The Sun loves Page 3, but it can't stand women on top

Former dominatrix Nichi Hodgson was stunned to discover that the pictures that accompanied her article on how to safely spank a man were deemed officially "too racy" for the paper that proudly prints Page 3.

When I was growing up, I had a few ambitions. First, it was brain surgery. Then Shakespearean acting. In the end I decided to hack out a career for myself in journalism. Who knew that it was really my destiny to become "NICHI HODGSON: TOO RACY FOR THE SUN!!!"

Yes, here I am - not fit for even the nation’s favourite licentious prudes to print. Apparently, keeping all your clothes on while demonstrating how to safely spank a man makes you officially "too racy" (according to the editorial team) to feature alongside upskirt and page 3 shots.

Oh, but hang on a minute – spanking a man, did I say? Ooh er, quelle domme-age, as it were! Might I have made the readers uneasy with the revelation that thousands of British guys pay to be dominated each week? Would the moral pillars of Britain have crumbled if I’d floated the idea that sometimes men prefer to go over female knees?

Around a fortnight ago, the Sun repeatedly pestered me for pictures to accompany a feature on some Coco de Mer sex salons I had been teaching, and a BDSM sex memoir called Bound To You which I’ve just had published, which includes a section about my time as a dominatrix. "Oh, look, isn’t that lovely! BDSM prejudice is waning! Fifty Shades has broken down barriers! The Sun really DOES realise that male submission is the ultimate societal sexual taboo!” I gurgled internally. The pictures were taken by an experienced freelance photographer inside the elegant Coco de Mer shop and featured me, dressed in a regular French Connection dress and heels (NB not "domme-wear") demonstrating blindfolding, shoe worship, and how to assume safe spanking postures. In some of the pictures I merely stood in front of an underwear display or sat in an armchair, smiling. They were somewhat staged, slightly silly, but all demonstrated safe, sane, consensual BDSM practice.

The feature itself was pretty graphic, detailing my time working as a professional dominatrix and what it entailed; about the cuckolding, and the sploshing, and the adult baby play; about how men cannot admit to enjoying sexual submission without fearing emasculation; about how I’ve lost count of the number of professors, lawyers, even the editors who’ve approached me for a session since I’ve "come out" as a former sex worker. It was also politicised, and talked about how I hoped that the success of Fifty Shades had raised public awareness of and acceptance of kink; of how I believe passionately we really need access to good BDSM education.

So far, so unsensational. Unless of course the fact I didn’t have my tits out was the issue. If only I’d let them "reveal" my "self-important champagne socialist hack used to be a vice girl!" past. If only I’d said "but this is only what the weirdos do", or "if only I hadn’t had to fund my career break this way!" I might have been on to a winning lie. Instead, the many truths of the matter - that you don’t need to be a 17-year-old pop starlet in your scanties to tap into someone’s ultimate sexual fantasies, that I’d do it all again to ensure I could write for a living, that there are just as many men as women who identify with Ana Steele rather than Christian Grey - those truths are just too unnerving to contemplate.  

Let me be clear: after I’d been told the pictures were unprintable, I offered to provide a different picture myself; an "at home in my pyjamas with my cat Snap" snap or the like (admittedly Snap did come from a brothel but you wouldn’t know to look at him). The Sun declined. By this point, everything about me, from my sex education classes to my real-life experiences, had been infected by my virulent raciness.

I’d love to think the Sun’s decision to spike the piece was a result of the staff having listened carefully to Lord Leveson’s criticism of its "demeaning and sexualising lens"; that there’ll be no more no barely pixelated, exposed crotch-shots of Anne Hathaway (wearing bondage boots too, wouldn’t you know!), nor sardonic articles about the rise in A&E admissions for women who’ve sustained vajazzling injuries. Only both of those articles are on the website today. 

So, if you too aspire to being labeled "too racy" for the Sun, you know what to do. Don’t expose your knickerless crotch in public; instead, just exercise sexual agency, and tell a few home truths about the way the British populace has sex now. So much for Leveson - licentious prudery is here to stay.

Bondage by Ater Crudus on Flickr, via Creative Commons

Nichi Hodgson is a writer and broadcaster specialising in sexual politics, censorship, and  human rights. Her first book, Bound To You, published by Hodder & Stoughton, is out now. She tweets @NichiHodgson.

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Q&A: What are tax credits and how do they work?

All you need to know about the government's plan to cut tax credits.

What are tax credits?

Tax credits are payments made regularly by the state into bank accounts to support families with children, or those who are in low-paid jobs. There are two types of tax credit: the working tax credit and the child tax credit.

What are they for?

To redistribute income to those less able to get by, or to provide for their children, on what they earn.

Are they similar to tax relief?

No. They don’t have much to do with tax. They’re more of a welfare thing. You don’t need to be a taxpayer to receive tax credits. It’s just that, unlike other benefits, they are based on the tax year and paid via the tax office.

Who is eligible?

Anyone aged over 16 (for child tax credits) and over 25 (for working tax credits) who normally lives in the UK can apply for them, depending on their income, the hours they work, whether they have a disability, and whether they pay for childcare.

What are their circumstances?

The more you earn, the less you are likely to receive. Single claimants must work at least 16 hours a week. Let’s take a full-time worker: if you work at least 30 hours a week, you are generally eligible for working tax credits if you earn less than £13,253 a year (if you’re single and don’t have children), or less than £18,023 (jointly as part of a couple without children but working at least 30 hours a week).

And for families?

A family with children and an income below about £32,200 can claim child tax credit. It used to be that the more children you have, the more you are eligible to receive – but George Osborne in his most recent Budget has limited child tax credit to two children.

How much money do you receive?

Again, this depends on your circumstances. The basic payment for a single claimant, or a joint claim by a couple, of working tax credits is £1,940 for the tax year. You can then receive extra, depending on your circumstances. For example, single parents can receive up to an additional £2,010, on top of the basic £1,940 payment; people who work more than 30 hours a week can receive up to an extra £810; and disabled workers up to £2,970. The average award of tax credit is £6,340 per year. Child tax credit claimants get £545 per year as a flat payment, plus £2,780 per child.

How many people claim tax credits?

About 4.5m people – the vast majority of these people (around 4m) have children.

How much does it cost the taxpayer?

The estimation is that they will cost the government £30bn in April 2015/16. That’s around 14 per cent of the £220bn welfare budget, which the Tories have pledged to cut by £12bn.

Who introduced this system?

New Labour. Gordon Brown, when he was Chancellor, developed tax credits in his first term. The system as we know it was established in April 2003.

Why did they do this?

To lift working people out of poverty, and to remove the disincentives to work believed to have been inculcated by welfare. The tax credit system made it more attractive for people depending on benefits to work, and gave those in low-paid jobs a helping hand.

Did it work?

Yes. Tax credits’ biggest achievement was lifting a record number of children out of poverty since the war. The proportion of children living below the poverty line fell from 35 per cent in 1998/9 to 19 per cent in 2012/13.

So what’s the problem?

Well, it’s a bit of a weird system in that it lets companies pay wages that are too low to live on without the state supplementing them. Many also criticise tax credits for allowing the minimum wage – also brought in by New Labour – to stagnate (ie. not keep up with the rate of inflation). David Cameron has called the system of taxing low earners and then handing them some money back via tax credits a “ridiculous merry-go-round”.

Then it’s a good thing to scrap them?

It would be fine if all those low earners and families struggling to get by would be given support in place of tax credits – a living wage, for example.

And that’s why the Tories are introducing a living wage...

That’s what they call it. But it’s not. The Chancellor announced in his most recent Budget a new minimum wage of £7.20 an hour for over-25s, rising to £9 by 2020. He called this the “national living wage” – it’s not, because the current living wage (which is calculated by the Living Wage Foundation, and currently non-compulsory) is already £9.15 in London and £7.85 in the rest of the country.

Will people be better off?

No. Quite the reverse. The IFS has said this slightly higher national minimum wage will not compensate working families who will be subjected to tax credit cuts; it is arithmetically impossible. The IFS director, Paul Johnson, commented: “Unequivocally, tax credit recipients in work will be made worse off by the measures in the Budget on average.” It has been calculated that 3.2m low-paid workers will have their pay packets cut by an average of £1,350 a year.

Could the government change its policy to avoid this?

The Prime Minister and his frontbenchers have been pretty stubborn about pushing on with the plan. In spite of criticism from all angles – the IFS, campaigners, Labour, The Sun – Cameron has ruled out a review of the policy in the Autumn Statement, which is on 25 November. But there is an alternative. The chair of parliament’s Work & Pensions Select Committee and Labour MP Frank Field has proposed what he calls a “cost neutral” tweak to the tax credit cuts.

How would this alternative work?

Currently, if your income is less than £6,420, you will receive the maximum amount of tax credits. That threshold is called the gross income threshold. Field wants to introduce a second gross income threshold of £13,100 (what you earn if you work 35 hours a week on minimum wage). Those earning a salary between those two thresholds would have their tax credits reduced at a slower rate on whatever they earn above £6,420 up to £13,100. The percentage of what you earn above the basic threshold that is deducted from your tax credits is called the taper rate, and it is currently at 41 per cent. In contrast to this plan, the Tories want to halve the income threshold to £3,850 a year and increase the taper rate to 48 per cent once you hit that threshold, which basically means you lose more tax credits, faster, the more you earn.

When will the tax credit cuts come in?

They will be imposed from April next year, barring a u-turn.

Anoosh Chakelian is deputy web editor at the New Statesman.