Men can’t differentiate quotes from rapists and jokes in “lad mags,” studies have found

In good company.
In good company.
Image: Flickr user Jonathan Weatherill-Hunt/CC by 2.0
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Rape culture is in the spotlight after a video surfaced showing US presidential candidate Donald Trump boasting about sexually assaulting women in 2005. He dismissed it as harmless “locker room talk,” but many have argued that such talk is harmful, not just to women, but also to men. (Several women have also come forward saying that he has actually assaulted them.)

This week, British researchers released results from three experiments showing that the magazines geared toward men known as “lad mags,” such as Maxim and FHM, can make men more tolerant of sexist remarks by presenting them as funny or ironic. In one of the experiments, men were unable to distinguish quotes said by convicted rapists and jokes from lad mags.

“These latest studies demonstrate how a concrete source of social influence (lads’ mags) can shape the expression of a prejudice that is generally considered unacceptable in an egalitarian society,” Peter Hegarty, a psychologist at the University of Surrey and lead author of the paper, said in a press release.

The researchers, from the University of Surrey, Clark University, University of Ghent, and Middlesex University London, published their paper in the journal Psychologies of Men and Masculinity. They were building upon work (paywall) from 2011 in which men and women participants couldn’t tell the difference between quotes from men convicted of rape and comments about women printed as “jokes” in a magazine.

In this experiment, the team repeated this test with almost 300 college-aged men. The men were given a series of quotes, and many participants could not identify when a rapist had said something about women, or when it was in a lad mag.

The researchers also looked at the relationship between sexism and reading these magazines in two other experiments involving over 500 British men between the ages of 18 and 50. In one, they found when men were told that jokes about women were in a lad magazine, the men viewed them as funny. In another, the researchers asked participants to fill out a short survey (pdf) to assess sexism. They found that men whose answers suggested they viewed women less favorably were more likely to purchase lad magazines—implying that these publications reaffirm sexist attitudes.

Taken together, these experiments support assertions that lad mags and the kind of “locker room talk” they perpetuate are the opposite of harmless.

There is hope, however: When told that some of the quotes had come from lad mags, study participants viewed the magazines less credibly. “When the extreme hostility of the content of lad mags is made obvious, men are more likely to reject these magazines,” Hegarty said. Perhaps if we call it out when we see it, other forms of sexism will be rejected, too.

Image by Jonathan Weatherill-Hunt on Flickr, licensed under CC-BY-2.0. This image has been cropped.