Rape, rhetoric and research: a reluctant defence of lad mags

Posted on 11 December, 2011 by

Who wants to be an apologist for lad mags? Not me. Reading them (which I do semi-regularly for work reasons) is a distinctly grimy and tedious experience, thanks to their special mix of joyless boobery, football news I’ve already heard and summaries of things I saw on the internet weeks ago.

Remember when Zoo got monstered over a Danny Dyer advice column that suggested a correspondent “cut [his] ex’s face”? I posted the horrified twitpic that started that round of outrage. I don’t like lad mags, and they probably wouldn’t like me much, if they had any opinion on me at all. So I basically hate having to say what I’m about to say, but: lad mags have been treated unfairly in the most recent accounts of their vileness.

According to (not yet published) research by psychologists from Middlesex University and the University of Surrey, “when presented with descriptions of women taken from lads’ mags, and comments about women made by convicted rapists, most people […] could not distinguish the source of the quotes.” This is alarming: if mass-market magazines are using the language of rapists, it’s disturbingly plausible that these publications are indoctrinating readers in the logic of rape – and even priming some of their audience to become rapists.

The Guardian was “shocked“; Jezebel was “disturbed“. But these reactions don’t seem to be based on the research itself, but on the press release. Without a detailed account of the study design, evaluating its conclusions is a rum business. There are hints, though, that it may not be perfectly robust.

In the press release, it’s said that the participants were shown quotes from rapists and quotes from lad mags, but there’s no mention of a control group. I am no expert in psychology research, but this strikes me as odd. Without a third class of quotations – descriptions of women from non-rapist men, perhaps – this research can demonstrate that rapists and lad mags use the same language, but not that this is distinctly “the language of sexual offenders”. It might just be the language of men (though I sincerely hope it isn’t).

By publishing the conclusions in advance of the actual study, the researchers seem to have prioritised ideological impact over academic rigour. And this is really, really annoying for someone like me who is actually interested in learning how close sexist lad mags and rapists are in their rhetoric, and whether dehumanising language can incite dehumanising attitudes.

Instead, the research will be cited by those who already agree with it, dismissed by those who don’t (on the grounds that it’s only a press release, after all) and forgotten about completely when the study comes out. This is just not good enough. If you’re interested in preventing violence against women, you should be interested in minutely scrutinising the evidence – otherwise, we (by which I mean feminists) end up squandering time and attention campaigning for causes that have no basis in fact.

And there’s some other research that’s worth taking into account here: lad mags aren’t quite the defining voice of masculine culture that these reports have suggested. According to August’s ABCs, this year the classic Loaded-style lad mags got yet another horrible punch in the circulation figures, with Nuts, Zoo and FHM shedding between around a quarter and a third of their readers. (Loaded, the progenitor of the lifestyle-and-knockers publications, doesn’t even touch the top ten in men’s interest titles.) Lad mags are repugnant for sure, but you shouldn’t believe everything you read about them this week.

Text © Sarah Ditum, 2011; photo by Holster®, used under Creative Commons

Posted in: feminism, Media, Science