top shelf and behind closed doors

In those hazy, lazy, faraway union-flag-quilt-and-Smirnoff-Ice days of the 90s, “lads mags” were all the rage. Whilst faded in glory today, they retain a certain grip on both supermarket shelves and amongst the court of public opinion. Recently a group of disgruntled feministbots raged against them with threats of legal action on grounds of human rights and sexual harrasment, provoking another flurry of he-said, she-demands outrage on- and off-line.

There’s plenty of threads to pick at here. Let’s start with the body image argument, one which has a very valid foundation even if the rest of the building is unsound. The desire for a body beautiful worries men as much as women, only the boys chasing a six-pack tend to be pushed aside by mainstream media’s coverage of teenage body image crises. As long ago as 2001, the British Medical Journal warned that male concerns about chasing the magazine “approved” look was leading to suicide.

Whilst it’s valid to point to the ladies with the ample balcony and cry “foul”, the lack of any concern for the male equivalent is worrying. Young men are likely to be as wary of not looking “built” as young women are for not appearing to have a glossy-cover body. (And this is before we look at something like the cover of Gay Times, for example, where the well-built and tanned cover stars might attract more concern for perfection from a community already beset with issues of self-confidence and image problems.)

And then we get to porn. Good old fashioned, every day porn. The days of my youth were peppered by attempts to read the top shelf goodies which even by the 1990s were still heavily censored – and for that matter, heavily hirsute, if you know what I mean. What teenagers of 2013 can access with a few clicks makes the 1993 versions seem as tame as Victorian ankle-flashers, but even then dire warnings rained down about the dangers of seeing half-naked women in the pages of “Whitehouse” and “Razzle”.  Iceland would like to outlaw Internet porn entirely and Labour in this country have hinted a similar policy would be forthcoming if they win in 2015. There’s a lot of sayings crossing my mind here – horses, stable doors, the closing of such.

I’m not in denial about the realities of some members of the pornography industry, or of the harsh and often dangerous circumstances for women behind the XXX website banners. But I’m not here to defend the State-sponsored censorship of the Internet on the back of a misguided concern about safety, either for children or women or both. If this sounds like “protesting too much”, I counterargue that the reality of Internet porn is as much wobbly and out of focus amateur videos uploaded to Cam4 as it is slickly edited “professional” material locked behind passwords and subscriptions.

My automatic discomfort against any form of legal threats and censorship comes not from an obsession with porn, but a determination to stand against the moral guardians strongarming common-sense. It’s unjust and unfair for feminist outrage corps. to dismiss lads mags as unacceptable whilst implicitly allowing Take A Break and Closer and others to zoom into wobbly thighs and lumpy stomachs with thick red circles and thicker yellow arrows. If Zoo magazine showing a glamour model is sexist, of what crime is Closer guilty for showing a soap star without make-up under the label “ROUGH AS!”?

A debate has to be had about the attitude towards sex and sexuality which has taken the State unaware, that much I accept. There’s no validity in the “BAN THIS FILTH” argument, especially from such moral champions as The Daily Mail who run an hourly sidebar of shame ticking off women (specifically) for being too thin, too fat, too garish, not garish enough, too daring, too old-fashioned, too feminist and not feminist enough. They’re not being “the best friend” pointing out fashion tips, they’re being the bitter bitch behind the net curtains hating women for being themselves long after their own beauty has faded.

Maybe I’m naive, but teenage boys finding women attractive is the way of nature. If they didn’t have Zoo (or page 3 or anything as soft/censored as I did in the 90s), they’d have some way to beat out (snigger) their natural desires. Ditto women, for whom there’s enough sniggering and tittering about fit men within the pages of their magazines. There’s no innocence amongst women’s glossy magazines when it comes to showing the flesh of either sex, or the demands on men in the bedroom. Is that not counter to the belief amongst certain kinds of feminists, or am I being dismissive?

The debate the country needs must look at everything which relates to sex and sexual politics, and that has to be cut through by some pretty obvious realities about human nature. The fallout from Leveson shows just how dangerous the topic of press freedom can be, especially when the State is put under pressure to regulate or censor material before publication. Let’s not pride ourselves on being a country in which, during a time when people are reminding us “not to let the enemy win”, we sleepwalk into blocking, banning and censoring material on the grounds of morality.