A new study reveals the public find it hard to differentiate between the language used by convicted sex offenders and mainstream magazines
"Go and smash her on a park bench." Are these the words of a sex offender or those printed in one of the UK's leading lads' mags? Given the phrasing chosen by former Sky Sports presenter Richard Keys earlier this year, you might not find it hard to believe that this is in fact a direct quote from a mid-shelf publication. But a group of men and women participating in a study at Middlesex University found it difficult to differentiate between statements given by convicted rapists and the way lads' mags routinely describe women.
"In a group study, we distributed quotes on bits of card to 20 men and women and asked them to rank how degrading they were to women, then we revealed some were from rapists and some were from lads' mags, and asked them to attribute those quotes to either group," explained Dr Miranda Horvath, a senior lecturer in forensic psychology at Middlesex University who specialises in researching sexual violence. "The group guessed correctly 50% of the time. They clearly had considerable difficulty making quick decisions about where these quotes came from."
Quotes were taken from The Rapist Files: Interviews With Convicted Rapists by Sussman & Bordwell and four titles: Zoo, Nuts, Loaded and FHM. In an additonal study by the same researchers, a group of 92 men aged 18-46 were asked to participate in a similar exercise, but were also asked to say which of the quotes they identified with. The results revealed that overall, more of the men agreed with the rapists, only changing their minds when the source of the quote was revealed.
When I asked Dr Horvath to go through some of the quotes used in the study, what shocked me was that the language used by the lads' mags seemed much more repulsive than that offered up by the sex offenders to justify their crimes. Here's one of the samples from a magazine given to participants of the study: "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." Here's a convicted rapist discussing his crime: "There's a certain way you can tell that a girl wants to have sex . . . The way they dress, they flaunt themselves."
The first statement clearly delights in its own degradation. But the second statement unfortunately sounds like the kind of thing men or women routinely say; last year, a study by Haven showed that women were even less forgiving than men when it came to rape victims who had kissed their attacker, drank alcohol or "dressed provocatively".
Blame culture is problematic for obvious reasons, not least because its undefined boundaries occasionally lead, for example, broadsheet journalists to include details about an 11-year-old gang-rape victim such as whether she wore makeup, or looked older than her years, as if a child can be in anyway culpable for her own assault. What's more disturbing, when looking at the quotes used in the study, is that rapists and large sections of the general public seem to share a softened, "I'm not racist but" attitude for explaining away rape.
The editors of British lads' mags that I contacted either declined to be interviewed for this piece or didn't respond. Perhaps they're tiring of humourless spoilsports like me getting in touch to ask questions such as why they published a column advising a reader to "cut his ex's face, so no one will want her".
But Horvath and her colleagues are hoping that MPs will take notice of the pernicious effects this kind of language can have on young men and their attitude to women and review their attitudes to what passes for eyeline-level reading material in this country. "These findings raise a number of challenging questions," says Dr Horvath. "The apparent normalising effect of lads' mags runs counter to the work that is done with sex offenders both in prison and the community. Sex offender programmes challenge the men on them about their sexist, misogynistic and derogatory beliefs about women and seek to reeducate them. Yet it appears that some similar beliefs have been presented in recent lads' mags, which are normalised and accepted in mainstream society."