The Feminist Agenda
At the end of the year 2011, feminist organisations made a submission to the Leveson Inquiry. They stated their familiar belief that the media is ‘sexist’ against women.
The organisations involved included the feminist pressure group OBJECT, who also appeared in the recent research about lads mags and rapists. Here, OOnagh Ryder comments on the lads mags research, with some fascinating observations:
A few weeks a go Jane Martinson posted at the Guardian about this study which asked a group of people to determine whether a selection of quotes about women were taken from lads’ mags or convicted rapists, to sort them in order of how derogatory they were and to say which quotes they agreed with the most. I’ve since seen the study cited a few times as evidence for feminist arguments against lads’ mags and tabloids and I’m starting to worry that people are actually taking what I think is a very poor piece of research (at least from what I know about it) quite seriously. So here’s a short piece on the problems I have with it.
I’ll start by saying that the study is still due to be published in the British Journal of Psychology so I’m going on the information I can gather from the University of Surrey press release. It may be that the full write up of the research covers all the problems I’m going to talk about, in which case this post can be taken as criticism of a bad press release and the feminists who have used it to present their opinions as fact.
There are a number of missing details in the press release which I’d imagine will appear in the full journal article once published, all crucial to determining the validity of the researchers’ claims. For example, we do not yet know how their sample was selected, how many people were included, what the gender/age/ethnicity/class etc. distribution was (or whether this had any impact on the results), or under what circumstances they were presented with the quotes.
Most importantly, and I really think that this should have been included in the press release, we don’t know why the researchers want to know whether a group of people can guess the source of the quotes in the first place. The press release doesn’t tell us what the researchers are actually trying to investigate or measure or why they are using this methodology to do so.
Already I’d argue that there’s not enough information for anyone use this study as evidence for anything, but people have so I may as well address the outcomes and conclusions as well.
The press release tells us that:
“The research due to be published in the British Journal of Psychology also revealed that most men who took part in the study identified themselves more with the language expressed by the convicted rapists.
Psychologists presented men between the ages of 18 and 46 with a range of statements taken from magazines and from convicted rapists in the study, and gave the men different information about the source of the quotes. Men identified more with the comments made by rapists more than the quotes made in lads’ mags, but men identified more with quotes said to have been drawn from lads’ mags more than those said to have been comments by convicted rapists.
The researchers also asked a separate group of women and men aged between 19 and 30 to rank the quotes on how derogatory they were, and to try to identify the source of the quotes. Men and women rated the quotes from lads’ mags as somewhat more derogatory, and could categorize the quotes by source little better than chance.”
From this, the researchers draw the conclusion that “the findings are consistent with the possibility that lads’ mags normalise hostile sexism, by making it seem more acceptable when its source is a popular magazine.”
I’m really at a loss to see how this conclusion can be logically drawn from these results. The researchers discuss the language used by the lads’ mags and rapists as if it is all the same, seemingly using the fact that the participants in the study could not distinguish between the two as evidence for this. At the same time, the researchers “were surprised that participants identified more with the rapists’ quotes” and “concerned that the legitimisation strategies that rapists deploy when they talk about women are more familiar to these young men than we had anticipated”, suggesting that the participants in the study are perhaps not the most reliable analysts of language. In other words, first they imply that the opinions of the participants are infallible and then they argue that the opinions of the participants are informed by sexist attitudes.
As for the fact that the men agreed more with the quotes they were told came from lads’ mags, I can’t see how that says anything about how sexist lads’ mags are or the effect they have in society. Men agreeing with sexist statements because they were told they were from a lads’ mag has nothing to do with the ability of lads’ mags to ‘normalise hostile sexism’ and everything to do with the fact that no one wants to agree with a rapist.
Over at Jezebel, you can read a few example of the quotes used in the study. I actually found it very easy to distinguish between the ones taken from rapists and the ones taken from lads’ mags – the former blame women for rape, the latter don’t.
“There’s a certain way you can tell that a girl wants to have sex . . . The way they dress, they flaunt themselves.” (Rapist)
“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.” (Lads’ mag)
These are the examples that Jane Martinson used to back up her claim that “the language used by the lads’ mags seemed much more repulsive than that offered up by the sex offenders to justify their crimes”. In my opinion, if Jane Martinson is honestly more shocked by the idea that a woman might enjoy feeling like a ‘dirty slut’ in the bedroom than the idea that you can tell whether or not a woman wants to have sex with you by the way they dress then she should probably have a good long think about whether it’s sexism or just sex that bothers her.
It does worry me that most men in the study agreed more with the rapists and that the participants rated the rapists’ comments as less derogatory than the lads’ mags quotes, but these facts also raise the question, ‘what do the lads’ mags actually have to do with it?’. There’s no evidence that the quotes from the lads mags are actually sexist (the examples in Jezebel are too heavily edited and out of context to tell) or, if they are, that they’re any more sexist than things written other publications like women’s magazines. There’s nothing in this study that suggests any relationship between lads’ mags and rape, especially considering that there’s no way the rapists, interviewed in the US in the 1990s, could have had any interaction with the magazines chosen by the researchers. Despite this complete lack of evidence, the press release focuses heavily on concerns about the influence of lads mags in society, frequently switching between mentions of lads’ mags and rapists to imply that the two are evidently linked.
The fact that the press release contains a statement from Object, including a plug for their submission to the Leveson Inquiry, suggests to me that the researchers are more concerned with political opportunism than academic integrity. Whether or not this is the case, we can certainly be sure that there are a good few feminists around at the moment who are either unwilling or unable to separate unsubstantiated speculation from hard evidence.