When Peter Stringfellow tells you that you are a ‘lovely lady’ you know that your are either in the wrong job, or the wrong conversation — or you are winning the argument.
We were debating on Sky News the decision by Playboy magazine to abandon nudes in its Spring 2016 revamp.
Stringfellow, the ‘sex entertainment’ entrepreneur, insisted that Playboy is merely modernising, moving to the internet where easy access to virtual sex and women is a most prolific and profitable form of traffic.
But Stringfellow and other commentators are missing something more interesting: We are in midst of a cultural revolution.
Whilst on one flank, what the femininist scholar Maddy Coy calls sexualised sexism flourishes on the web, on another flank it is severely challenged by feminist campaigns against lad mags and The Sun’s Page 3, and by men themselves.
Lad mag circulations have been diving, several have closed, and the publishers’ own research reveals that there is more to this than men switching from print to the web.
Among millions of men, it seems, their taste for sexism has faded.
Stringfellow and friends may hate to admit it — and the porn traffic in on the web may contra-indicate — but the readers confirm that the debate about sexual objectification of women isn’t just a joust between men and women it is an argument between men.
When Playboy, the daddy of them all, announced in September 2015 that there would no nude women in its re-launch in the Spring of 2016, we know now, if we did not know before, that we are indeed in the midst of a cultural revolution.
A Playboy editor Cory Jones had consulted the market research and bravely confronted its founder Hugh Heffner with his conclusion: the nudes had to go. It was a mix of profit motive and politics; the research showed not only that men could, by the flick of a finger, access any amount of nudity and virtual sex.
Playboy’s survival as a magazine depends on moving online. Most of its income is generated by the logo — a bunny to brand handbags and sportswear.
But if the magazine that gave birth to that bunny in 1953 is to staunch terminal decline it has make some accommodation with social media platforms like Facebook, Instagram and Twitter, and that means putting clothes on.
Social media are not sexism-free spaces — but they are sites where it is contested, and they are sites inhabited by women and men.
In August 2014 Playboy’s website dispensed with nudity: the average age of its readers dropped from 47 to just over 30, and its web traffic jumped to about 16 million from about four million unique users per month.
In Britain, the lad mags that proliferated in the 1990s — when it was so right on to be right off — had already peaked by the end of the decade. Less than 20 years after they arrived in the shops, three of the biggest-sellers, Loaded, Maxim and Nuts had been closed.
Holly Baxter, Vagenda co-founder, reckons that it isn’t only online porn that’s wounded the lad mags, nor the successful campaigns to persuade retailers — markedly the Co-op — to get lad mags off the shelves.
“Loaded, Maxim and Nuts — all closed down — because they ‘represent an ideology which has become markedly unpopular. “Laddishness” is dying out; the whole concept has become desperately uncool. Even mainstream online porn has been shifting to focus on shared pleasure rather than straightforward female objectification.”
Over optimistic I fear. In 2015 Esquire editor Alex Bilmes got himself into bother with his nearest and dearest and women in general for insisting that Esquire used women for ornamental purposes.
After his ‘ornamental’ comment made at a media conference made him a bit notorious, he explained: He puts women in the magazine because they are interesting, have cultural currency, and they’re hot.
“But most of all, we wonder: is she hot? Will our readers agree that she’s hot? Ornamental, see? “
He admits though that Lena Dunham, New York creator of the hit HBO series Girls, “is a brilliant, brazen, necessary corrective to that.” He’d want to watch her show, but not see her on his mag’s cover.
“It’s not my job to provide positive role models for young women, or to challenge the homogeneity of representations of young women in the media. I’m a men’s magazine editor. I supply entertainment for men. “
But the Playboy decision also shows that she is on to something — men who like sexualised sexism have somewhere else to go; and men who don’t are doing something about their distaste: they’re just not buying it.
Unlike lad mags, Men’s Health and Shortlist — men’s mags that don’t do sexualised sexism —aren’t in decline.
Former Nuts editor, Phil Hilton, was invited to join the launch of Shortlist in 2007. Up to then, he’d been “locked in a ferocious newsstand battle for three years in which the biggest single factor in winning readers was women, without clothes, on the cover, every week.”
Now, the notion of a free mag felt liberating: if the publisher didn’t have to worry about men buying it, they could change the content, they could even put men on the cover. In his launch diary, he wrote that they could:
“Produce a title that appeals to the best instincts of all those prosperous grown-ups who don’t even browse the newsstand anymore. I’m excited.”
Stuff, a gadget magazine for young men, always had women on its covers. Now it is concentrating on what the magazine is really about, gadgets. This followed the magazine’s research into readers’ responses to ‘girl’ and ‘non-girl’ covers. For several months last year the publisher put non-girl covers into four regions: sales were higher than girl covers.
Rachael Prasher, Stuff publishing director, said the decision by the owner, Haymarket Media Group, to go non-girl “is based on what our audience have told us through focus groups and cover trials, there is no question that it feels like the right decision to make.”
Stuff editor in chief, Will Findlater, adds that their market research showed that if using women to sell gadgets once worked — did it? — it doesn’t now: Stuff readers are “united by their passion for technology — and nothing else.”
So, Stringfellow and his comrades think they have their finger on the pulse of men. But they haven’t registered the zeitgeist: that feminist pressure on the Murdoch empire and the retailers, No More Page 3 and Lose the Lads Mags have had an impact.
And the publishers’ own research on their readers tells them that its not just women who don’t like sexualised sexism, its men, too: this isn’t just an historic debate between women and men but between men, about women and what it means to be a man.