Political Promise

Should we ban Lads Mags?

In Vicky Wong on February 12, 2011 at 6:13 pm

Vicky Wong describes the furore over the sale of “lads mags” at her Student Union and questions whether or not they should be banned.

Last year at the Reading University Student’s Union (RUSU), a campaign was launched by the Union’s Women’s representation group to ban the sale of “lads mags” within the Union’s shops. Talk of the campaign proliferated on Facebook, and was the subject of much heated debate in the run up to the democratic forum, Student Voice, where it was proposed as a motion by Rose Harvey, President of Women’s representation at RUSU.

The campaign was based on how these publications portrayed women, and was brought to the attention of the group after female students alerted them to the availability of these publications on campus. RUSU’s female representation group cited such publications as derogatory and objectifies women as sexual objects. The women’s campaign cited RUSU in their campaign’s promotional literature as “a bastion of equality and diversity, a space where all women can be free to be themselves” and that the availability of such publications was an embarrassment to the University of Reading.

Everything soon spiralled into a debate over a conflict of rights; the right of women not to be objectified in a sexual manner against freedom of speech and the right to purchase what they want. The event also raised questions such as “Does this ban extend to magazines such as Cosmopolitan which targets and also objectifies women?” and “What of celebrity magazines such as Heat which also objectify men?”

The motion was negatively received at the forum by both male and female students attending the event, and the fact that the campaign received such a negative reaction from a lot of female students surprised those proposing the motion.

In an informal interview with Miss Harvey and Nadine Michaels (a committee member of the Women’s representation group), we discussed whether or not women’s lifestyle magazines negatively objectified women. Both argued that such magazines were a celebration of women, and in no way objectified men. On the contrary, Cosmopolitan portrayed men as more respectful figures towards women, and have been actively involved in raising awareness for male charities, such as their Everyman campaign in 2008, which aimed to raise awareness of prostate cancer.

In a University where the student population is at least 17,000 and where the average turnout for democratic events ranges from 30 to 50 (exempting elections for sabbatical officers), the ban was not passed in a vote that saw 525 students vote, 419 of which voted against the motion. Why turnout was unusually high on this particular occasion can be in part attributed to the negative publicity the campaign accumulated on Facebook, in particular by a group under the name “Vote NO to the ban of men’s lifestyle magazines in RUSU! No censorship!” In the run up to Student Voice, messages were sent out to members of the Facebook group reminding members to “vote NO”. Correspondence also included phrases such as: “Vote to stop this disgusting attack on free speech… if it passes a tiny lobby group will have been able to successfully dictate to the entire university what can and cannot be sold in our student shop”, further contending that the campaign disregarded the intelligence and rationality of Reading students to make up their own minds.

It appears ironic that a student body, which claims to represent freedom of speech and expression, voted last year to have a no platform policy to prohibit Fascist organisations from entering campus. Although some may argue, women’s representation groups and fascist organisations are two completely different things, it is nevertheless still the same principle, and if students are rational enough to decide whether or not to buy a lads mag, then surely students are rational enough to decide whether to agree or disagree with speakers from fascist organisations.

What was remarkable about the forum was that very few people stopped to ask about the basic mathematics: “How many of these lads mags have been sold and what should we replace them with?”

RUSU is a not for profit organisation, meaning that the money spent on the goods and services provided within the union is then passed onto student services. Through the use of Twitter, I asked the sabbatical officers how many of these publications were sold, 25 were sold since the beginning of term. This figure can be interpreted in a number of ways; either 25 students have purchased a lads mag or one student has bought 25 and shared them amongst 50 people.

Either way, it is impossible to measure exactly whether or not these publications have had a negative effect on the way in which women are treated or perceived within the university.

One student emphasised that instead of focusing on negative images, women should be celebrated for the contributions they make in the University. Examples cited included the sabbatical team (four out of five of which are female), and the student newspaper, Spark, in which 15 out of 25 members of the editorial team, are women. Whether or not these publications are banned, it is clear that women by and large are very active and respected in the University and the local community for the contribution they make.

I was one of these people who voted against the ban, as a journalist I did not approve of the idea of censorship of free speech. But that is probably it; the fact that those specific words were used to describe this campaign gauged such fierce and negative reception led everyone to believe that the campaign was intrinsically wrong, and many went in having had their minds made up for them.

Although disappointed with the outcome, it was agreed by Miss Harvey, Miss Michaels and myself that one cannot help but feel grateful that we do live in a democracy and that we are able to have these types of debates. That a large number of female students were robustly against the campaign made me realise this; how we as women take for granted the fact that we are able to offer so much more to society than our predecessors were able to in their ongoing struggle for equal treatment with men. Not only this, but the freedom of association was quite important here; that so many women were opposed to the campaign and argued that the women’s group in no way reflected the interests of all women at the University is quite interesting not only in terms of how difficult it is to represent a larger group as a whole, but that some women are too ashamed of being associated with this ideology we call “feminism” because an acceptance of it lowers how your male peers perceive you.

What was also notable about the events were that they were emotionally fuelled; this can be taken as a sign of how much we value the freedom of speech.

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