Men's magazines aren't known for representing women well, or accurately. In the universe of Playboy, Maxim and GQ, women eagerly strip off their clothes at any opportunity, pose in lesbian sexy scenes for fun and are easily molded into please-her-man machines. But this isn't usually regarded as a real danger to society. According to a new U.K. study, however, the comments that men's magazines make about women are almost identical to those made by convicted rapists.
Miranda Horvath of Middlesex University and Peter Hegarty of the University of Surrey scoured four of the U.K.'s most popular men's magazines, dubbed "lads' mags," and pulled out a range of remarks about women.
For example: "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."
Then they sifted through transcripts of interviews with convicted rapists in the U.S., picking out comments that these men had made about women and how their victims' behavior justified their crimes.
For example: "Girls ask for it by wearing these mini-skirts and hotpants ... they're just displaying their body ... Whether they realize it or not they're saying, 'Hey, I've got a beautiful body, and it's yours if you want it.'"
The researchers asked a group of men and women between the ages of 19 and 30 to rank the quotes according to how derogatory they were and to identify the source: men's magazine or convicted rapist?
The participants considered the quotes from men's magazines more demeaning, and their identifications were no better than guesswork.
In another study, the researchers asked men between the ages of 18 and 46 to report how strongly they identified with the quotes. Without knowing who said what, the men identified more with the rapists' statements.
When the researchers told the participants the source of each quote beforehand, however, the men were quick to identify more with the men's magazine excerpts -- even though some of them were misattributed and were actually the words of a rapist.
This study, which will be published online in the British Journal of Psychology next week, led the researchers to two uncomfortable conclusions.
"They tell us that there is an overlap in the content between the legitimations that rapists use to legitimate their violence against women and the kinds of things that are said about women in lads' mags," Hegarty said in a video press release on the University of Surrey's website. "And at the same time, they show us that when those things are attributed to lads' mags that they're easier for young men to identify with."
If mainstream media outlets are normalizing this language and the behavior it describes, it could help explain why 84 percent of men who committed rape, according to the legal definition, said that what happened wasn't rape, according to a 1994 study. This confusion over what constitutes a violent sexual act affects women, too: 49 percent of women who were raped did not classify their experience as such in a 2000 study sponsored by the U.S. Department of Justice.
Under pressure from parents, several supermarket and gas station chains in the U.K. agreed to move lads' mags to the top shelf in February, so as to keep all the glistening bikini-clad bodies out of sight and reach of children.
But the thoughts expressed in the magazines' pages may be a greater cause for concern. "A lot of debate around the regulation of lads' mags has been to do with how they affect children," said Horvath, "but less has been said about the influence they have on their intended audience of young men and the women with whom those men socialize."
Several studies have found that magazines influence men's and women's ideas of what is normal. A 1997 study showed that when men only read fitness magazines, they were more likely to believe women should have a slim figure. And researchers found in 2006 that 12- to 14-year-olds who were exposed to the most sexual content, via magazines, movies, TV and music, were over twice as likely to have sex in the next two years.
"We are not killjoys or prudes who think that there should be no sexual information and media for young people," Hegarty emphasized. "But are teenage boys and young men best prepared for fulfilling love and sex when they normalize views about women that are disturbingly close to those mirrored in the language of sexual offenders?"
And this is just the mainstream stuff. Boys are frequently introduced to sex through pornography, which is often demeaning to women and sometimes violent. There is no solid evidence that pornography shapes our real-life sexual behavior, but many believe we are living with the consequences of easy-access hardcore porn, from a culture that's more permissive of sexual violence to rising rates of erectile dysfunction.
Censorship may seem like the quickest and easiest solution, but Horvath and Hegarty don't believe banning men's magazines or restricting their content will solve the real issue. "Instead, I think it would be more useful if the government were to invest in really high quality sex education for young men and women," said Hegarty, "so that people didn't have to rely on this kind of media to fill the gap."