Kate Maltby

Why I’m not sorry to see FHM go

Why I'm not sorry to see FHM go
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So, farewell then, FHM. As Adrian Mole, 13 3/4 (years, not inches) and perhaps their target market, might have put it. Finally cowed, not by feminist protest, but by the big beast of the teen consumer market: internet pornography. Yesterday, the soft-core ‘lifestyle’ magazine announced that it was shutting up shop, along with fellow wank-bank supplier, Zoo. According to some sections of the internet, as a woman, I’m supposed to regret this.

The argument goes something as follows. Teenage boys are now watching online porn (true). Online porn is ever-more hardcore, and as an industry, hardly gentle to women (true). By comparison, the days of FHM were a feminist idyll (not true).

And with this approach comes a wave of revisionist comment articles. For instance, over at the Telegraph, Rebecca Reid offers a classic of the genre:

Okay, they traded in saucy pictures of girls in underwear or topless. But, crucially, these images were usually accompanied by an interview with the model. Even if she wasn’t being given the chance to discuss foreign policy, she was at least given a voice.

Hmm. To pick but the latest issue of ZOO off the newsstand, here’s an example of the voice lads mags gave to women. Hollyoaks centrefold Jorgie Porter declares this week, all caps: IT’S INVIGORATING TO BE NAKED. A page later, teasing her incipient I'm A Celebrity Get Me Out of Here Appearance, Zoo illustrates Porter’s thong-shot with a pull-quote: The longer I stay in, the skimpier my bikini will go”. I think my favourite FHM speech bubble, spotted on a centrefold tacked to the wall of a teenage boy, reads 'If a bloke cracks off on a pic of me, I think it’s a compliment'.

As defences of FHM go, 'she was at least given a voice' is up there with the image of Lucy Pinder, naked, vulnerable, (she’d misplaced her top) and dropping a tear for her unemployed colleagues on the last ever issue of Nuts, when it also closed last year. Because as I wrote then, the problem with lads mags isn’t pornography -- it’s that they were never pornographic enough. Porn, from Pompeii to Playboy, will always be with us, and policing sexual fantasy has rarely been constructive.  But there’s a difference between secretly lusting after a porn star and publicly nominating your female classmates for FHM’s High Street Honeys. 

If lads mags had a guiding principle, it was that everyday women exist to be ranked. FHM’s most famous feature was its 100 Sexiest Women in the World index - anyone else remember hearing teenage boys earnestly debating the breast size of Jessica Alba versus Megan Fox? And it wasn’t just celebrities - High Street Honeys encouraged young men to send in photographs of girlfriends, colleagues, check-out girls, for the approval of fellow readers. I’ve written before of the friend whose male classmates submitted her holiday snaps to FHM immediately after she beat them all in University Finals. This isn’t porn; it’s a tool to keep women in their place.

Porn, on the other hand, can be glorious. And, crucially, private. That’s not to say dirty videos don’t find their way to to the schoolyard - but this is an extension of the lads mag culture, not an alternative to it. Zoo, Nuts, FHM, all traded on the very public nature of their consumption - daring the teacher to confiscate, daring the co-worker to complain. There’s a reason we campaigned, not for them to be banned, but to be moved to the top-shelf.

I’ve never been threatened by the knowledge that a male co-worker goes home at night and masturbates (about… whatever.) What is a problem is when they all get together at lunchtime and loudly discuss their favourite shape of boobs. But if feminism is to roll back the clock on high street sexualisation, we may need to excavate an oddly old-fashioned principle: shame. Take down the centrefolds from the walls, put back the dirty DVDs under the mattress, surf online, alone, with half an ear out for the housemate’s step at the door. Sex used to be about intimacy - the secrets you learn about a lover in private - and there are far more sophisticated ways to explore the right sexual kink for your individual psyche. But you probably won’t hear about them on the bus, boys. And you certainly didn’t read about them in FHM.

Written byKate Maltby

Kate Maltby writes about the intersection of culture, politics and history. She is a theatre critic for The Times and is conducting academic research on the intellectual life of Elizabeth I.

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