All parents, and especially parents of young boys, need to realise children know far more about sex than we want to believe. So when should you talk to them about the fact that images of women in lads’ mags and on the internet aren’t really what girls are all about, asks Piers Townley
The media are always getting a kicking for portraying women in a sexist light, and while magazines and newspapers aren’t solely responsible for objectifying women they are there, your kids will see them and you will feel a responsibility to educate them on the realities of sexual imagery, as well as sex itself.
The government are quite clear on the matter. Here’s Nick Clegg speaking to BBC Radio 5 Live last week: ‘I’ve got three little sons so I don’t have Page 3 on my kitchen table. But I don’t think it’s for the government to start telling The Sun what they put in. If you don’t like it, don’t buy it.’
I’ve had direct experience with lads’ mags, having worked on the most infamous of them all, Loaded. We brought the boob into mainstream magazines in a more immediate sense than ever before. After Loaded I helped start a magazine called Sorted, a kind of mini-Loaded without the sex. We had government praise, teachers were onboard, doctors and health professionals wrote advice columns – but it didn’t sell. Younger readers wanted to be older. Older readers wanted breasts, and knew where to see them.
As dad to a four-year-old boy, I’m acutely aware that Jake will one day be exposed to these images and I’ll have to help shape his response. And Martin Daubney edited Loaded for more than seven years but now has a three-year-old son. He admits those heady days are long behind him.
‘There shouldn’t be an age when you discuss it with them, but a time,’ he says. ‘We’d like to think this can be put off until their teens, but a US government report yesterday showed boys are entering puberty two years earlier than a decade ago. The unpleasant truth is that we can be talking about boys as young as 10 getting their hands on imagery that to many parents seems distasteful, but is now much more commonplace, especially if your child has older siblings and friends.’
And drawing a line can be difficult. ‘As parents, most of us recognise that banning something, especially something that is not immediately injurious to health, is often a fast track to increasing its appeal,’ says behavioural psychologist Jo Hemmings.
There’s another problem. ‘In this day and age, it’s far more likely that young boys will be looking at much harder imagery on the internet,’ says Daubney. ‘All my 15 years’ experience in men’s media tells me that young boys just aren’t paying for sexually explicit content. Why do they need to when they can get it for free, and with no stigma, on the internet?’
‘I was shocked to find pornographic images on my eldest’s phone,’ says Cher Bradshaw, a special needs teacher from Weymouth who has three boys, the eldest of whom is 13. ‘When I confronted him, we talked about how these images are not of everyday girls and that to rely on these images would give him a distorted view of sex and women.’
This experience highlights how easy it is to access these kind of images compared with a generation ago. We had rudey magazines, passed grubbily around the playground and hidden from teachers. And lads’ mags are still an entry point for kids who can’t get their hands on the internet.
Neither Nuts nor Zoo wanted to speak to us, but why should they? They target their magazines at older teens – although everyone can see them on supermarket shelves – and their websites are ‘age restricted’. In the same way I wouldn’t put an adult film on in front of Jake, we don’t have lads’ mags lying around. Truth be told, I’ve outgrown them anyway.
‘I did explain that being inquisitive is normal,’ says Bradshaw, who also attended a Speakeasy course for parents (many are being set up nationwide). ‘These conversations were embarrassing for both of us, but as a parent in this climate they are essential.’
Sexual or just sexy images have been around much longer than lads’ mags. The only way to deal with this issue is to be aware of when a child starts to experience it in everyday life and talk about it – and answer any questions they have in a way they will understand, whatever their age. Daubney has his own advice about the nature of this discussion. ‘A far better route is one of respect,’ he says. ‘Men don’t look up to women who take their clothes off for a living as positive role models, and neither should women. Have level-headed answers that demystify it and free the topic of taboos.’
‘It depends on the emotional maturity of your children,’ says Hemmings. ‘Some become more aware than others at a much earlier age. I think it’s generally in puberty or early adolescence, which can be as young as 9 in some children, but it’s especially important not to leave it any later than 11, when they transfer to “big” school, and their peer groups and socialisation are likely to change pretty radically and quickly.’