I thought the lads’ mags I worked for were harmless fun. Now I fear they led to a generation of
Awarm summer afternoon in the late 1990s and, in FHm magazine’s London office, we’re celebrating.
It’s just been announced that the socalled lads’ mag has achieved monthly sales of 750,000 and staff are flocking from desks piled with free gadgets and shiny photos — many of young women posed provocatively in skimpy underwear — and trickling back from the pub to crack open the champagne.
I take a glass, too, and pause from writing up an interview with the presenters of The Girlie Show (to accompany photos of them dressed suggestively in skimpy school uniforms).
This year marks 30 years since the men’s magazine revolution, which began with the relaunch of FHm, previously a dull fashion quarterly, in 1993. Then came the explosion of edgy wit, soft porn and stunts that was Loaded — catchphrase ‘Good work, fella!’ — followed by Nuts, Zoo, Front and plenty more excitable, short-lived imitators.
all good, healthy fun — or so we thought. But could the influence of those extremely laddish mags, where women came packaged like human ready-meals and ‘talking about your feelings’ meant brutally insulting each other, have had a much more malign influence than we ever imagined?
I ask myself that question more often than I’d like to, because between 1996 and 2001 I worked regularly for FHm as a writer. as a 25-year-old single parent with a son of three, I was delighted to be writing for such a successful glossy.
YeTI see things differently now. In their mixture of ‘banter’, fast cars and the objectification of women — somebody once counted 73 naked females in an issue of Nuts — it seems to me lads’ mags, while never advocating abuse, were selling a version of masculinity not too far removed from that espoused today by toxic online influencers like andrew Tate, currently detained in a romanian jail on alleged rape and human trafficking offences.
were those ‘fun’ magazines the beginning of a new era of misogyny?
I was an interviewer for FHm and was sometimes drafted into the office as holiday cover. assignments included quizzing Playboy bunnies about their sex lives and ‘ swapping lives with a bloke’ for a day, which involved him having a leg wax and me leering at girls in a pub. I’d interview cover starlets and sometimes write up ‘Girls on the Couch’, where ordinary (but always attractive) women debated sexual etiquette. I worked on the notorious ‘ High Street Honeys’, an annual competition where lads would send in pictures of their girlfriends — not necessarily with permission — and readers would vote for the sexiest.
we convinced ourselves it was all part of the prevailing culture of Lads and Ladettes having a good time, in the pre-internet days when it was normal to wait a full month to see a photo of a celebrity you fancied in her knickers.
Ladettes professed themselves happy to be on ‘an equal footing’ with men, drinking as much as they did, and behaving just as badly. But, of course, we were not equal in the eyes of society.
In fact, it was a deeply sexist period and these were often deeply sexist publications. Girl power meant nothing more than women wearing wonderbras to the pub and drinking eight pints alongside the men. It meant TV presenter Gail Porter’s naked rear projected onto the Houses of Parliament without her permission. Now, I can see a clear path leading from those attitudes and obsessions to men such as Tate, 36, whose videos on YouTube and TikTok contain a far more dangerous and overt misogyny — yet last year ranked among the world’s most watched.
The boom in lads’ mags coincided with the teen years of men like Tate and may well have influenced their developing view.
Consider the division of women into two broad, dehumanised stereotypes in those pages: either trophies — the willing, naked blonde — or nags — the whining, frumpy girlfriend who doesn’t want her bloke having fun.
The cover lines of the time tell the story. From Zoo: ‘win Your Girlfriend a £4,000 Boob Job!’ — because clearly her body wasn’t good enough as it was. From FHm: ‘Sex Toys: (Keep her quiet while the football’s on).’
and in a deeply unpleasant dig at the late, respected politician mo mowlam: ‘The FHm Sex awards!... sweet Fa for mowlam.’ Sex has always sold, but the lads’ mags normalised the idea that women are for men’s sexual pleasure, bringing the attitudes of a still-top- shelf pornography into the eye-level mainstream.
But if the lads’ mags covered their sexism with an edgy wit, men such as Tate jettison the fun entirely. Thrown off Big Brother for offensive comments in 2016, he quickly gained an online following and began offering paid courses and memberships through his ‘Hustler’s University’ website.
Teenage boys and young men were drawn to the depiction of his ‘ultra-masculine, ultra-luxurious’ lifestyle, and his unrepentant misogyny, in disturbingly high numbers. a poll last year by advocacy group Hope Not Hate found that eight in ten boys aged 16 to 17 had engaged with his content.
Tate suggested rape victims ‘ bear some responsibility’ for being attacked, said women ‘belong in the home’ and referred to them as the ‘property’ of men. Clearly he goes way further than any 1990s lads’ mag ever did — but surely it’s fair to conclude that they all promote the same deeply sexist culture. ‘It makes sense that the attitudes promoted in widely read men’s magazines had an impact on the readers’ views of women,’ says chartered psychologist Catherine Hallissey.
This is backed up by research, she adds. a 2012 study published in the Journal of Psychology found ‘ some magazines targeted at young men are normalising extreme sexist views by presenting those views in a mainstream context.’ The authors shared quotes with male readers and found that ‘young men identified more with derogatory quotes about women drawn from recent lads’ mags, and from interviews with convicted rapists, when those quotes were attributed to lads’ mags than when they were attributed to rapists’.
They also found that both men
and women struggled to work out whether the quotes were from sex offenders or magazines.
Violently misogynist online subcultures, such as the incel (involuntary celibate) movement, often rely on the notion that attractive women are superficial and sexobsessed, an idea perhaps unwittingly promoted by the later lads’ mags, which battled to keep their place on the shelves by featuring as many naked women as they could cram into the pages.
Now, as an older feminist, I feel ashamed of my role, albeit small, in promoting this profoundly male-centric view of the world.
early on, though, I enjoyed the work and liked my colleagues. The men in the office were witty and educated, albeit a bit delighted with themselves.
MaNYof those who worked on such magazines still insist they were all about respectful fun. Charlotte Crisp was the deputy ‘Front Section’ editor of Loaded in 2001, and says: ‘ The vast majority of staff were male. They were clever, funny, nerdy and treated me with the utmost respect. The mag was naughty and irreverent, like being down the pub with the funniest crowd you’d ever meet.’
She does admit, though, that ‘as we had to compete with other mags, the clothes started to fall off our own models’.
Indeed their shelf life was limited. The rise of the internet, coupled with the ‘sex sells’ race to the bottom — ‘more birds, less words’ as late-era Loaded editor martin Daubney described one advertiser’s demands — meant readers and the higher-paying advertisers were frightened off.
By the end of 2015, Loaded, FHm, Nuts, Zoo, maxim and most of the others had closed or gone online-only. I stopped writing for FHm well before that.
when the features editor requested I find a line-up of ‘sexy nymphos’ to interview, I knew that the fun, jokey magazine I used to enjoy was long gone.
Sadly, 30 years on, it’s that misogynistic porn element that has endured. Good work, fellas.