When the mainstream is extreme: research on sexism in lads' mags.

You may have seen the discussion various places (like here) about the recent research that indicates the descriptions of women given by convicted sex offenders and lads' mags are well nigh indistinguishable. The research paper went up today on the British Journal of Psychology website. But, thanks to one of the authors of the paper (Dr. Peter Hegarty, with whom I shared a class in grad school), I got my hands on a pre-print, which I discuss in this post.

Horvath, M.A.H., Hegarty, P., Tyler, S. & Mansfield, S., " 'Lights on at the end of the party': Are lads' mags mainstreaming dangerous sexism?" British Journal of Psychology. DOI:10.1111/j.2044-8295.2011.02086.x

The general question prompting the study is what kind of influence is exerted by magazine contents on how young people perceive their social reality. In particular, how might magazines influence how young people approach sex?

The authors cite previous studies about the influences of exposure to pornography and other sexualized media on the attitudes young men have about women, but note that the effects of "lads' mags" (i.e., magazines aimed at young male readers like FHM, Maxim, and Stuff) had not been studied.

And, while "if taken at face value, lads' mags appear likely to teach young men sexist attitudes and practices," the authors note that editors' of these magazines argue against taking them at face value.

For example, Martin Daubney, the former editor of popular UK lads' mag Loaded dismissed the possibility that magazines do or should educate young people about sex. Sexist content in lads' mags is often characterized as merely 'ironic' (Benwell, 2003; McKay, Mikosza, & Hutchins, 2005) allowing editors to negate the possibility that their magazines influence readers, and to counter-argue that their critics have simply missed the intended joke (Jackson, Stevenson, & Brooks, 2001).

A reasonable question here is whether the readers on the lads' mags are taking their contents as ironic -- whether they are in on the joke that the critics are missing. However, even if they understand the articles and advice as humorous rather than serious, Horvath et al. mention that there may still be effects on the reader that are worth exploring:

Sexist humour may be interpreted as harmless irony by some men and not by others. For example, men who are more sexist find sexist jokes funnier (Eyssel & Bohner, 2007) and disparaging humour about women creates a context in which the expression of sexism becomes the social norm (Ford & Ferguson, 2004; Romero-S´anchez, Dur´an, Carretero-Dios, Megias, & Moya, 2010). For these reasons, editors’ claims about the social consequences of the content of lads’ mags ought not themselves to be taken at face value.

The overarching question posed by this research, then, was "whether lads’ mags may affect readers’ norms, making extreme forms of sexism appear more acceptable to them."

The press coverage in advance of the publication of the paper focused on one piece of the study methodology -- the comparison of statements about women taken from lads' mags with statements about women taken from interviews with convicted rapists. Potentially, this detail might suggest that the researchers were studying whether lads' mags cause readers to become rapists, or whether the lads' magazines are the primary source of attitudes young men have about women or sex. Neither of these is an accurate description of the hypothesis the Horvath et al. research was testing.

Why the research drew on the statements from the rapists is that these might be taken as a plausible extreme as far as views men articulate about women. If they really do represent an extreme, then they should exist in a separate category from views lads' mags articulate about women -- or, perhaps, in instances where lads' mags present views that on their face resemble statements made by rapists, the lads' mags might present them in a way that clearly signals that they are intended ironically rather than literally.

Of course, Horvath et al. mention, there is research that suggests rapists have learned to make their own views seem less extreme:

For example, rapists learn a culturally derived vocabulary of motive that diminishes their responsibility, and normalizes their behaviour. Rapists blame women for their own victimization by describing women as seductresses, by claiming that ‘no’ means ‘yes’, by arguing that most women eventually ‘relax and enjoy it’ and by insisting that nice girls do not get raped (Scully & Marolla, 1984). As men who have mastered this vocabulary of diminished responsibility, convicted rapists have much to tell us about how sexual violence becomes possible and how it gets normalized (Scully, 1990). In other words, it appears that lads’ mags and rapists might share the commonality of using techniques to neutralize derogatory sexism.

A key difference, though, is that it's less socially acceptable to look to a convicted rapist for advice about women and sexuality than to look to a lads' mag for such advice. So, if lads' mags actually were to have the effect of normalizing the kinds of views of women that rapists express -- of making them seem like part of reasonable dating advice to young men -- that might be useful to know. And, indeed, that's what Horvath et al. set out to discover.

What exactly is at stake in normalizing a particular set of views is itself a contentious issue, so in our discussion of this research it's worth acknowledging some logical possibilities: Possibly having a particular set of attitudes towards women -- even sexist attitudes towards women -- is completely independent from acting on those attitudes, for example by committing rape. Possibly having a particular set of sexist attitudes towards women might not create any harms for the women with whom one shares a society. Possibly expressing a particular set of sexist attitudes towards women might not create any harms for the women with whom one shares a society.

I am not a psychologist, but I reckon there is a body of research that explores the connections between attitudes, actions, and downstream harms of various sorts. Moreover, I reckon that Horvath et al. are fairly well versed in what that body of research has shown. However, it is important to be clear that they are not making claims here that men in their study who identify strongly with the sexist attitudes voiced by convicted rapists (or by lads' mags) will themselves commit rapes, nor even act on that identification in any particular way. What exactly we can expect downstream from the normalization of a particular set of attitudes about women, in other words, is a question not directly addressed by this research.

Let's look at the two connected studies in the reported research to see what questions this paper does address.

Study 1: Does attributing derogatory sexist comments to lads' mags make it easier for young men to identify with them?

The researchers hypothesized that the men who were the subjects of this study would identify more strongly with quotes that were labeled as coming from lads' mags than with quotes that were labeled as coming from interviews with convicted rapists. They also hypothesized that more sexist men would identify more strongly with the quotes from both sources than would less sexist men.

The researchers administered questionnaires to a sample of 92 men (between 18 and 46 years of age, with average age just under 23 years old) recruited at a university in the UK. The study participants got to complete the questionnaire in private and submit it to a locked box before debriefing. The researcher with whom they met before filling out the questionnaire was female; one wonders what kind of effect, if any, this had on how subjects completed the questionnaires.

All the questionnaires had some shared sections: the Ambivalent Sexism Inventory (ASI, Glick & Fiske, 1996), which is a measure of both "hostile" and "benevolent" sexist beliefs about women, and the Acceptance of Modern Myths about Sexual Aggression Scale (AMMSA, Gerger, Kley, Bohner, & Siebler, 2007). For both of these, subjects indicated agreement or disagreement with items on a Likert scale. Horvath et al. also included a four-item measure of the Perceived Legitimacy of Lads’ Mags (designed specifically for this study), which had participants indicate agreement (on a scale of 0 to 5) with the following items:

Lads' mags are a positive way of learning about sexual relationships.
Reading lads' mags is something every young male should do.
Lads' mags have provided me with accurate and informative information about the opposite sex.
Lads' mags educate young men accurately on society’s gender roles.

However, the first section of the questionnaire came in one of three different versions. Each of these versions included eight short quotes from editorials and articles from four lads' mags with high circulations in the UK and eight short quotes from verbatim transcripts of interviews with convicted rapists. For these sixteen quotes, subjects were asked to indicate (on a scale of 1 to 7) how much they identified with the quote (from do not identify at all to identify strongly). In one version of the questionnaire, the sources of each of the quotes were correctly attributed (i.e., quotes from lads' mags were labeled as being from lads' mags, quotes from convicted rapists were labeled as being from convicted rapists). In the second version of the questionnaire, the attributions were switched (i.e., quotes from lads' mags were labeled as being from convicted rapists, quotes from convicted rapists were labeled as being from lads' mags). In the third version of the questionnaire, the quotes were presented on their own with no attribution of their sources.

In case you're curious, here's the table from the paper with the quotes:

Table 1. Quotes sourced from lads’ mags and from convicted rapists used as stimuli in Studies 1 and 2

Quotes sourced from convicted rapists
1 There’s a certain way you can tell that a girl wants to have sex . . . The way they dress, they flaunt themselves.
2 Some girls walk around in short-shorts . . . showing their body off . . . It just starts a man thinking that if he gets something like that, what can he do with it? . . .
3 What burns me up sometimes about girls is dick-teasers. They lead a man on and then shut him off right there.
4 You know girls in general are all right. But some of them are bitches . . . The bitches are the type that . . . need to have it stuffed to them hard and heavy.
5 You’ll find most girls will be reluctant about going to bed with somebody or crawling in the back seat of a car . . . But you can usually seduce them, and they’ll do it willingly.
6 Girls ask for it by wearing these mini-skirts and hotpants . . . they’re just displaying their body . . . Whether they realise it or not they’re saying, ‘Hey, I’ve got a beautiful body, and it’s yours if you want it.
7 Some women are domineering, but I think it’s more or less the man who should put his foot down. The man is supposed to be the man. If he acts the man, the woman won’t be domineering
8 I think if a law is passed, there should be a dress code . . . When girls dress in those short skirts and things like that, they’re just asking for it.

Quotes sourced from lads’ mags.
1 A girl may like anal sex because it makes her feel incredibly naughty and she likes feeling like a dirty slut. If this is the case, you can try all sorts of humiliating acts to help live out her filthy fantasy.
2 Mascara running down the cheeks means they’ve just been crying, and it was probably your fault . . . but you can cheer up the miserable beauty with a bit of the old in and out.
3 Filthy talk can be such a turn on for a girl . . . no one wants to be shagged by a mouse . . . A few compliments won’t do any harm either . . . ‘I bet you want it from behind you dirty whore’ . . .
4 Escorts . . . they know exactly how to turn a man on. I’ve given up on girlfriends. They don’t know how to satisfy me, but escorts do.
5 There’s nothing quite like a woman standing in the dock accused of murder in a sex game gone wrong . . . The possibility of murder does bring a certain frisson to the bedroom.
6 You do not want to be caught red-handed . . . go and smash her on a park bench. That used to be my trick.
7 Girls love being tied up . . . it gives them the chance to be the helpless victim.
8 I think girls are like plasticine, if you warm them up you can do anything you want with them.

The researchers found that there was a high correlation between identifying with the quotes (from both kinds of sources) and scoring high on the ASI (a measure of sexism), AMMSA (a measure of acceptance of sexual aggression myths), and the Perceived Legitimacy of Lads’ Mags. The overall level of identification was not especially high (averaging just under 3 on a scale of 1 to 7), and how strongly the subjects identified with the quotes overall was not significantly different in the three versions of the questionnaire (with correct attribution, false attribution, or no attribution of the sources of the quotes).

As predicted, no matter what the actual source of quotes, the men in the study identified with them more strongly when they were labeled as coming from lads' mags and less strongly when they were labeled as coming from convicted rapists.

Surprisingly, though, the subjects identified significantly more strongly with the quotes taken from interviews with convicted rapists than they did with the quotes from lads' mags -- and this was the case across all three attribution conditions. In other words, the subjects identified more strongly with quotes from rapists than quotes from lads' mags even when they had correct information about which were which.

So, Study 1 found a correlation between a subject's measured sexism and that subject's identification with both kinds of quotes. It also found that labeling quotes from lads' mags as being from lads' mags increased the level of reported identification with them, while labeling them as being from convicted rapists decreased the level of reported identification. Mislabeling the quotes from rapists as being from lads' mags significantly increased subjects' level of reported identification with them, but the subjects identified more strongly with the quotes from rapists when their source was misattributed, unattributed, or correctly attributed. The researchers find these results

consistent with the possibility that lads’ mags might normalize hostile sexism, because sexism appears more acceptable to young men when lads’ mags appear to be its source. Unexpectedly, the participants also identified more with the rapists’ quotes than the lads’ mags quotes. Jointly these findings suggest the possibility that the legitimation strategies that rapists deploy when they talk about women are more familiar to these young men than we had anticipated.

Horvath et al. point out one possibility for the unexpectedly higher identification with the rapists' quotes, namely that the sample of quotes from the lads' mags were more extreme than those taken from the interviews with the convicted rapists. This might make a certain sort of sense: magazines are competing for eyeballs and being extreme might help with that, while rapists may have an investment in justifying their actions and not coming across as monsters. Still, at the very least this finding undermines the assumption that the view of women presented by lads' mags is less extreme than that voiced by rapists.

Study 2: Can young men and women reliably distinguish the source of descriptions of women from lads' mags and from convicted rapists?

The second study used the same 16 short quotes that appeared on the questionnaires in Study 1, eight from lads' mags and eight from interviews with convicted rapists. Here, each of the quotes appeared on its own laminated card with no information about its source.

The subjects (20 men and 20 women between the ages of 19 and 30, with an average age just above 23) were presented with three sorting tasks using the 16 cards. In the first, they were asked to arrange the 16 quotes in order from most degrading towards women to least degrading towards women. In the second, the task was to sort the cards into two stacks, one containing quotes the subject considered degrading towards women and the other the subjects considered not degrading towards women. For the third sorting task, the subjects were told that some of the quotes came from lads' mags and that some came from interviews with convicted rapists, and they were asked to guess which quotes came from which sources. For this third task, the researchers asked the subjects to explain what it was about the quotes that made them think they came from the source they guessed.

In addition to these sorting tasks, each of the subjects in Study 2 completed the Perceived Legitimacy of Lads' Mags items.

The results of the first sorting task (ranking the quotes in a continuum of how degrading subjects found them to women) were that on average, the quotes from the lads' mags were ranked as more degrading than those from the convicted rapists.

In the second sorting task, the subjects ranked an average of 11.65 of the 16 quotes as derogatory (and an average of 4.35 of them as not derogatory).

And, in the task which asked the subjects to guess whether each quote came from a lads' mag or from an interview with a convicted rapist, on average the subjects identified slightly more of the quotes to rapist than to lads' mags, and the subjects had a hard time correctly identifying the sources of the quotes. About 56% of the time they correctly guessed a quote's source as a lads' mag (which meant they incorrectly guessed it was from a rapist about 44% of the time), and they correctly guessed the source of the quotes from rapists only about 55% of the time. In other words, they distinguished the sources of the quotes at a rate only slightly better than chance.

These results, by the way, showed no correlation with attitudes measured by the Perceived Legitimacy of Lads' Mags items.

The paper includes an interesting discussion of how subjects explained their sorting of the quotes into the ones they thought were from rapists and the ones they thought were from lads' mags:

Many participants drew upon the idea that lads’ mags printed views that fell within the range of what men might ‘normally’ say while those attributed to rapists were too offensive, or too violent to fall within this category. Participants also drew on the ideas that lads’ mags give advice to young men, and are humorous. Others drew upon the ideas that rapists use ‘techniques of neutralization’ to excuse their actions (Gilbert & Webster, 1982), and that rapists lack understanding of how to interpret sexual refusal (Frith, 2009). ... Finally, we aimed to see if participants expressed evaluations of the quotes themselves. While most participants described the quotes negatively or neutrally, explicit agreement with victim-blaming ideas was evident in a few instances (N = 5, e.g., ‘ . . . some girls do lead men on. . . the way they dress all the time, in really short skirts . . . and really really low tops, so what do they expect? They want men to look at them though don’t they?’ Female Participant).

Horvath et al. note that the nature of the sorting tasks the subjects were asked to complete in Study 2 may well have affected how sensitive those subjects were to instances of sexism in the quotes.

The upshot of Study 2 seems to be that despite the subjects' descriptions of lads' mags as "normal, funny, and advice giving, but not too violent or offensive", they could not reliably distinguish quotes from lads' mags from those from convicted rapists, and moreover the subjects ranked the quotes that were actually from lads' mags as more derogatory. Their evaluation of the quotes, in other words, seemed to undermine their theory of lads' mags as closer to the cultural mainstream and of the views of rapists as an extreme fringe.

Overall, what can we conclude from the results of these two studies? The researchers note that the views of women's sexuality articulated by both convicted rapists and lads' mags are similar enough that subjects couldn't reliably discern their source, and that these views were ranked as more derogatory than not. They also note that when a quote was identified as from a lads' mag (no matter what its actual source), subjects were more likely to say that they identified with the view it expressed than if the same quote was identified as coming from a rapist. This in itself is not especially surprising; who wants to sound like a rapist? However, it is a finding that seems at odds with the subjects' own view that "a boundary can be detected between the overlapping discourse of lads’ mags and convicted rapists, such that the former is ‘normal’ and the latter is ‘extreme’."

Here, the researchers double back to the disavowals made by editors of lads' mags, that their contents are ironic and that their readers are in on the joke. They write:

While magazine editors deny their publications are a source of social influence, our studies suggest that the ‘mainstream’ status of such magazines allows them to legitimize views about women that young men might otherwise consider unacceptable. In other words, the status of lads’ mags as legitimate mainstream publications may lend their contents performative force (Butler, 1997) to bring about change in the range of sexist opinions with which young men will identify. People are sometimes threatened when their views overlap with those of groups they dislike (Pool, Wood, & Leck, 1998). Here, young people struggled to correctly attribute the sources of the quotes (Study 2) and young men identified more with the quotes when they were attributed to lads’ mags (Study 1). Jointly, these two findings suggest that sexist talk about women in lads’ mags may be something more than ineffectual harmless ironic fun; these magazines’ very status as ‘mainstream’ publications may afford them the power to normalize very egregious sexist beliefs about women.

The research here suggests that views with which a young man might not identify just on the basis of their content could secure strengthened identification by virtue of appearing in a lads' mag. These magazines, in other words, confer a certain amount of cultural credibility on the views they present. This effect seems even more likely among young people looking to such magazines to educate them about sex, relationships, and appropriate gender roles. And, it seems possible that the presentation of views that are extreme en face in a context that is presumed by its consumers to be mainstream could shift perceptions of what kinds of attitudes are normal.

Who exactly is the audience for the lads' mags? Is it the young men who already have strongly sexist views (as did the subjects in Study 1 who identified most strongly with the quotes extracted from the lads' mags)? If so, this seems to argue against the editors' claims that their articles and editorials are intended to be ironic. The people identifying with the views expressed in the quotes are taking them literally.

If the intended audience is instead young men who are not identifying literally with the quotes -- and if these young men are looking to lads' mags for guidance about how to interact with women -- then how exactly do the pieces from which these quotes were extracted work? Do the articles and editorials actually shift the readers to a stronger identification with the claims? Since such identification is correlated with higher levels of sexism, achieving this kind of shift would undercut the claim that these magazines are offering harmless fun. Or, are there unmistakeable signals in the lads' mags that the views they present of women, as literally expressed, are to be rejected?

At the very least, there is nothing in the quotes taken from the lads' mags in this research that marked them as "ironic" for study participants. This suggests that regardless of authorial intent, it's possibilite that some significant portion of these magazines' readerships don't see them as ironic, either.

7 responses so far

  • Pinko Punko says:

    Very depressing, but also very illuminating.

  • scicurious says:

    Glad you covered this, much better than the mainstream reporting!

  • Zuska says:

    Well, now I know in detail with data that my loathing of these mags is more than justified. Sigh.

  • ofostlic says:

    Good to see a careful discussion of this.

    I'm a bit surprised that the quotes from the lads' mags were identified as more extreme. I see a fairly clear distinction in that all the rapists' quotes (except just possibly #1 read in the most charitable way) have a clear implication that the woman's consent is unimportant or implicit. The lads' mags quotes are much less consistent this way, and #1 can be read as simply endorsing consensual B&D.

    Is it possible that there's some confusion between 'extreme' as 'far away from perceived-as-mainstream sex acts' and the hostile sexism that the researchers were looking for? It wouldn't have much impact on their conclusions, but it might explain the 'more extreme' finding.

    Perhaps related, it's interesting to modify the quotes so that all participants are male. The rapists' quotes either don't translate plausibly or are just as bad. Some of the lads' mag ones seem much less offensive, and this may be because there's an assumption that you couldn't do this without consent.

  • me says:

    That participants rated quotes from lads' mags as more degrading than the quotes from rapists, I think could well be due to these quotes being comparitively cruder and more sexually explicit than the quotes from rapists. Without a careful understanding of what each participant took degrading to mean this result is quite ambiguous.

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