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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