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

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

5 thoughts on “Rape, rhetoric and research: a reluctant defence of lad mags

  1. Yep, some good points. I also wondered about the ‘rapist’s words’ coming from an American book – all the steps between what sort of words were chosen for publication and who did the choosing. The American prison system has some weird dynamics with their use of media in relation to the penal system and psychology/psychiatry. The whole thing just looks flimsier & became a kind of ‘shock meme’ as the information went around in shorter forms of tweets and blogs, without the information you’ve provided here being appended. With the low conviction rate for rapists in the UK and that the types of rape people are convicted for, I’d have thought that would produce a weird bias, let alone getting language from the States. Badly done. Not good for women, science or the understanding of a distressing act. Or why ‘lads mags’ aren’t liked by some people.

  2. They also found that young men were more ready to identify with words they thought came from publications that the ones they thought came from convicted rapists. To me, this doesn’t prove anything more than the fairly well-known phenomenon of ad-hominem bias and the fact that even ‘young men’ really, really don’t like rapists.

    There’s nothing particularly surprising here, and certainly nothing of headline quality.

  3. Nice to see someone thinking past the headlines and asking how research was conducted rather than just reacting blindly to the headlines.
    Re similarities between comments made by rapists and quotes from lads mags, I think any similarities are probably more apparant than real. I don’t want to comment on lads mags since I’ve never read one, but I think you can discount the majority of comments made by lads about women. Most of them aren’t really aimed at women at all, they tend instead to be about competition between young men as to who’s the most macho, libidinous and testosterone packed. I suspect even the young men concerned don’t take it all that seriously and if they were being really honest, they might even admit to being a bit embarassed about some of the dumb comments they’ve made. (I don’t base this on any scientific research, just my own recollection of having been a young man myself).
    So when it comes to stupid quotes about women in lads mags I think they’re probably going to be offensive, but not necessarily a very accurate indicator of how lads actually think, feel or behave towards women.
    Maybe I’m an optimist.

  4. It is quite a spurious connection to make. Rapists are subject to the same culture as ‘normal’ young lads, so their use of particular phrases is meaningless without knowing the full story behind them. The KKK, for example, disapprove of the word “n*****”, but that hardly makes them a charitable organisation.

    What bothers me most about lad mags is there’s nothing out there FOR boys of a certain age after they stop reading the Beano anymore. When I was that age, you’d generally read Smash Hits, football mags or whatever whereas now the only option is to have fake tits shoved at them from the age of 12.

    Mind you, we didn’t have the internet then ;-)

  5. Thanks for this. It reminded me not to assume that the people writing in blogs and magazines that I like are always being critical.

Comments are closed.