RETAILERS could face legal action from employees or customers if they continue to display magazines and newspapers with naked or near-naked images on their covers, lawyers have warned.
The Lose the Lads’ Mags campaign, by pressure groups UK Feminista and Object, says displaying publications – such as Loaded, Nuts and Zoo – in stores or requiring staff to handle such magazines could amount to sex discrimination or sexual harassment.
In a letter to a national newspaper, 11 equal rights lawyers called on retailers to “urgently heed” the warnings to stop displaying “lads’ mags”.
They say requiring staff to handle the magazines, or exposing customers to them, could amount to sex discrimination and sexual harassment contrary to the Equality Act 2010.
The letter highlights that there have been cases in the past where staff have successfully sued their employer for exposure to pornographic material at work.
“Displaying lads’ mags and pornographic papers in ‘mainstream’ shops results in the involuntary exposure of staff and, in some cases, customers to pornographic images. Every mainstream retailer which stocks lads’ mags is vulnerable to legal action by staff and, where those publications are visibly on display, by customers.”
The group says it has been contacted by employees who dislike handling such magazines, but who feel they have no power to take the issue up with their employers.
UK Feminista and Object are discussing with lawyers about bringing a test case and will support employees who are uncomfortable with images of naked or near-naked women on magazines.
Kat Banyard, founder of UK Feminista, said: “For too long supermarkets have got off the hook, stocking lads’ mags in the face of widespread opposition, but this time we have the law on our side. Every shop that sells lads’ mags – publications which are deeply harmful to women – are opening themselves up to legal action.”
Sophie Bennett, campaigns officer for Object, added: “Lads’ mags dehumanise and objectify women, promoting harmful attitudes that underpin discrimination and violence against women and girls. Reducing women to sex objects sends out an incredibly dangerous message that women are constantly sexually available and displaying these publications in everyday spaces normalises this sexism.”
Aileen McColgan, a lawyer at Matrix Chambers and one of the signatories of the letter, said both men and women would be able to bring claims, but added semi-nudity was unlikely to be enough to convince the courts.
“It’s whether as an employee you have been subjected to an environment that is humiliating, offensive or degrading,” she said.
“There is absolutely no reason why men could not bring a harassment claim. If you are talking about a person in a bikini on a travel magazine or a chap with a naked chest on the front of Men’s Health or GQ, you would have trouble maintaining that was offensive, but that is a matter for the courts.”
She added that the use of “modesty covers”, plastic packets which conceal graphic images, were likely to be enough to “see off” any successful claims.
The British Retail Consortium (BRC) said: “Major retailers don’t need reminding of their responsibilities to staff and customers.
“BRC members don’t sell anything it isn’t legal to sell and they have long followed joint industry guidelines, as well as taking their own independent voluntary action, to make sure that front covers which may concern some people are displayed discreetly.
“This is an area where fixed definitions are difficult. Our members regard their stores as family-friendly environments which is why conversations with staff and customers about what they believe is appropriate will continue.”
The campaign by UK Feminista and Object has specifically targeted the major supermarket chains – Asda, Morrisons, Sainsbury’s and Tesco – as well as WHSmith. The two groups are understood to be in discussions with lawyers about bringing a test case should retailers fail to remove the offending publications.
They have acknowledged that legal action could prove expensive, but argue that with fundraising and supportive legal help, a test case would be “feasible and practical”.
“We are serious about this,” Ms Banyard added. “Supermarkets need to lose the lads’ mags or they could end up in court.”