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Retailers warned - Lose the 'lads' mags' or risk a sexual harassment claim

29/05/2013
A recent campaign launched by gender equality groups, UK Feminista and Object, warns retailers that staff who are required to handle ‘lads’ mags’ could have grounds to bring a sexual harassment A recent campaign launched by gender equality groups, UK Feminista and Object, warns retailers that staff who are required to handle ‘lads’ mags’ could have grounds to bring a sexual harassment claim.  The aim of the campaign is to put pressure on major retailers, including Tesco, Sainsbury's, WHSmiths, Asda and Morrisons, to remove publications from their shelves that feature images of naked or semi-naked women on their front covers. 

The campaign has gained support from a number of eminent equality lawyers who, in a recent letter published in the Guardian, warn retailers that "displaying lads' mags and pornographic papers in "mainstream" shops results in the involuntary exposure of staff and, in some cases, customers to pornographic images.” 

Under the Equality Act, harassment on the grounds of sex is unwanted conduct related to sex, or of a sexual nature, that has the purpose or effect of violating that person's dignity or creating an offensive, intimidating, hostile, degrading or humiliating environment for them.  

Conduct of a sexual nature can include displaying pornographic photographs or drawings.  Whilst there have been successful discrimination claims by employees in respect of unwanted exposure to pornographic material at work, to date, no discrimination claim has been brought on this particular issue (i.e. whether handling or displaying 'lads’ mags' in the workplace amounts to unwanted conduct).  According to reports, employees who dislike handling such magazines have contacted the pressure groups and there are warnings that legal action against retailers is “possible and plausible”.  There are also discussions about a test case being brought. 

Until an actual case is brought, there are a number of question marks on this particular issue.  Will an employee be able to genuinely demonstrate that the display or handling of such magazines violates their dignity or is humiliating or offensive for them?  Is it reasonable for the display or handling of such magazines to have that purpose or effect? Does the legal threat apply to all lads' magazines or will it depend on the particular magazine and the extent of the sexualised images on its front cover?  This issue is bound to cause controversy and there are already many commentators raising concerns about this campaign, including tweets that suggest that the same approach should be taken to gay magazines and women's magazines that could be argued to have an equally negative impact on women.

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