On Page 3 and in-fighting in the feminist movement

The Sun's Page 3 is awful and outdated, and hating it doesn't mean that you hate sex, say Rhiannon and Holly of the Vagenda.

The feminist movement has always been plagued by in-fighting. If you need any convincing of that, just take a look at Tanya Gold’s recent article in the Spectator, where she recounts several notable lady-scraps - the most vicious of which involves Camille Paglia allegedly calling Julie Burchill a ‘pig-fucking cunt’.

At its most negative, pigs aside, it has boiled down to factions from one side telling the other that they aren’t even ‘qualified’ or ‘allowed’ to call themselves feminists at all, whatever that means (an accusation that has been levied against us). And while the inability of feminists to just get along like the nice, polite, cuddly little sisterhood you’d surely expect a group of women to be has often been used as a stick with which to beat the movement, it shouldn’t really come as a surprise. Feminism is made no different from any other political movement merely by being mostly populated by women, and expecting it to be so is frankly ridiculous. While we’re not calling for a repeat of ‘pig-fucking-cunt-gate’, we’ll acknowledge that controversy in the ranks isn’t about to end - and, that settled, we might just stick our own oar, very briefly, into the murky waters of intra-feminist debate.

The New Statesman’s own Martin Robbins is up for our ire this week, with his decision to put forward an anti-anti Page 3 article. It showed a pro-nudity but not exactly pro-Page 3 stance that relied mostly upon a personal attack on the creator of an online petition. Rather than do what most people do when a petition they disagree with comes around (shrug and not sign it), Robbins levied an unnecessary tirade about the petition’s creator, Lucy Holmes, calling her supposed anti-nudity stance ‘sinister’ and arguing that the solution to the Page 3 conundrum would be to put more nudity in newspapers instead. Most of his article took issue with the fact that Holmes once apparently said sex should be ‘beautiful’, which he then extrapolated to mean that she probably wanted to ban all porn. Then he ended on the idea that we should keep Page 3, and ‘add some cocks in too’. Awesome.

At the time of writing, the No More Page 3 petition has 44,000 signatures, many of whom, if Robbins is to be believed, are puritans disgusted by the sight of a naked human body. This is one of the most problematic aspects of Robbins’ argument, because it assumes that everyone joins movements for the same reasons, when in fact the opposite is true. Any movement comprised of 44,000 people is going to be made up of varying points of view and insights and experiences. In this sense Lucy Holmes’ own (assumed) personal views on nudity cease to be of central importance. Enough people felt that boobs were not news to sign on the dotted line. Some will inevitably find nudity somewhat offensive – this is England, after all – but just as many will be signing because they don’t want their kids to grow up in a world in which they have to witness what one commenter described as ‘the normalised commodification of the female body'. As they pointed out, it’s the casualness, the ordinariness of that commodification which is disturbing, and which many object to. It perpetuates shitty ideas about women everywhere, not just those posing in their best French knickers on a printed page.

This is something many women know, and understand. They have spoken out about the effect that seeing Page 3 has on their confidence, their wellbeing, and the way they perceive their place in society – as sex objects, as the receptacles of men’s egos and gazes and penises, routinely ogled over buttered toast, normalised. Those women’s voices are important, and should be heard. We wouldn’t accuse Robbins of ‘mansplaining’ – a word used by some feminists to indicate a man preaching to women about the nature of their own oppression in a patronising manner – mainly because it isn’t a very good word, but we will tentatively tout the idea that he is speaking from a position of male privilege, and that those (varied, complex) feelings that women experience when they look at Page 3 are likely to be somewhat alien to him. 

We welcome men as part of the feminist movement – we love men – but we need them to listen to us, to our histories and our ideas and our plans, and take these into account, and think about them before accusing us of being sinister or striving for sexual hegemony. The wonderful thing about this new wave of feminism is that many different groups are campaigning on different issues, and that people can take their pick of causes to support. We’re busy, and in-fighting just wastes our time and yours. In the time that we have taken writing this smackdown, we could have been doing something much more productive, like banning porn for ever (ha ha, got you there, didn’t we, Martin?)

The saddest thing about Robbins’ argument was that he pointed out all of the negative, misogynistic parts of Page 3 - ‘dehumanising acts of mockery’, in his own words, that ‘hilariously’ juxtapose complex political views next to scantily clad women, where the joke is that females with breasts might actually have something to say about the Higgs Boson - then dismissed the anti-Page 3 campaign as a ‘slut-shaming’ exercise that aims to force everyone into the same expression of sexuality. The anti-Page 3 campaign is actually wonderfully simple. Page 3 is awful and outdated, it’s regressive and disrespectful, and we urge you to sign the petition. Not because we hate tits or nudity or doggy-style sex with handcuffs on, but because the context of those tits is important, whether you like it or not.

This is something most feminists agree on, and with good, robust, valid (varied, complex) reasons. It’s good to have a concrete target (for once). So let’s make the most of it. The black feminists may be angry at the socialist feminists, and the socialist feminists may be angry at the radical feminists, and Paglia may hate Burchill, but at least they’re all angry at men, right?

Just joking. We’re angry at you, Martin. You and The Sun.


The photo used above is from Flickr, used under a Creative Commons licence. You can find the original here.

Lovely. Photo: Flickr/Hankzby, used under a Creative Commons licence

Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett and Holly Baxter are co-founders and editors of online magazine, The Vagenda.

Photo: Getty Images
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The buck doesn't stop with Grant Shapps - and probably shouldn't stop with Lord Feldman, either

The question of "who knew what, and when?" shouldn't stop with the Conservative peer.

If Grant Shapps’ enforced resignation as a minister was intended to draw a line under the Mark Clarke affair, it has had the reverse effect. Attention is now shifting to Lord Feldman, who was joint chair during Shapps’  tenure at the top of CCHQ.  It is not just the allegations of sexual harrassment, bullying, and extortion against Mark Clarke (all of which he denies), but the question of who knew what, and when.

Although Shapps’ resignation letter says that “the buck” stops with him, his allies are privately furious at his de facto sacking, and they are pointing the finger at Feldman. They point out that not only was Feldman the senior partner on paper, but when the rewards for the unexpected election victory were handed out, it was Feldman who was held up as the key man, while Shapps was given what they see as a relatively lowly position in the Department for International Development.  Yet Feldman is still in post while Shapps was effectively forced out by David Cameron. Once again, says one, “the PM’s mates are protected, the rest of us shafted”.

As Simon Walters reported in the Mail on Sunday, the focus is turning onto Feldman, while Paul Goodman, the editor of the influential grassroots website ConservativeHome has piled further pressure on the peer by calling for him to go.

But even Feldman’s resignation is unlikely to be the end of the matter. Although the scope of the allegations against Clarke were unknown to many, questions about his behaviour were widespread, and fears about the conduct of elections in the party’s youth wing are also longstanding. Shortly after the 2010 election, Conservative student activists told me they’d cheered when Sadiq Khan defeated Clarke in Tooting, while a group of Conservative staffers were said to be part of the “Six per cent club” – they wanted a swing big enough for a Tory majority, but too small for Clarke to win his seat. The viciousness of Conservative Future’s internal elections is sufficiently well-known, meanwhile, to be a repeated refrain among defenders of the notoriously opaque democratic process in Labour Students, with supporters of a one member one vote system asked if they would risk elections as vicious as those in their Tory equivalent.

Just as it seems unlikely that Feldman remained ignorant of allegations against Clarke if Shapps knew, it feels untenable to argue that Clarke’s defeat could be cheered by both student Conservatives and Tory staffers and the unpleasantness of the party’s internal election sufficiently well-known by its opponents, without coming across the desk of Conservative politicians above even the chair of CCHQ’s paygrade.

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.