This is our truth, tell us yours
Imagine the scene.
It’s a bar in a northern city sometime in the 80s.
At the bar the barman is looking uncomfortable. Arranged in front of him are four guys in leather jackets and stonewashed jeans, discussing how they would fuck a particular footballer if they got their hands on him. The coarseness of their language and the loudness of their voices is making the barman nervous. They’re making him fear that the language and behaviour is targetted at him, that the violent sex they’re talking about is aimed at him, that he is the object of their desires.
Part of me wants to give him a cuddle, to explain that they’re talking about a footballer to make the point that they want to assert their masculinity by dominating a masculine icon; a pretty boy from Salford with badly applied mascara is not going to make the point they want to. They’re not really talking about sex. They’re marking their territory and asserting themselves. They don’t know if the guy in question would like to be fisted or whipped. It’s just bluster that’s about them, not him.
In part they’re doing it for the rest of the customers in the bar. It’s a gay bar by night, but the daytime and early evening crowd reflects the fact that it’s just off the city centre, and surrounded by offices and warehouses. They’re telling the civilians and the tourists that they’re the real deal, and they’re tossing a metaphorical gauntlet in front of any guys in the bar who want to challenge their version of masculinity in all its gay glory.
Amongst the guys in the bar is a teacher from the local sixth form college, sitting with several of his mates from work. I know what he would like. Lots of cock vigorously applied to his arse is one way of describing what he likes. How do I know? Well, I used to be the doorman at this bar until I moved to a mixed club across the city centre. The leather guys know I’m sitting there sipping a vodka and tonic to kill time between the gym and the job, and to keep an eye on them, because I like the barman. They tolerate me because their image won’t survive losing a fight with me. It’s a sensible risk assessment on their part – I might not win but it would be messy and unpredictable. So they keep an eye on me, to make sure I don’t intervene.
The teacher in the corner is also watching me nervously. I picked him up in here when I was doorman, and we occasionally act as outlets for each other’s desires. He’s keeping an eye on me tonight though in case I inadvertently out him to his workmates. He has a hierarchy of people he doesn’t want to know he’s bi. His workmates are high up that hierarchy, just below his wife. Part of his thing when he’s in my flat is that I can taunt him, threaten to make him shave off his body hair or have his nipples pierced, and how would he explain that to the woman he married whose underwear he’s wearing as he squirms underneath me ? The humiliation is part of his thing, and I’m happy to exploit it for my pleasure.
I know, just another amoral vignette from a man who’s had more than his fair share of moments that might give him cause for regret. But I wouldn’t know what I know about sex and attraction without having been there and understood why I enjoyed what I did. It seems to me, as I look out at the world, that the people who want to lose the lads mags don’t understand how sexual attraction, and its associated language, actually works.
Those hyper-masculine gay men at the bar don’t actually want to fuck footballer X; he’s just a vehicle through which they can tell the world what they are. The teenage boy with a copy of Loaded in his schoolbag doesn’t believe he’s going to have sex with the models; they’re just vehicles for his fantasies. Their lives are changed far less by his fantasies than they are by the cheque from the publishers.
Circulating amongst the bairn’s friends on whichever social network they’re hiding out on this week is a screenshot of a convo between two classmates; one, female, is teasing the lad about how immature he is because he had a copy of Loaded at school. He responds by saying he’s had sex four times.
Four times. That detail is so redolent of male adolescence, of the need to assert who and what we are, and what we aren’t. Faced with the charge of being a sad wanker, the lad asserts he’s done it four times, and throws in a gratuitous detail about gravel being rough on the knees. He’s desperate not to be dismissed as a sad virgin. He confesses that he likes the girls in Loaded, but he fancies real girls, like the one he’s trying to chat up on Facebook chat. She dismisses him, because he doesn’t know what she likes, or who she really is, and the cut and pasted screenshot goes viral round the school.
Porn mags like Penthouse and Mayfair used to sell a lifestyle that their readers could buy into, all fast cars and pretty girls. They were toppled from their position at the top of the porn market by the new wave of mags who sold themselves as being for people who actually did it; the models, and the readers wives who were the new innovation, talked about sex, and what they liked.
It was as if porn mags had taken the leap from being all surface, all image, to a three dimensional world where desire and sexual tastes were as important as how you looked. It was terminal for the lifestyle top shelf mags. Lads mags moved into the space that had been occupied by Penthouse and Mayfair, and beat them at their game by toning down the sexual content and defining a particular type of lifestyle that was more relevant to a younger audience. Even they, however, had to normalize their models by featuring amateurs through devices like the Miss Loaded competition. Lads needed to be reassured that real girls wanted to look that good, and to be looked at, and sure enough, plenty of girls did enter the Miss Loaded competition each year.
Lose the lads mags and campaigns like them seem to have missed the point. Lads mags don’t shape boys view of the world – they reflect it. The boys who buy them are saying something about themselves and their place in the world. Just like girls who buy Company, or Cosmo, or share Pinterest boards of their favourite clothes this week.
Lads mags are already deeply unfashionable, because they’ve lost traction with their audience in the same way music papers went into a deep decline in the 90s. Fighting them is already a case of fighting yesterday’s battles. But trying to end the rites of passage that mean boys use magazines or other cultural content as badges to identify themselves is pointless; better sex ed for boys, and more education about the difference between image and desire is much more likely to kill the lads mags than a modesty bag.