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The Sun's Page 3 is awful and outdated, and hating it doesn't mean that you hate sex, say Rhiannon and Holly of the Vagenda.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
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In focusing on the famous few, we risk doing a disservice to all victims of child sexual abuse

There is a danger that we make it harder, not easier, for victims to come forward in future. 

Back in the 1970s when relations between journalists and police were somewhat different to today a simple ritual would be carried out around the country at various times throughout the week.

Reporters, eager for information for their regional newspaper, would take a trip to the local station and there would be met by a desk sergeant who would helpfully skim through details in the crime Incident Book.

Among the entries about petty thefts, burglaries and road accidents there would occasionally be a reference to an allegation of incest. And at this point the sergeant and journalist might well screw-up their faces, shake their heads and swiftly move on to the next log. The subject was basically taboo, seen as something ‘a bit mucky,’ not what was wanted in a family newspaper.

And that’s really the way things stayed until 1986 when ChildLine was set up by Dame Esther Rantzen in the wake of a BBC programme about child abuse. For the first time children felt able to speak out about being sexually assaulted by the very adults whose role in life was to protect them.

And for the first time the picture became clear about what incest really meant in many cases. It wasn’t simply a low level crime to be swept under the carpet in case it scratched people’s sensitivities. It frequently involved children being abused by members of their close family, repeatedly, over many years.

Slowly but surely as the years rolled on the NSPCC continued to press the message about the prevalence of child sexual abuse, while encouraging victims to come forward. During this time the corrosive effects of this most insidious crime have been painfully detailed by many of those whose lives have been derailed by it. And of course the details of the hundreds of opportunistic sexual assaults committed by Jimmy Savile have been indelibly branded onto the nation’s consciousness.

It’s been a long road - particularly for those who were raped or otherwise abused as children and are now well into their later years - to bring society around to accepting that this is not to be treated as a dark secret that we really don’t want to expose to daylight. Many of those who called our helpline during the early days of the Savile investigation had never told anyone about the traumatic events of their childhoods despite the fact they had reached retirement age.

So, having buried the taboo, we seem to be in danger of giving it the kiss of life with the way some cases of alleged abuse are now being perceived.

It’s quite right that all claims of sexual assault should be investigated, tested and, where there is a case, pursued through the judicial system. No one is above the law, whether a ‘celebrity’ or a lord.

But we seem to have lost a sense of perspective when it comes to these crimes with vast resources being allocated to a handful of cases while many thousands of reported incidents are virtually on hold.

The police should never have to apologise for investigating crimes and following leads. However, if allegations are false or cannot be substantiated they should say so. This would be a strength not a weakness.

It is, of course, difficult that in many of the high-profile cases of recent times the identities of those under investigation have not been officially released by the police but have come to light through other means. Yet we have to deal with the world as it is not as we wish it would be and once names are common knowledge the results of the investigations centring on them should be made public.

When it emerges that someone in the public eye is being investigated for non-recent child abuse it obviously stirs the interest of the media whose appetite can be insatiable. This puts pressure on the police who don’t want to repeat the mistakes of the past by allowing offenders to slip through their hands.  And so there is a danger, as has been seen in recent cases, that officers lack confidence in declaring there is a lack of evidence or the allegations are not true. 

The disproportionate weight of media attention given to say, Sir Edward Heath, as opposed to the Bradford grooming gang sentenced this week, shows there is a danger the pendulum is swinging too far the other way. This threatens the painstaking work invested in ensuring the public and our institutions recognise child abuse as a very real danger. 

Whilst high profile cases have helped the cause there is now a real risk that the all-encompassing focus on them does both victims of abuse and those advocating on their behalf a fundamental disservice.

As the public watches high -profile cases collapsing amidst a media fanfare genuine convictions made across the country week in week out go virtually unannounced. If this trend continues they may start to believe that child sexual abuse isn’t the prolific problem we know it to be.

So, while detectives peer into the mists of time, searching for long lost clues, we have to face the unpalatable possibility that offences being committed today will in turn become historical investigations because there is not the manpower to deal with them right now.

So, now the Goddard Inquiry is in full swing, taking evidence about allegations of child sex crimes involving ‘well known people’ as well as institutional abuse, how do we ensure we don’t fail today’s victims?

If they start to think their stories are going to be diminished by the continuing furore over how some senior public figures have been treated by the police they will stay silent. Therefore we have to continue to encourage them to come forward, to give them the confidence of knowing they will be listened to.

If we don’t we will find ourselves back in those incestuous days where people conspired to say and do nothing to prevent child abuse.

Peter Wanless is Chief Executive of the NSPCC.