Shops could be sued by employees or customers if they continue to sell magazines showing images of naked women, a group of lawyers has warned.
Displaying ‘lads’ mags’ or asking employees to handle them could amount to sexual harassment under the Equality Act 2010, according to a legal opinion obtained by the lawyers.
In a letter published in the Guardian, the group of eleven lawyers representing five legal sets warned that mainstream retailers were left “vulnerable to legal action” under sexual discrimination law.
The letter said: “High-street retailers are exposing staff and, in some cases, customers to publications whose handling and display may breach equality legislation.
“Displaying lads’ mags and pornographic papers in ‘mainstream’ shops results in the involuntary exposure of staff and, in some cases, customers to pornographic images.”
The letter highlighted that there had been examples of staff successfully suing employers in respect of exposure to pornographic material at work.
The legal advice from Aileen McColgan, a barrister at Matrix Chambers, where members include Cherie Blair, warns of the “effect [even if not the purpose] of violating [a worker’s] dignity, or of creating an intimidating, hostile, degrading, humiliating or offensive environment for her [or him].”
It continues: “Requiring employees to work with pornographic material may amount to indirect discrimination connected with sex, and/or with religion or belief (including a belief in gender equality).”
The letter was written in support of “Lose the Lads’ Mags”, a campaign launched by UK Feminista and Object.
The campaign group says retail employees have told them they dislike handling the magazines but feel powerless to take up the issue with their employers.
“One woman said to us: ‘Those magazines don’t do women any favours, they are appalling and demeaning to women, but what can little old me do about it?’ Well, employees need to know they don’t need to put up with it any more.”
Sophie Bennett, campaigns officer for Object, said: “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.”