News & Politics

Why Do Men's Magazines Sound Like Rapists?

Why does the language of young men's magazines sound creepily like the language of rapists?

A man holds the Portuguese Playboy Magazine on July 10 in Lisbon. Penthouse magazine owner FriendFinder Networks announced a 210-million-dollar bid Thursday for Playboy Enterprises, publisher of the iconic men's magazine.
Photo Credit: AFP/File - Patricia de Melo Moreira

“You do not want to be caught red-handed...go and smash her on a park bench. That used to be my trick.” (-- from a lads', or young men's, mag)

“You know girls in general are all right. But some of them are bitches....The bitches are the type that...need to have it stuffed to them hard and heavy.” (-- from convicted rapist)

Do these descriptions sound too close for comfort?

Descriptions of women from convicted rapists and from magazines targeting young men in Britain – “lads’ mags” – are indistinguishable, according to a new study slated for publication in the British Journal of Psychology. Researchers from the University of Surrey and Middlesex University name this as the magazines’ dangerous normalization of “extreme sexist views by presenting those views in a mainstream context.”

Magazines like Zoo, FHM, Nuts, and Loaded are low-budget UK counterparts to Maxim, Stuff, GQ, and Esquire: their angle on the world is told through high-gloss “sexy girls, news, and men’s fashion,” to borrow FHM’s tagline. Not classified as pornography since the images feature partial clothing, these kinds of magazines are widely available in Europe, the U.S. and Australia. The four British magazines were parsed for their language in describing women, alongside quotations taken from The Rapist File: Interviews With Convicted Rapists by Les Sussman and Sally Bordwell. (All quotes in the study were from men convicted of raping women.)

The study also found that most male participants (92 men, ages 18-46) identified themselves with the language expressed by the men convicted of raping women, so long as the quotations were attributed to lads’ mags, rather than rapists. They changed their minds once the source of the quote was revealed. In another portion of the study, researchers asked a group of 20 women and 20 men, ages 19-30, to rank a set of quotes on how derogatory the quotes were, and to try to identify their source. Both men and women rated the quotes from lads’ mags as more derogatory than those of the convicted rapists, and they couldn't do better than guess about the source of the quotes; the accuracy rate was a little more than 50 percent.

When trying to attribute quotes to either lads’ mags or rapists, the study’s participants “voiced theories about what is normal and what is extreme.” Their high error rate indicates that there is not actually much difference. And the finding that men are more likely to identify with quotes attributed to lads’ mags, whether the source of the quote was indeed a magazine or a convicted rapist, reveals that lads’ mags do serve a legitimizing role for dangerous attitudes.

“[This] signifies that degree to which the lads’ mags media reflect the darkest and most unhealthy aspects of contemporary masculinity,” said Hugo Schwyzer, a history and gender studies professor at Pasadena City College.

Schwyzer suggested that the study provokes a debate about whether the likes of Zoo and FHM are initiating these degrading views of women in men, or if they are merely reflecting what’s already there. But, he says, even the act of mirroring “gives permission to these views. It normalizes them.”

Which certainly doesn’t mean that most men are rapists.

“This isn’t about attacking individual men,” Schwyzer said. “Most men are good guys. But most men also marinate in a toxic soup of misogyny.”

The UK study has room for critique: it is drawing from a relatively small sample size, primarily drawn from campus communities. There is no control group: that is, no way of distinguishing how men describe women outside of the scope of lads’ mags and convicted rapists. Given the nature of the study, where researchers presumed sexism in both the language of lads’ mags and the convicted rapists, study participants would have had to indicate they did not at all identify with any presented quotations in order to not be considered sexist in terms of the study. That seems reasonable, but by virtue of taking part in a study that includes a questionnaire, it seems reasonable that there is a subtle pressure for participants to change up their answers, rather than give the same response to each item.  A control group could have helped sort out some of the confusion.

The study relies heavily on The Rapist File, a book self-published through iUniverse that draws from interviews with 15 incarcerated men. Neither of its authors appears to have any kind of background or affiliation in research, social science, crime, or investigative journalism. Les Sussman’s other books include evangelical titles and books about pets. His other collaborations with Sally Bordwell include a cookbook and an “ex-smoker’s survival guide.” The British researchers did not include in their forthcoming journal article their reasons for believing The Rapist File to be a trusted source for the language convicted rapists use to describe women.

A thorough followup to this study should feature a more expansive survey group, a control group, and quotations from interviews with convicted rapists that the research team conducted themselves, so they can verify the language. Or, at least, it should draw from interviews that have been more substantively vetted.

Sarah Ditum, a British journalist, also questions the researchers’ tactic of distributing a press release before the full study was published online or in print, and wonders whether they “prioritized ideological impact over academic rigor.” She also casts doubt on whether these magazines are really the “defining voice of masculine culture” that the study – or, at least, commentary about the study -- implies they are.

What does seem valid is the researchers’ suggestion that men are turning to lads’ mags in search of instruction and advice about sex. (Loaded magazine’s tagline: “For men who should know better.”) “In our world, we value men who are good at what they do,” Schwyzer said. “It almost doesn’t matter what it is they do.”

These magazines are one of the few venues where men can find instruction about sexuality, particularly considering the limitations of sex education programs and what is considered legitimate to ask one’s peers and family.

“Lads’ mags equip people to at least appear competent,” Schwyzer said.

“We think that young people need good sex education that acknowledges the full range of media to which they now have access,” said Dr. Miranda Horvath and Dr. Peter Hegarty, two of the study’s researchers, in a joint interview with AlterNet. “Recent studies suggest that adolescents cite magazines as their favored and most dependable resource for sexual education. We should look to young people themselves to tell us what they need in this context.”

Schwyzer emphasized the importance for men to make a point of diversifying the media they consume so that they “have another reality to see.” After all, most men aren’t satisfied with how they are represented in certain media as “biologically handicapped creatures fixated on sex and conquest, athletic prowess and getting loaded. Most men really do want something else.”

He added that young men turn to these magazines in part because “older men have completely abandoned younger men. We’re not there to share information. Lads’ mags become a father figure, an initiator. It reflects a failure of an older generation of men.”

Besides cultivating better sex education, both in personal relationships and in public programs, the study hopes to shame the editors and owners of lads’ mags to rein in their language. The researchers note in the forthcoming publication of their report that editors often dismiss sexist content as being “ironic,” negating the magazines’ influence on readers.

But, they write, “(s)exist humour may be interpreted as harmless irony by some men and not by others. For example, men who are more sexist find sexist jokes funnier … and disparaging humour about women creates a context in which the expression of sexism becomes the social norm … For these reasons, editors’ claims about the social consequences of the content of lads’ mags ought not themselves to be taken at face value.”

In the article, researchers draw a parallel of this dismissal of sexism as accusers making a big deal out of nothing with the way rapists shift blame to their victims -- “by describing women as seductresses, by claiming that ‘no’ means ‘yes’, by arguing that most women eventually ‘relax and enjoy it’ and by insisting that nice girls do not get raped.”

As circulation numbers take a hit – Schwyzer thinks this may be due to social media making more alternative instruction and “initiators” available to young men – lads’ mags appear to be doubling down on their vile language as a way to stand out. Danny Dyer’s advice column in Zoo, for example, suggested last year that a brokenhearted 23-year-old reader “cut his ex's face, so no one will want her.” The backlash was enormous: Dyer was compelled to apologize and Zoo blamed the fiasco on a “production error.”

This new study adds fuel to the campaign for lads’ mags to take more responsibility for what they print. And others are getting into the game as well: last February, many major British supermarket chains and gas stations started displaying lads’ mags on the top shelf, some behind a “modesty board,” so that children are less likely to encounter them.

Dr. Horvath and Dr. Hegarty say they are “delighted that we have been the catalyst for a broad-ranging discussion about hostile sexism in lads’ mags that has included feminists, lawyers, parents, socialists, pornographers, sex educators, journalists, and policymakers.” It’s a worthy discussion, but hardly a complete one.

Anna Clark's writing has appeared in The American Prospect, Utne Reader, Hobart, and Writers' Journal, among other publications. She is the editor of the literary and social justice Web site, Isak.
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