful relationships, one in which they are valued by their partner as a human being as well as for their looks. Sex with an emotional connection symbolises this value - and it can be hot. But where can teenage boys and young men learn this? Where can they learn that engaging with a woman as an equal is an alternative to the cheap, illusory voyeuristic power offered by the likes of Zoo and Nuts - an alternative that has the power to make them feel good about themselves in a real way?

"Double standards being applied to teen girls and teen boys sexual education are clear," say Object. "In fact, the widespread display and consumption of lads mags wholly undermines TMAP's work in sexually educating and empowering young women by reducing such women to sexual objects in the eyes of boys and men. And in sexual relations it is still the boy, and his views, who holds the power."

TMAP's guidelines for coverage of sexual subject matter in teenage magazines show the double standards in play. Guideline 3.7 reads "It is recognised that magazines have an important role to play in the field of sex education for, and emotional development of, teenagers." 3.1 stipulates, "Readers will always be encouraged to take a responsible attitude to sex and contraception"; 3.2 that 'If sex is being discussed, then safer sex will be highlighted and encouraged wherever relevant' 3.5 that "The emotional consequences of sexual activity will be highlighted where relevant"; and my personal favourite 4.7 which reads, "All published responses to letters on problem pages will be provided by relevant, professionally qualified advisors. Relevant qualifications will be approved by TMAP." Er, let's see: Nuts and Zoo readers can get their sex tips from Abi Titmuss and Michelle Marsh and Loaded's sex advice comes from porn legend Ron Jeremy.

"Clearly, it needs to be considered very carefully why teen girls' reading and sexual education is to be sensibly regulated whilst teen boys are left to yet further extremes in imagery, content and culture," argue Object. If TMAP, the Home Office, or indeed, parliament are genuinely concerned with teenage sexual health, teen pregnancies, abusive and coercive sexual relationships then the issue of lads mags has to be addressed now."

double standards being applied to teen girls and teen boys

Object want to see, urgently, TMAP or an equivalent body regulating the sexual content of all magazines that are not displayed or sold as 'adult'. They say: "If lads mags are not to fall under this regulation then they need to be sold and displayed responsibly - on the top shelf, covered so that only their title is visible and wrapped so that they cannot be flicked through in-store. A call for 'lads mags' on the top shelf would receive vast popular support and is fully supported by children's charities, such as KIDSCAPE."

Protests against the pornofication of culture

Newspaper pornography is contributing to the pornofication of popular culture, a culture in which The Advertising Standards Authority reckon it's perfectly normal for little girls to get their dads to take them to Madame Tussaurds on the pretext of seeing Britney pole-dance, or for the Teenage Cancer Trust to imitate porn cum shots in their campaign for using suncream. A culture in which Virgin Atlantic think 'Pimp My Lounge' is really great when the UK, like the rest of Europe, is full of young girls and women being raped 20-30 times a day in 'massage parlours' because their 'pimps' threaten to kill them and their families if they dare escape. Pimping children and women is a global trade that brings in more revenue than any trade except drugs or arms. The criminal underworld is fattening itself on the buying and selling of female bodies. There is nothing funny or ironic about using a word that means men brutalising children and women into sexual slavery.

The normalisation of porn is damaging to young girls' perception of being female and young boys' perception of females and of what it is to be male. It is a real and critical issue and its consequences are far-reaching. It breeds low self-esteem and obsessive insecurities about appearance in girls leading to lower rates of achievement, higher rates of depression, anorexia, self-harm and suicide. Newspaper pornography is also damaging to the safety of women; it contributes to the current culture of disrespect and violence against women. The links between pornography, which largely dehumanises and degrades women and eroticises violence against women, and actual violent crime, are well documented by women's groups such as SWAP. Hardcore porn is filling the gap in sex education. We must question why reports of teen pack rape are on the rise and ask where is this learned from? Hardcore porn, where rape is sold as entertainment. This situation is not acceptable. Sexism, like racism, is a human rights issue and should be treated as such.

Damian Carnell says,

"In Britain 1 in 2 young women are sexually abused by the time they have reached the age of 18. 1 in 5 women will experience rape at some point in their life and 1 in 5 men admit to downloading pornography at work. In Britain the average age of a boy's first exposure to Internet porn is 11. Research has already proven that pornography is used by sex offenders leading up to and as part of their abuse. When offenders are put in prison they are still allowed to use pornography for their fantasies in prison. Research has proven that exposure to pornography influences jury decisions in rape cases so that the man gets away with it. It is no wonder then that the increased mainstreaming of pornography, through lad mags, TV and sex chat lines has led to a drop in rape convictions and an increase of gang rapes, 'spit roasting' and 'donkey kicks' (a more extreme version of 'riding bare back'). There has been no age restriction for purchasing 'lad mags', which means boys of any age can buy them, exposing the next generation to dangerous and harmful attitudes and activities."

Catherine Harper is also deeply worried about the messages we are communicating to future generations, saying:

"The long-term impact on children and young people is unknown but the signs are there. The 2002 case of the 11 French school boys who allegedly gang raped a girl in their class and thought their behaviour was normal, shows that we can't ignore the influence of porn. In France, exposure to hardcore porn begins early on, nearly half of children have seen an adult film by the age of eleven. And teen gang rape is on the rise. The absence of a comprehensive sex education programme in schools needs to be addressed. This gap is being filled by pornography and we need to understand what it is teaching young men about sex and relationships. I think it must be incredibly difficult for young boys growing up, to speak out against these magazines that are perceived as so normal. Peer pressure means boys who may not think lad mags are cool fear being bullied, or seen as gay or a freak."

Public pressure has had some effect. Tesco, Sainsbury's and Somerfield's decision to place the more sexually explicit 'lad mags' and men's magazines on higher shelves with their covers obscured is a start. At least readers of Barbie and Bob the Builder won't have them shoved in their faces. Marks and Spencer have removed 'lads mags' from some stores. And Damian Carnell who successfully petitioned the Coop with nearly 200 signatures says, "The Coop has now put an age restriction on the purchase of 'lad mags' after I took the issue up with the police that pornographic material was being sold to boys. Yet the Coop (who seemingly takes pride in their claim of being ethical and against exploitation) is still buying into the culture of sexual exploitation and is in breech of its own Procedure Guide, which states that no publications will be stocked where the primary subject is sex or of gratuitous activity."

The sex education gap is being filled by pornography

But regulation should not be up to the retailers. Nor is it acceptable to leave it to bodies that self-regulate. The government cite freedom of expression to avoid accountability for regulation. It gives ethnic minorities the legal protection of incitement to racial hatred and rightly so. Racially offensive material is strictly regulated and the Public Order Act 1986 makes it an offence to use threatening, abusive or insulting words or behaviour or to display threatening, abusive or insulting material, with the intention of stirring up racial hatred. They have no problem curbing freedom of expression about ethnic minorities. Ethnic minorities have protective legislation against racist material or language that is perceived to be racist. Why aren't women granted the same legislation and rights against sexist material? Object ask, "Is there any more evidence to suggest that racist material is harmful than there is for sexist material?" and point out that freedom of expression is so heavily regulated in other areas, defamity for example, saying, "it would seem someone's reputation is more valuable than a woman's health, well being or even life!"

Why is gender hatred not an offence? One straw poll estimates 70% of young women are harassed on the streets, and the editorial in lad mags is full of blatant misogyny. The women featured only talk about their body parts or their looks or sexual fantasies. They are only allowed to be sex objects. Nuts labelled Ellen MacArthur a "miserable, sobbing, whining bitch in a boat ... basically a frigid-dyke-looking, yachting cunt." Like a nasty little school boy, Zoo described Courtney Love as having "nasty, lumpy breasts", remarking that she "had an awful lot of sex' with her dodgy ''previous owners''. The contradictions are so school boyish too. Lad mags want women who are sexually voracious and gagging for it with as many men as possible (take Annabel Chong, a porn heroine) but they must be virgins. Courtney Love, who is sexually aggressive and does it on her own terms, is way too frightening for them.

As we watch sex crime soar, attitudes towards women as one dimensional sex objects soar and respect for women as human beings regress, I wonder when is regulation - respect for women and girls' safety and lives no less - going to be addressed? Catherine Harper says, "I think that lads mags are also about a backlash against women gaining true equality with men. Women are being sold submission as sexual liberation. If you want to know women's real status in society - look at the spreads in these magazines." Many feminist groups believe it is no accident that the porn explosion started around the same time as the feminist wave of the seventies did. That men are fighting back very hard, that pornography is political.

women are being sold submission as sexual liberation

Scottish Women Against Pornography have had some success in lobbying the Scottish Executive, which is considering their petition to review Obscenity Laws based on harm and pornography as incitement to sexual hatred and to make such incitement an offence similar to racial hatred. More than a 1,000 people have signed their petition against the sale and display of pornography. At Westminster, the Obscene Publications Act (1959) is currently under review. Under this Act, it is illegal to display images of naked or partially naked women in sexually provocative poses on public hoardings. Why not lad mags, which we are forced to view in public spaces? We can change attitudes about porn by understanding the damage it does to society. Only the government can bring outdated legislation out of the 1950's and into the present. And for those who think it is wrong to censor the press, consider the words of Clare Short when, after receiving thousands of supportive and moving letters from British women, introduced her Bill to ban page 3: "The British press is owned by a very small number of extremely rich men. It seems quite extraordinary to suggest that that small number of people can define freedom while the rest of us are not allowed to impose some constraints on what they print and circulate,"

Growing opposition

Opposition to the culture of porn and its links to sexual violence is swelling. The recent Amnesty Report on attitudes to rape showed how far deeply ingrained sexist beliefs still prevail. Women who wear short skirts, flirt, drink and have had more than one sexual partner are held responsible by a large section of society for the horrific misogynist crimes of rapists.

Jennifer Drew of Truth About Rape believes that lad mags normalise male sexual violence and affect public perception of what is supposedly 'normal female sexuality.' She says: "It is not surprising that rape convictions are now at an all-time low of just 5.6% given these magazines portray female sexuality as a commodity, to be used, abused and then discarded. Women and teenage girls are defined as all 'gagging' for [it], in order to attain male sexual gratification. Even lesbian sexuality has been co-opted in order to promote misognystic messages. Given these magazines' reinforce pornographic messages that female sexuality is solely for the sexual gratification of men and teenage boys, it is not surprising that so many rape survivors continue to be disbelieved. These magazines portray misogynstic views of female sexuality as normal and since these magazines are widely available, it is not surprising they reinforce embedded rape myths. Yet this is called female sexual empowerment!"

even lesbian sexuality has been co-opted in order to promote misognystic messages

Finn Mackay, the founder and chair of London Feminist Network organised the Reclaim the Night march, with Isabel Eden and Becca Morden, on Friday 25th November, International Day to end Violence Against Women. 700 women braved the cold night to reclaim their right to feel safe from male violence. The march passed Spearmint Rhino - this march was about women reclaiming their sexuality for themselves, too.

London Radical Cheerleaders led the march, a group who use cheerleading to encourage the public to engage in discussing accepted ideologies about women's sexuality. They say, "It is not surprising that this current sexualisation of British culture is coinciding with the lowest ever rape conviction rates while reported rapes are on the rise."

For Finn Mackay, "It's not that 'sex' is everywhere these days - pornography is everywhere these days. The two are very different, though the mission of men's magazines is to persuade us otherwise. Rape narratives lie at the heart of all porn, from page 3, to tabloid covers, to lad mags, the young women in various objectifying and demeaning poses that say 'do what you want to me, I like it'. The 'yes' in porn is our shared consent - to a society where one in three women will be sexually assaulted, where last year there were an estimated 94,000 rapes and a falling conviction rate, currently around 5%. And lest we forget these facts, mainstream, pervasive porn in tabloids, magazines and adverts are there to remind us that we have every reason to be afraid. It is not because women are so close to equality that we 'laugh' at the mainstreaming of porn and misogyny, its because we are so far from equality that we have no choice. The fact is that misogyny, objectification and sexual violence are not funny, women never said they were; men said it, and 'free speech' sanctifies their right to do so, while we pay the price. Any concerned citizen should be very worried about the normalising of porn and misogyny in such publications, we should not be silent. We should take them off the shelves, we should rip them up, we should shout a loud 'NO' to what these images represent. Because as long as the only answer we have to our own oppression is to laugh at it, embrace it, see the "irony" in it - basically accept it and shut up - we will never have equality."

About the author

Rachel Bell

Rachel Bell is a journalist and feminist.

Author's Articles | Author's Website

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