The day that summed up the sheer ludicrousness of what it meant to be the editor of Loaded, the most notorious ‘lads’ mag’ of all time, is one etched on my memory.
It was January 2004, and my team had been through our rivals’ magazines doing a ‘nipple count’ — meticulously tallying the number of bare nipples that appeared in one issue.
‘Damn, they beat us this month,’ I announced. ‘What are we going to do about it?’
When one wag responded, ‘Why don’t we print 100 pairs of boobs, over six pages, in glorious close-up?’ we all whooped with delight and reported to the pub to celebrate.
So it was that we did a ‘We Love Boobs’ special, which notched up a then-record (although by today’s standards relatively tame) 200 nipples.
As an extra layer of schoolboy comedy, we decided to caption each picture with a jokey term for breasts. From ‘aardvarks’ to ‘Zeppelins’, we had it covered.
Sitting around a boardroom table with six other university-educated men trying to think up 100 comedy words for breasts summed up just how low British men’s magazines had sunk.
It was an intellectual low-water mark, but we’d spent a lot of time and money talking to our readers in research groups, and they’d repeatedly said Loaded’s winning formula should be ‘more birds, less words’.
The average Loaded reader — largely white, working class, 20-something blokes — had a simple palate, so we gave them what they wanted.
To me, it was harmless fun, dictated by market forces.
What’s more, I was paid more money than I’d ever earned in my life to do it. I’d always dreamed of editing Loaded and vowed to do whatever it took to stay there.
I never stopped to consider issues like the crass sexualisation of women.
Moral naysayers were party poopers, and if they attacked me, I’d attack them back — harder.
We were under massive pressure to sell magazines to keep our shareholders happy. We knew sex sold, so our thinking was: why not make Loaded a frenzied, Harrods-sale of nudity?
It was knowingly mindless, and for a while it was fun — and extremely successful.
When our We Love Boobs issue (which had George Best’s wife, Alex, as the cover star) hit the news stands, our readers bombarded us with thank you letters and sales soared.
A few months later, I was crowned New Editor of the Year by my company and my bosses popped more corks than the Queen’s Jubilee sommelier.
Back then, it never once occurred to me that we were objectifying women or doing any harm. I fiercely denied that Loaded was a ‘gateway’ to harder pornographic magazines.
It was in my own interests to do so. If we were classified as ‘top shelf’, we’d have been put in opaque plastic bags like the pornographic magazines, which would have been commercial suicide.
But such thoughts came home to roost five years later in 2009, when I finally grew up and became a father.
It had such an effect on me and changed my views so forcibly that within a year I’d quit a dream job that, for me, had become a moral nightmare.
When I look back now, I see we were severely pushing the envelope of what was considered decent.
We were normalizing soft porn, and in so doing we must have made it more acceptable for young men to dive into the murky waters of harder stuff on the internet. And, for that, I have a haunting sense of regret.
I edited Loaded for eight years — the title’s longest-serving editor — and its titillating mix of topless girls and decidedly non-PC humor attracted the wrath of feminists, MPs and, once, even the Pope (when we photo-shopped a pint of lager into his hands).
In my time, Loaded won eight industry awards for journalistic excellence, but its massive success —it sold more than 500,000 copies a month at its peak — was always down to pictures of scantily-clad women.
When I became editor in 2002, I realized all our readers really wanted was acres of flesh.
The trouble was, the more we gave them, the more they demanded — and the racier we had to become in order to satiate their desires. But it was the arrival of mass broadband internet in the mid-Nineties, fueling a massive and uncontrolled access to hardcore porn, that changed everything.
Now young boys — for there were, and still are, no effective age restrictions on access to online porn — were spared the expense and embarrassment of even buying a magazine.
Worse, they could do it without their parents ever knowing.
Loaded’s sales plummeted, so we turned up the volume even further in a desperate bid to stay alive. Smiling, end-of-the-pier-style pictures were replaced with oiled torsos and fake lesbian orgies.
When you go down that road, there’s no turning back. The magazine was getting grubbier to the point where even I didn’t want to be seen with it on the Tube.
Pretty soon, we were accused of being pornographic, and there wasn’t a month when a minor Lib Dem MP or feminist lobby group didn’t try to make a name for themselves by demanding we were placed on the top shelf, or banned altogether.
Constantly under attack as a public standard-bearer for moral depravity when the anonymous internet porn barons were nowhere to be seen, I became a skilled defender of the indefensible.
By quoting scores of carefully-selected global government reports and PhD papers that ‘proved’ porn wasn’t harmful, I successfully out-maneuvered two female members of the Labor Party at the Durham University Debating Society, lambasting the proposition ‘the house argues that pornography is degrading to all women’.
I was then invited to the Oxford Union Debating Society, and argued in favor of topless girls in tabloid newspapers, which my opponents proposed ‘had no place in a decent society’. To a packed house that night, I won by a margin of 3:1.
Then my life changed for ever. In May 2009, I became a father to Sonny. A month later, I turned 40. Almost overnight, my world view changed.
My partner, Diana, had always supported my career, but at gatherings with the new friends we’d made at National Childbirth Trust classes, I’d cringe with embarrassment as other parents teased me by asking ‘would breastfeeding be a turn-on or a turn-off for Loaded readers?’ For the first time, I became secretly ashamed of what I did for a living.
My life had become a charade, switching between diametrically-opposed extremes — nipples by day and nappies by night.
I started seeing the women in my magazine not as sexual objects, but as somebody’s daughter. Some of Loaded’s models had children themselves, and I’d think ‘what’s your kid going to think of you when they’re old enough to understand Mummy used to get her boobs out for a living?’
To think that the girls who posed for our magazine had once had their nappies changed, had once been taught to take their first steps and had once been full of childlike hope .?.?. it was almost heartbreaking.
I was confronted by the painful thought that maybe Loaded was part of the problem. Was it an ‘enabler’ to young teenage boys who’d consume harder porn later, in the same way dabbling with cannabis might lead to stronger addictions to cocaine or heroin?
Then, in July 2010, it was announced that terminally-wounded Loaded was to be sold to a small publisher with a murky reputation. It was the excuse I needed to leave. I woke up and thought ‘I can’t do this any more’ and quit.
The prospect of having to tell Sonny — and his friends’ parents — that I worked for a company linked to pornography was pivotal. As the father of a young child, working in such a place would be indefensible.
I suddenly wanted to vanish and do something decent with my life. I became a house dad, which fulfilled me more than Loaded ever had.
Now, nearly two years on, I am ashamed at the way I used to defend my magazine.
Offering excuses for pornography when Loaded was attacked left me feeling cheap and hollow. I became a person I wasn’t, and, looking back, one I didn’t like. Today, I find myself agreeing with some of my fiercest former critics.
When I edited Loaded, I’d often get asked ‘Would you want your daughter to appear in topless photos?’ and I’d squirm, but feel obliged, but ashamed to say ‘yes’.
Fortune gave me a son, but not on my life would I want any daughter of mine to be a topless model.
Looking back at my old job, I think it kept me and my team in a morally-retarded state. We became numbed to nudity. We treated our models as crude sales devices.
In truth, the editorial team had little interest in the girl content, and viewed it as a necessary evil. But our readers demanded ever more, and by responding to the rise of pornography on the internet, we pushed the line too far.
I can say with 100 per cent conviction that all the girls who appeared in Loaded wanted to do it. Their role models were self-made millionaires like Jordan, and the rest of us shouldn’t condemn them because their aspirations didn’t tally with our own. But it’s not a huge leap into the world of pornography — a world devoid of aspiration.
Anybody who coerces a woman, or, worse, forces or threatens them to take part in porn should be jailed for many years.
Let’s be clear: you can’t ever ban pornography. Like tax and Tory U-turns, it is painfully unavoidable and lots of consenting adults consume it of their own free will. But we must tighten up the current laws to make it unavailable to children, as it can be so damaging.
It sells boys the debasing view of women as one-dimensional fakes: fake boobs, fake hair, fake nails, fake orgasms and fake hope.
How will these tainted children be able to interact with real women later in life if the first ones they ‘meet’ are on-screen mannequins? By allowing children free access to pornographic images, the next generation of young men are becoming so desensitized, I genuinely fear we’re storing up an emotional time-bomb.
Porn objectifies women, demeans and cheapens them, because it sells a fantasy where men are always in control and get what they want.
But real life isn’t like that. In porn, women cry, ‘yes, yes, yes!’ but in real life, they often say, ‘no’. Not all men have the intelligence or moral fortitude to understand they cannot take what they want.
Today, it’s never been easier to get your hands on porn of the most grotesquely graphic nature, yet absolutely nobody admits responsibility.
And most shocking of all is the total lack of moral accountability displayed by the internet pornographers when it comes to supplying their product to minors.
If, as a magazine editor, I strayed outside of the rules, I’d be taken off sale, fined and lose my job.
Likewise, if a newsagent sells an over-18s magazine to a minor, he can expect to lose his license and be closed down.
Yet the internet pornographers laugh in the face of this, and the internet service providers (ISPs) wash their hands of the problem.
It’s like saying supplying a drug is ok so long as you don’t manufacture it. There’s no accountability, and it needs to be cleared up, fast. Isn’t it time the ISPs were held to task?
If found guilty of being the highway that gets porn to children, they should face massive fines and risk of closure.
The Mail has been campaigning for new rules forcing all internet users to opt in if they want access to pornography — and I couldn’t be more emphatic in my support. We also need to make sure that these controls apply to smartphones as well as computers.
Looking back, I think magazines like Loaded did give young men a ‘taste’ for soft porn that led to deeper and darker desires. But we operated in a bygone, almost innocent age compared to today, when internet pornography is being pumped out on an industrial scale — straight into the bedrooms of our children.
The internet and its morally redundant pornographers have changed all that. It is time our policy-makers cried ‘enough!’ and banged them to rights.
Two years after my exit, I can finally admit that I was part of the problem. By speaking out, in some tiny way I hope to be part of the solution.
To our dismay, we’d been trumped by Maxim, who’d weighed in with a hefty 83 (which included one bare-chested man, but we let them have that).