Monthly Archives: May 2013

From the archives: two Scotsman articles on pornography in newsagents

To celebrate the new ‘The Lose the Lads’ Mags’ campaign by UK Feminista and Object (, here are a couple of older articles on why the campaign is important:

The Scotsman July 20, 2000, Thursday

BYLINE: Linda Watson Brown


LENGTH: 1336 words

Jennifer is 17, but looks much younger. She is described as a “sex pixie” but looks tired, small and lost. She has an obsession with the Yorkshire Ripper and is photographed with traditional pornographic props in cliched scenarios.

You’d think you would find the pictures in a top-shelf publication – but this is GQ and it is available in your local supermarket and garage. It is one of the new batch of lads’ mags which are read openly by young men who would feel some degree of embarrassment about gaping at Hustler or Playboy on a bus. This month GQ focuses on “the Lolita Syndrome” – the main interview is with Jennifer Ellison from Brookside.
Ellison is not underage, but is dressed in revealing beach and underwear, and is described as part of a tempting band of adolescent girls who should make every man ensure he asks for proof of age. The message is clear – although these young girls are not yet legally sexually available, they are irresistible.
By manufacturing a “syndrome” from the Lolita myth, GQ is entering dangerous territory. The content of men’s magazines has been disturbing since their inception, but the way in which boundaries are being pushed back and taboos questioned is particularly evident in recent months. These publications have been accused of airbrushing thongs and knickers from images of celebrities who have posed for photospreads. Women are constantly reduced to sexually available objects .
“There is very little difference between the content of loaded and the more obvious pornographic titles on the market,” says Catherine Harper of Scottish Women Against Pornography. “But there is much more dishonesty in how it is dressed up. The covers alone are pushing things every month: it has been crotches in your face for a while. Now the content is taking things to a completely unacceptable level. There is stuff here that would not be allowed elsewhere. What is particularly worrying is that a large number of young men get their information about sex from sources like these.”
Despite the fact that there has been little debate about the ways in which men are negatively affected by this type of material, the immediate concern has to be with the messages which are being sold – and this month’s commodity is underage sex. GQ summarises instances of desirable young women who have only been made more tempting by the fact that sex with them would not only be illegal, it would be rape and abuse too. Jennifer Ellison is photographed half -naked enjoying childish pursuits – on a slide holding her top off, eating ice cream, and, in one particularly questionable image, on a bike surrounded by “real” children. The text raises still more issues: a ten-year-old girl whispers to Ellison that she looks lovely. Is this what we want our daughters to aspire to? A ten-year-old boy suggests that she show her breasts, and we are expected to snigger at the precocity of his early interest rather than be appalled.
Liz Kelly of the Child & Women Abuse Studies Unit at the University of North London believes the links between pornography – in its many forms – and child abuse are clear. “Child pornography is not a separate and distinct genre,” she says. While we can all claim to be horrified by such images, the boundaries are not as clear as we may think. ” Playboy is particularly devious – the centrefold is depicted from childhood onwards with captions like ‘Age one – Playmate material already’; ‘Age three – anytime dad’. Children are sexualised in pornography and women are ‘childified’ by being made to appear as if they are children.”
This is certainly the case in mainstream men’s magazines – this month in GQ sees a glorification of pubescent images and full-frontal shots of women without pubic hair who are represented as innocent and angelic.
The sexualisation of children, and the ways in which society has become desensitised to the danger this can cause, has been researched in-depth by Michele Elliot of the children’s charity Kidscape. “Children’s images are being sexualised because they sell. Without our knowing, soft-core child pornography has crept into our everyday lives and most of us are unaware that this has happened.”
The availability of magazines such as GQ and loaded has contributed to that development. They are full of breasts-out, legs-open shots, and generally feature “celebrities” who are put in their place by being reduced to nothing more than tits-and-bum commodities. These images of availability and accessibility may be the choice of the individuals involved – although that too can be debated – but what they contribute to our stock of ideas about sex and sexuality is much more threatening.
“What we are seeing,” says Catherine Harper of SWAP, “is the undermining of women – and now children. They are saying: ‘It’s OK lads, go for it – adolescent girls are tempting, how can you help yourselves?’ They are openly advocating abuse. The messages undermines and debases real lives and real experiences, and people need to realise what’s going on.”
The fact that these publications are so widely available may make many think they must be acceptable. Major supermarket chains have removed “top-shelf” publications but regularly feature lads’ mags at checkouts and petrol kiosks. All of those contacted said it was up to consumers to complain. A spokesperson for Asda says: “We always put these magazines out of the reach of children. That’s the rule. If customers or shop colleagues complain about something they find offensive, we will act on it immediately. We will not censor magazine selection, but we will give customers what they want. We have boundaries, and we will act on anything people feel strongly about.”
Safeway takes a similar position: “We review on a three-monthly basis. If the front cover is explicit, we would put the magazine on the top shelf where children couldn’t get at it. If the content is complained about, we would review the situation. We are aware that these magazines can contain issues which are explicit or contentious, and we need to avoid kids browsing through them. We have family shoppers and if there was a serious complaint, we would take immediate action. In the last three or four years, there have been less than five complaints.”
It is clear that many people are not complaining because they do not know what is being sold, and yet retailers say that only a few comments are enough to make them review the situation. The lack of control and regulation in this area is startling and the removal of straightforward pornography from major stores has only gone some way toward removing sexually explicit and offensive material from the high street.
Pornography is, and always has been, big business – yet again it seems as if the only way to have an effect will be to make a financial impact, rather than anything as irrelevant as public concern.
This month’s mags
GQ devotes over 20 pages to “The Lolita Syndrome” focusing on pubescent full -frontal shots, “reasons why you should always ask for ID”, the “nubile innocents” featured in David Hamilton’s photography, and overt references to the “indecently young” Brookside actress who has the “face of an angel on a bod made all for sin”.
Loaded has a “Pornalikes” features in which readers select their favourite images from pornographic publications featuring celebrity lookalikes. A naked Angelina Jolie is described as “wanting it like a thirsty mule.” There is the usual list of B-list celebs naked or in poses clearly taken from pornographic imagery. One TV presenter is asked how much money it would take for her to have sex with convicted paedophile Gary Glitter.
Maxim relies on the usual half (or completely) naked images of women with headlines screaming “Do you want some?” Women are asked whether they would consider lapdancing, innumerable questions about their breasts, and it all ends with six pages of ads for pornography and sex lines.

The Scotsman November 24, 2000, Friday


BYLINE: By Linda Watson-Brown


LENGTH: 757 words

I HAD completely forgotten how modern and entertaining pornography could be. Until recently, I had considered it insulting, dangerous and degrading. Thankfully, WH Smith has put me straight on that outmoded perception. Three years ago, it decided to stop selling glossy pictures of women’s genitals in its high-street shops. It still distributed the magazines. It still profited enormously from them. But in terms of its family-friendly consumer projection, they disappeared.

Partially. In terms of the somewhat spurious distinction made between top -shelf magazines and other material, well-known names such as Playboy, Hustler, Men Only, Razzle et al were consigned to the dustbin of unmarketable misogyny. Of course, all that really happened was that they continued to be bought elsewhere – generally provided by the same suppliers – and high-street retailers sold harmful images under other guises, such as lads’ mags and photography literature.

Now, WH Smith says it is going to reintroduce pornography to its stores. Apparently, in the three years that we have been without gynaecological illustrations of dehumanised women, things have changed. Pornography is now a heterosexual haven of consensual, post-modern relationships.

Does that make those who find such depictions offensive feel a lot better about its renaissance? The next time you go to the Gyle or the Braehead shopping centres in Edinburgh or Glasgow and you see their awards for family -friendly initiatives, will you have any lingering concerns? Previously there may have been a few worries. After all, “novelty shops” stock bondage tape beside their cuddly toys; Marks and Spencer sell bras for girls who should still be wearing vests; major supermarkets peddle paedophile imagery as they punt GQ and Loaded alongside their groceries and two-faced consumer equality strategies.
But now, how will you reconcile buying your children their Barbie and Action Man comics as they stand next to someone perusing a catalogue of exploitation which ensures the buyer that models are “barely legal”? You could justify it in the same way that you will have to if you are a Daily Express reader, for now its new owner will promote his pornography catalogue alongside OK! and the children’s comics he has also founded his empire on.
Or, you could realise that something is intrinsically wrong here. And yes, even if it is boring and unfashionable, you could also wake up to the fact that it is morally reprehensible.
If you agree, I am clearly preaching to the converted. If you disagree, there is probably little I can do until you send me the intellectually-challenged letters raising the same, stultifying points which pro-pornographers always rely on. However, if you’re not sure, there are a few things for you to think about.
Pornography is not about simple pictures of naked women. It is central in creating and maintaining sex as a basis for discrimination. It is a systematic practice of exploitation and subordination based on sex, and it harms women, men and children. It produces bigotry and contempt. It justifies aggression and hatred. Like other media messages, pornography reinforces and helps create the idea that women are second-class citizens, and it reinforces distorted notions of women’s sexuality.
There will always be women who say that they are not exploited by pornography. Personally, I couldn’t care less whether every other woman in the world thinks pornography is great. It offends me and it affects me. As such, I have a right to try to do something about it. WH Smith does not believe I, or anyone like me, will exercise that right. The company has stated that it does not believe any of its customers will protest. Indeed, it has said it thinks the publications will be welcomed. I have been told by most stockists of pornography – whether top-shelf or lads’ mag in nature – that people simply do not complain. I have also been told that unless those who do write in give their name, address and telephone number, their letter will go straight in the bin. For many people, this is just another effective way of silencing dissent.
I am happy to act as the conduit here. Send me your letters and your petitions, and I will pass them on to WH Smith on your behalf, with personal details made anonymous. If that seems a bit extreme, perhaps you would rather spend your time preparing the best way to explain the joy of iconoclastic pornographic imagery to your five-year-old next time you go shopping.

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Howarth’s Aggressive Homosexuals

One problem with twitter is that, if you don’t check it often enough, all the good jokes are taken and then everyone moves on too quickly for me to contribute. Here is what I would have come up with on the hashtag #aggressivehomosexuals (following Gerard Howarth MP’s speech, which included the phrase: ‘There are plenty in the aggressive homosexual community who see this as but a stepping-stone’ ) if someone had just given me the chance to think, then go to bed, then go for a run the next day and listen to ‘Gay Bar’ by Electric 6 . Even then, it’s all a bit tenuous:

  • Something about Howarth regretting getting all his information from a few seconds of Radio 1 that he put on by accident in his car (‘let’s start a war, let’s start a nuclear war, at the gay bar’)
  • Now tell me do ya, a do ya have any money? I wanna spend all your money, implementing same-sex marriage and then civil partnerships for heterosexual couples
  • I’ve got an amendement to put in you, at the report stage

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This is How You Set Targets

As fans of the UK Government know, it is important to set targets. For those targets to work, they need to be measurable. In other words, you have to know when they have been met. There should also be safeguards so that people don’t game the system and meet targets at the expense of the underlying aim of the policy. Finally, when those targets have been met, the policymaker should be congratulated for the aim, the effort and the outcome.
It is in this context that I would like to present one of my personal targets: to get more Twitter followers than my daughter within a year of joining Twitter. At the time, this felt like an ambitious target, not least because she had benefited from an artificial bump in her figures after being tweeted by minor celebrity Chipmunk (I think his tweet was 😉 or something like that). However, I then benefited from the short attention spans of Evie’s followers, and her score has fallen to a highly achievable 537. Tonight, after 11 months on Twitter, I reached the heady heights of 538 followers. I don’t think that I gamed the system. I am being followed by someone selling boxes and one or two people selling some dodgier looking things, but I did not invite those organisations to follow me. I might have once made a plea for more followers, but only to level the Chipmunk field (and I think I only got 20 followers from the appeal). Otherwise, I have developed a small but good quality following with a triple Twitter strategy: blogs for students/ academics, vague complaints about Scottish politics and more general inane drivel as it occurs to me. So, congratulations are in order. I hope you will understand that, although I love my children very dearly, I am also a very petty person who likes to wind up close family members on a regular basis. This fits the bill nicely.

Please note: if you want to wind me up by following my daughter, to get her numbers above mine again, you should know that we are one of those trendy families in which our children share the surname of their mother, not father. So, you will have to make quite the commitment to the joke.

UPDATE 8th June 2013 –  I have now been on twitter for a full year and have 661 followers. I now need a new target. I reckon it should be: go from 9 tweets per day to 8.

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What is ‘Evolution’? What is ‘Complexity’? [and How does it inform the study of policymaking?]

There is a long history in the social sciences of using the natural sciences as a source of comparison. Much of the comparison is based on little more than the (often very useful) metaphor. There is now an equally important but shorter history of trying to draw more direct parallels; to say that this process in a social system is directly comparable to a process in a natural or living system. The study of evolution provides the potential for that sort of direct comparison, and we can find the use of terms such as ‘complexity’ (or ‘complex systems’) employed partly to that end. However, there are two major obstacles to this sort of direct comparison (and indeed to the use of evolution-based metaphors):

1. We may not agree about the meaning of evolution. For example, when it is used loosely in everyday language, ‘evolution’ tends to refer to a very long term, gradual process of change. However, evolution can also refer to the idea of ‘punctuated equilibrium’ in which long spells of gradual change are interrupted by relatively short but profound bursts of activity and change. Consequently, the study of evolution is instantly confusing because it can refer to the *opposite of* and/ or the *same thing as* revolution. There are also some other sources of potential confusion about, for example, the nature of evolution (does it necessarily refer to advancement?) and the nature of ‘selection’ (do species simply respond blindly to their environments or help create them?).

2. Some people have really ruined evolution for the rest of us. We can blame so-called ‘social-Darwinism’ for the racist/ sexist idea that some people are more evolved than others. In other words, ‘evolution’ comes with a lot of baggage when we apply it to social science discussions.

This sort of confusion can be found in the study of public policy where evolution can refer to a wide range of things, including:

  • the cumulative, long-term development of policy solutions;
  • major disruptions in the way that policy makers think about, and try to solve, policy problems;
  • the maintenance *or* radical reform of policy-making institutions;
  • ‘emergent’ behaviour within complex systems
  • the trial-and-error strategies adopted by actors, such as policy entrepreneurs, when adapting to their environment
  • the coming together of multiple factors to create the conditions for major policy change (which can be a creative, ‘window of opportunity’ style process, or a destructive, failure-related ‘perfect storm style process).

This range of understandings may not put us off evolutionary discussions completely, but it shows us that we should be super-clear about our meaning of evolution when we seek to make these sorts of comparisons with evolution in nature.

I suppose this has been a roundabout way for me to advertise the fact that I have just published a journal article about this very topic (if you can’t access it, I can send you a *non-final* version or you can try getting it through a free trial). It compares the most prominent theories of politics and policymaking which draw on references to evolution in different ways. For example:

Multiple Streams Analysis (Kingdon) – uses the term ‘policy primeval soup’ to suggest that, although policymaker attention may lurch from one problem to another, problems will not be addressed until policy solutions have evolved sufficiently within a policy community and policymakers have the motive and opportunity to adopt them. ‘Evolution’ describes the *slow progress* of an idea towards acceptability within the policy community.

Punctuated Equilibrium theory (Baumgartner and Jones) – suggests that that ‘incremental’ policy change in most cases is accompanied by ‘seismic’ change in a small number of cases – an outcome consistent with ‘power laws’ found in the natural and social worlds. Kingdon’s picture of slow progress producing partial mutations is replaced by Baumgartner and Jones’ *fast, disruptive, pure mutation* (in some cases).

Then there is complexity theory, which I have discussed in my blog here. The relevance to a discussion of evolution is that complexity theory may help us understand processes in which people, institutions and their environments are interacting constantly to produce rather unpredictable outcomes (or, at least, outcomes may ‘emerge’ locally, in the absence of central control). This might be broken down into three steps:

  1. Institutions, as sets of rules and norms, represent ways for people to retain certain ideas and encourage particular forms of behaviours.
  2. Complex systems represent (partly) a large number of overlapping and often interdependent institutions.
  3. New behaviours and rules arise from the interaction between multiple institutions and the actors involved.

In other words, different ‘worlds’ are in constant collision, producing new ways of thinking and behaviour that ‘emerge’ from these interactions. They are then passed down through the generations, but in an imperfect way, allowing new forms of thinking and behaviour to emerge.

To describe these processes as ‘evolutionary’, we really need to use the language of evolution – variation, selection and retention – to describe and explain outcomes. The idea in the natural world is that living things want to do at least two things: (1) pass on their genes; (2) cooperate with others to secure resources and share them out to their kith and kin. The idea in the political world is a bit different and perhaps a bit of a stretch, but here goes:

  • The equivalent of passing on genes is passing on ‘memes’, or ideas (beliefs, ways of thinking – as described in the 70s by Richard Dawkins before he moved onto God).
  • ‘Variation’ refers to the different rules adopted by different social groups to foster the collective action required to survive.
  • ‘Selection’ describes the interaction between people and their environments; particular environments may provide an advantage to some groups over others and encourage certain behaviours (or, at least, some groups may respond by adapting their behaviour to their environment).
  • ‘Retention’ describes the ways in which people pass on their genes (memes) to ensure the reproduction of their established rules (we might call them ‘institutions’).

The key difference in the study of evolution and policymaking is the idea of passing on memes through the generations. We think of passing on genes through the generations as a process that takes hundreds, thousands or millions of years. Passing on memes through the ‘policy generations’ is more like the study of fruit flies (months), viruses or bacteria (days or weeks). In other words, ways of thinking, and emerging behaviour, change constantly as people interact with each other, articulating different beliefs and rules and producing new forms of thinking, rules and behaviour as they interact. Big jumps in ways of thinking may be associated with key generational shifts, but that can take place, for example, as one generation of scientists retires or, more quickly still, one generation of experts is replaced (within government circles) by another.

Complexity theory may be used to capture, describe and explain that sort of interaction on a grand scale. We can zoom in to see individuals interacting with each other, or zoom out to observe mass behaviour and the sorts of outcomes that emerge from them. For me, this means that the field is wide open when it comes down to research methods. If we are interested in people understanding this complex process of interaction, we can study those individuals using interviews and/ or various forms of observation. If we are interested in the whole system, we might adopt mathematical models and computer simulations. There is nothing to stop us combining such methods (and more) if we avoid the sort of people that adhere slavishly to one fixed understanding of the world and, therefore, one method to help us understand it.  

I don’t hold out much hope of this sort of discussion capturing the public imagination. However, the chances are that this sort of discussion of evolution (and its relationship to complexity theory) is taking place in a wide range of disciplines without much exchange between them. So, if you see a blog like this written by someone else in some other field, please let me know.  

Cairney, P. (2013). What is evolutionary theory and how does it inform policy studies?. Policy & Politics, 41(2), 279-298.

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A Picture of Pathways to Impact

This picture went into my recent ESRC application and it seemed a shame to just go to waste there (so to speak) …

….It was drawn by Tereza Procházková, who is a Masters student of Service Design, a course run by Hazel White at the Duncan of Jordanstone College of Art & Design. I had asked Tereza to interpret my ‘Case for Support’ so that I could demonstrate to the ESRC how I would try to work with Tereza to produce some reports using words and pictures. The point is not to make superificial or simplistic arguments about complicated topics. Rather, the idea is that the production of drawings forces you to decide what the key points of a document are (perhaps in a stronger way than an abstract or set of bullet points would make you choose). The interpretation of my reports by someone else also allows me to check if I have managed to get my point across to an audience that doesn’t understand the issues in the same way (see also
The idea came from the CIPFA annual conference in Scotland in 2013. White’s students contributed to her lecture/ workshop on ‘Service Design’ at the event and Tereza also summarised my lecture (on complex policymaking systems) using text (found here, compare with my lecture/ blog post here) and pictures. I don’t *think* that it appealed to me simply because the picture of me was flattering. 


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