In an open letter to the Guardian, gender equality campaigners Object and UK Feminista demand that UK retailers withdraw the sale of “Lads’ Mags” life FHM and newspapers featuring “pornographic front covers” immediately.  Object have been campaigning to “Lose the Lads’ Mags” for ten years but their latest assault tackles the issue from a predominantly employment law slant rather than on civic morality or gender equality grounds.

The campaign suggests that displaying these publications and requiring employees to handle them in the course of their job may amount to sex discrimination and sexual harassment contrary to the Equality Act 2010.  Legal action is threatened.

To win a harassment claim, an employee would need to demonstrate that selling Lads’ Mags had the purpose or effect of violating her dignity or that it created an intimidating, hostile, degrading, humiliating or offensive environment.  It is inconceivable that UK supermarkets and other retailers sell Lads’ Mags for this purpose: the employee would therefore need to demonstrate that it had the stated effect. While this element is judged subjectively from the employee’s viewpoint it is qualified by an objective overlay: “Is it reasonable for the employee to be offended by that material?”  The British Retail Consortium say it is not reasonable. The sale of Lads’ Mags is widespread and longstanding. Their members do not sell anything illegal and follow industry guidelines, which includes making sure that front covers are displayed discreetly.

But surely there are bigger practical problems here for the “Lose the Lads’ Mags” campaign?  On the assumption that those offended by the front cover will not look inside, we are left debating whether the front cover itself can reasonably have a harassing effect.  That front cover will generically show a picture of one or more young women in states of partial undress, some laudatory comments about their colleagues on the inner pages and some generally encouraging remarks on the sexual front.  Yes, but similar women can equally be seen in many pop videos or in women’s magazines – this month’s Cosmopolitan, by way of example, has on the cover a lady in tight hotpants with a bare midriff and pronounced cleavage who is principally famous for having sex on film in 2006.  And the cover’s text?  “The sex move that brings you closer #bestnightever”, “The sexiest thing you can do on a date”, and the presumably purely educational “How to talk dirty”.  Equally, no mention is made in the open letter of Attitude magazine sold alongside both, which regularly has well-built chaps in their pants on the cover who, you suspect, are not featured for their conversational ability.

The point is simply that this is, for better or worse, a reasonably sexualised society, and that this is not limited to Lads Mags in any way.   Sexual images of men and women are all around us – on television, on billboards, in adverts for clothes stores, on the side of buses.  Against that background, can occasional sight of the front cover of FHM (or Attitude or Cosmopolitan) reasonably be said to violate your dignity or to create an intimidating, hostile, etc. working environment?

Overall the campaign seems a little misplaced; the Employment Tribunal is surely not the correct forum for the UK to contemplate its moral stance on Lads’ Mags and sex in society generally, but Object and UK Feminista will nonetheless clearly relish the exposure this has generated. At first blush, the prospect of a successful claim being brought seems slim but we will keep you abreast of developments.