Pile of magazines

Dr. Peter Hegarty discusses the ways in which ‘Lad Mags’ have influence young men’s perceptions of sexual violence and rape.

In recent years, many once-popular lads’ mags titles have closed. Magazines such as FHM once changed marketers expectations for how large the market in men’s magazines might be but lads are no longer interested in paying for these titles. These magazines often touted an evolutionary psychology theory in their pages that all men intrinsically wanted easy access to women and an escape from unnatural political correctness. Now that lads have voted with their feet away from lads’ mags, that evolutionary explanation of masculinity no longer seems to explain lads’ mags rise and fall in popularity.

Instead, shifts in social norms and culture seem more applicable.  In the UK, in recent years, feminist groups worked to change social norms to render lads’ mags less legitimate kinds of publications. By 2010 lads’ mags were increasingly being called out not just for their soft-porn contents, but for their violent prescriptions. In one set of studies, we found that students were not much better than chance at differentiating between quotes that we had drawn from the articles and editorials in lads’ mags and quotes drawn with convicted rapists. Moreover, in a separate study young men identified more with all of those quotes when they were said to have originated in lads’ mags rather than when their sources was not revealed, or they were attributed to rapists  (Horvath, Hegarty, Tyler, & Mansfield, 2012). Norms had changed. Sexist discourse that young people would likely find ‘extreme’ in other contexts appeared more acceptable to young men when it appeared in a lads mag. Criticisms of lads’ mags’ influence gained the ears of many, ultimately leading to the decision to place them in black plastic wrappers on supermarket shelves in the UK.

The media response to our research was overwhelming, and we were delighted that our social psychological work informed the national debate about what lads’ mags were doing  In addition, it incited science bloggers to consider how social psychology experiments can inform public debate.

In our most recent publication, forthcoming in Psychology of Men and Masculinity, we expanded on our earlier work.  Some critics critiqued our experiments which were conducted on students. It’s a fair point, even if college age men are the target audience for lads’ mags. Here we report a new survey, conducted over the winter of 2009-10 with approximately 400 men recruited from advertisements in UK newspapers.  The correlation between sexist attitudes and consumption of lads’ mags is also evident in this larger, older, and  more diverse group of men.

We also wanted to see if lads’ mags would normalize sexist humor.  Lads’ mags editors often made the point that sexist humor that occurred in lads’ mags was harmless because it was perceived as ironic by male readers.  But sociologists have long wondered if lads’ mags don’t stifle non-sexist men’s discomfort about such sexist humor.  We took jokes that really appeared in lads’ mags, framed them as either originating from a lads’ mag or not, then asked young men to rate them in several ways. The framing made no difference to the perceived irony of the jokes. Rather, young men – particularly those who scored lower on sexism measures – considered these jokes to be less hostile when they appeared in a lads mag.  This context blunted these men’s usual dislike for such hostile sexist jokes.

Finally, we wondered if we could intervene in lads’ mags legitimacy. Would making young men aware of the proximity of lads’ mags contents to that of rapists lead them to deconstruct these norms? Using the quotes from lads’ mags and from convicted rapists from our earlier studies, young American men were assigned either to a control group, read the quotes, or were asked to complete the sorting task used in our earlier study. Again we collected several measures. Men performed the sorting task no better than  participants in our earlier study, but these men also considered lads’ mags less legitimate after this experience.  Ironically, by exposing men to lads’ mags contents in a different context, we had the effect of making those magazines appear less legitimate.

In sum, this research suggests that lads’ mags were once an important source of influence on young men, but are now one has now waned. Whilst they often promoted that there was only one way to be a man, the results with the participants in our studies show that masculinities are more variable than their prescribed norms. The idea of how to be a man is certainly in flux, and likely less sexist now that this version of laddishness is off the shelf.


peter-hegarty Peter Hegarty, PhD, is a social psychologist, a historian of psychology and a Professor in the School of Psychology at the University of Surrey.   He has published numerous articles in social psychology and in gender and sexuality studies, focusing on the consequences of implicit norms ‘ effects on scientific understanding of group differences. His first book Gentlemen’s Disagreement: Alfred Kinsey, Lewis Terman, and the Sexual Politics of Smart Men was published by the University of Chicago Press in 2013.

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