Men’s magazines sound like they were written by rapists

According to a recent study by a British university, readers have trouble distinguishing between excerpts from men’s magazines (FHM, Loaded, Zoo, and Nuts were the British magazines used in the study) and excerpts from interviews with convicted rapists. In many cases, test subjects rated the material from men’s magazines as more derogatory and misogynistic than the things said by convicted rapists.

Purveyors of these magazines often claim, in their own defence, that they love women, that their readers love women, and that it’s all just a laugh. This study puts a little pressure on that claim. Just a little.

Jezebel has more details of the study, including the excerpts used in the test. Can you tell the difference between a rapist and a men’s magazine?

22 thoughts on “Men’s magazines sound like they were written by rapists

  1. Hmmm. I guessed most of the items Jezebel listed correctly, and I find the opinions of the text subjects weird since the main criterion I used is that I assumed the more misogynistic comments were more likely to be from rapists (I didn’t expect the men’s magazines to talk a lot about what women were “asking for” or call them bitches or criticize their clothing, and it seems I was right).

  2. What are the kinds of task that people are generally incompetent at? If I set up a quiz where you had to distinguish quotes from men’s magazines from quotes from Jane Austen novels, I bet most people would be pretty good at it. So is the kind of task: distinguishing between things that are relevantly similar? Then yes, people might be generally not good at that. So what we’ve got here, then, is evidence that what rapists say and what these magazines say is relevantly similar. Not surprising, I don’t think; but valuable information.

  3. From my perspective as a long-time Esquire reader, I wouldn’t consider any of those subject texts “men’s” magazines. Indeed, much of what gets satirized in that pub is the kind of prolonged adolescence (which, yes, is going to be accompanied by a juvenile thinking that may resemble a rapist’s) promoted by pubs like FHM or Maxim.

    There is also a potential correlation/causation fallacy here. May be able to construct a very similar study with material from any number of magazines?

  4. I do think that there’s something disturbing here, but I don’t feel like Jezebel or (if Jezebel correctly represents it) the researchers have correctly identified what it is. There is a line of rape rationalization which says that women are “asking for it” or that women really want to be raped. But this line of rapist thinking doesn’t genuinely care what women want. Rapist reasoning thinks of rape as something that’s bad for women, but that they deserve. That they supposedly ask for it is just another example of how stupid and depraved they are, and so further evidence of how they don’t deserve to have their wants respected. But if a woman didn’t really want it, the rapist would still have plenty of other excuses for why she deserved it, and anyway the rapist isn’t really interested in knowing what the victim wants. For that matter, the rapist probably has as another one of his excuses for why women deserve to have bad things happen to them that they’re all liars. At least, that’s the sort of thinking I was looking for when I looked for rapist quotes, and I mostly correctly identified them.

    Conversely, a non-rapist straight guy wants to have sex with women who want to have sex with him, because to him, what women want matters. So when he’s thinking, or talking about, or fantasizing about sex, he’s going to be thinking about, talking about, or fantasizing about women who want to have sex with him. The mens magazines talk a lot about sex, and because they’re aimed primarily at non-rapist straight guys they end up talking a lot about women who want to have sex with guys. But it seems to me to be largely from this perspective of thinking it matters what women want (and again, that’s the perspective I was looking for when I mostly correctly identified the mens magazine quotes). This is not to say non-rapist straight guys or mens magazines are always (or even often) right about what women want, but obviously if a guy actually cares what a woman wants, then when she tells him she doesn’t want sex with him after all, he won’t try to rape her instead (he may try to convince her to change her mind, but I’m assuming that there’s an important difference between a guy being annoying and his being a rapist).

    So what would lead someone to confuse the mens magazine quotes with rapist rationalizations? I suppose someone might disagree with my interpretation of the mens magazine quotes. Perhaps the mags seem to be too badly wrong about women want; the thinking might be that someone who really cared would have made a serious effort to figure out what women want, and would end up with a more accurate view. If that were true, it would make the mens magazine reasoning more like rapist reasoning after all, but I don’t see this interpretation as in any way justified. People are too diverse, and too bad at figuring one another out, for me to think it’s reasonable to conclude that someone hasn’t made an effort in this area just because they make implausible claims. People who have made serious efforts to understand other people make wildly implausible claims about them all the time.

    There are other reasons someone might confuse the rapist rationalizations with the mens magazine sex advice; someone might tend to think of sex as something bad that happens to women, and so have trouble distinguishing sharply between sex and rape, or someone might have trouble thinking of women as having agency, and so find it difficult to understand and so difficult to see the perspective that treats what women want as mattering. I’m rather concerned that the study may show one or the other of those is true of a lot of people they surveyed.

  5. This is reminiscent of those quizzes of the variety “Guess who said it, [admired but controversial public figure] or [dictator / criminal / psychopath]?”, where the implicit suggestion of the quizmaker is that the inability of some respondents to distinguish reliably between two (which inability is of course intentionally exacerbated by cherry-picking the quotations) means that they are connected in some meaningful way, or even constitutes evidence that the first figure is actually a latent dictator, criminal or psychopath. All the logical critiques of such arguments ought to be brought to bear on this study.

  6. Ross:

    i think people would be good at distinguishing passages from from jane austen novels with passages from men’s magazines because the former are written in 19th century prose.

  7. I think Aaron makes several interesting points. I, too, found it fairly easy to distinguish the lad mag excerpts, but I was moved to map out what I thought was the driving idea or feeling behind the comments. According to my topology (and Aaron’s, I think), the salient feature of the lad mag quotes was that they adopt a tone of educating men about what women want. (If only Freud were here.) To wit: “a girl may like X… you can help her live out her fantasy”; “X can be a turn-on….compliments won’t hurt either”; “girls love X”; “X brings frisson to the bedroom”; “girls are like X, if you warm them up you can do anything you want.” That last one crosses the line a bit into another category (rank objectification), but the point is that, while the X’s in the original quotations are objectionable, the rhetorical framework is that of a marketing campaign: I can easily imagine replacing X with Coca Cola (in the 1950’s at least) or a Porsche. In fact, I’m reminded of nothing so much as a manual about dog training penned by some mega-conglomerate (“Dogs love Purina’s new ChickenChomps, and praise won’t hurt, either.”). I would argue this makes the lad mags *more* destructive than if they were merely presenting their worldview as entertainment. They are promoting this behaviorist, woman(or girl)-as-trainable-dog worldview as a marker of sophistication, part and parcel with the Hugo Boss suits worn by Matthew McConaughey, the Omega watches worn by Pierce Brosnan, and all the other trinkets deployed by worldy men to bring their women to heel.

    The rapists were more varied. Some spoke as if they were part of the marketing industry themselves: “you can usually seduce them and they’ll do it willingly.” A mercantile view is also evident in the way they split women into person and body: they talk of a woman flaunting/showing off/displaying/offering her body, as if she is a seller putting wares in a store window. It’s the rage, however, that struck me most: “what burns me up”; “the bitches….hard and heavy” (clearly punitive in the original context) and, of course, two quotes that express the old “asking for it” idea. Here I want to emphasize a subtle point that I think gets lost when discussing this phrase in the context of rape. We often talk as if ‘she asked for it’ simply means “women really want to be raped” i.e., as if it’s about imputing a particular desire to women. But “asking for it” describes a course of action pursued despite the likelihood it will provoke retaliation, with the implication that the retaliation is deserved in some way. That is why I think when a rapist is saying ‘she asked for it,’ we should understand it to betray the rapist’s rage (and his self-justification), not to signify his views on female desire.

    Finally, as to why would some people have a hard time distinguishing the lad mags from the rapists: I think people don’t pay close attention to language in general and are often bad at picking up emotional tone. But what is undeniable about both sets of comments is that they betray an unwillingness to grant agency to women.

  8. James, you are right: the *only* relevant difference between men’s mags and Jane Austen novels is that the latter were written in 19th century prose (despite much of the work being done in the 18th C). Clearly, if Austen was writing today she would be writing for men’s mags, and people would mistake her assertions for those of a rapist. I feel pretty stupid I didn’t realise this. Thanks for educating me.

  9. Ross:

    i wouldn’t know. i don’t read jane austen novels or men’s mags. and you spelled “realized” wrong.

  10. I didn’t use the word ‘realized’. I used ‘realise’. And I spelled it correctly, in British English. So unless it’s wrong to be British, I’m not sure what you’re talking about. And you should read Jane Austen.

  11. Hmmmm. Usually I tell people not to feed the trolls. But in this instance the back-and-forth is cracking me up.

    I think we can all agree that men’s magazines would be substantially better if they were written by Jane Austen.

  12. Brandt, I am not completely enthusiastic about marketing as a practice, but it seems to me that claiming that marketing denies agency involves a very strong concept of agency, a kind of agency which may be very hard to find anywhere. Certainly if you’re talking about marketing denying agency, you’re no longer talking about denying agency to women specifically. And at the risk of denying agency to anyone who reads this, I must say that all the cool kids have read Jane Austen.

  13. Aaron, I’m not sure what led you to think that I believe marketing denies agency; I agree with everything else you said in #16 (including that cool kids read Jane Austen).

    The lad mag comments first reminded me of an advice column. On further reflection, however, the tone of early marketing campaigns came to mind, with all their paternalistic bonhomie. I really do think there is _some_ diminution of agency if one thinks of women as pets to be manipulated into doing what you want. I guess I’m not convinced that the writers at the mags really care what women want (WWW); it seems they assume women want what _they_ want and that the only puzzle is how to get them to admit it/comply with it. Alternatively, they might be assuming, as you suggest, that their male readers _do_ care WWW, but in order to keep selling magazines they have to keep coming up with juicy new ideas about WWW. I don’t think this is such a controversial claim; magazines do the same thing with diets and ab workouts. Please understand that I am not saying that men in general, or readers of these mags, do not care WWW; only that the goal of marketing is to sell something, and that the readers’ presumed desire to understand women may make them more susceptible to the campaign.

    Frankly, I think we’d all be better off if the men read Jane Austen _instead_.

  14. James’ original pithy point is a good one. Ross obscures it.

    Subjects might not be able to distinguish between X and Y either because X and Y are really similar or because, although X and Y aren’t very similar, subjects aren’t good at telling them apart. For example, I bet subjects wouldn’t be very good at distinguishing between irony and misfortune. But that finding wouldn’t lead us to question whether there is as much difference between them as we once thought.

  15. Brandt, it sounds like I may have read too much into your earlier comment, and indeed it sounds like we don’t disagree about much. So it’s clear what the really important question is: how do we get guys to read more Jane Austen?

  16. So this is interesting, in light of the fact that we’ve talked on this site before about research showing men listen to other men: I know a great guy who really liked learning E.M. Forster’s work, and it made a huge impression on him to learn that E.M. Forster highly regarded Austen (the exemplar!, the benchmark!), and that Forster went so far as to call himself an “Austenite”. (So, not sure if Aaron was really just joking, but in case you really want to know, this worked on ONE guy, anyway.)

  17. Aaron: before I read Prof’s reply, I was going to write that if there were a way to force lad mags to serialize her books between their covers, it might go some way toward addressing the problem… or maybe we could design bookcovers to automatically accompany every Austen sale to a heterosexual male to disguise the fact that he is reading real literature.

    But profbigk makes such a good point I have to add a more serious answer: one of my favorite essayists, William Deresiewicz, has written a terrific book called “A Jane Austen Education.” He writes about being an English grad student who had to overcome all sorts of prejudices to start reading Jane (he was sure she would be boring; he wanted the meatier stuff of the American male 20th century novelists — who, by the way, seem to all write about sex!). Here’s his web site: http://www.billderesiewicz.com/ I’ve given it to a couple of people (including one male) and it’s motivated them to read Austen for the first time.

    And JA Fan, James, Ross, and Nemo make a fair point too, but it’s like the humorous Gail Collins columns in the NYT or Shouts&Murmurs in The New Yorker that cull quotes from a bunch of politicians or other public figures: I’m good at figuring out which ones were from which Republican candidate or ruthless dictator, but it’s not because they are not similar!

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