The sinister campaign against Page 3

At worst, campaigners are engaging in exactly the same sort of sexual policing and censorship that The Sun does. The answer is more nudity, not less, says Martin Robbins.

The British public regards The Sun as one of the least trustworthy sources of news in the country while buying it more than any other newspaper. In this respect, The Sun sits on an evolutionary line that can be traced from early magicians to modern day reality television like The Only Way Is Essex: light entertainment in which the obvious bullshit simply adds to the charm.

Sex and degradation are other elements linking these art forms, evolving similarly in each case. It was only in the 20th century that the ‘glamorous assistant’ trope became cliché in magic, and soon acts routinely depicted the routine abuse or humiliation of a female assistant by a male magician – sawing her in half, for example. Big Brother began in 2001 with fairly normal people, but by the mid-Nothings it – and the countless imitators it spawned – was becoming sexier and more degrading as each year passed.

On the question of whether individual acts or programs are ‘sexist’ your mileage may vary, but taken as a whole the magic community reeks of what Hayley Morgan described as “overwhelming machismo”, a culture often guilty of “boxing women into an over-sexualised, under-valued subordinate position.” The same can be applied to reality TV, in which ‘characters’ are carefully edited into their roles.  Reality stars and magician’s assistants may not feel particularly exploited or humiliated themselves; but they’re part of a tradition that relentlessly encourages audiences to mock or pity certain groups of people, be they women, wannabes, people with mental health issues, or the meticulously vajazzled.

Tim Ireland has written at length about the Sun’s flagship norkfest, neatly tracing how the page became more cynical under the editorship of Rebekah Wade. The ‘saucy postcard’ captions of the past – captions that at least made some reference to the girl’s own personality or life – were replaced with bizarrely incongruous editorial comment - the ‘News in Briefs’. One infamous caption has ‘Danni’ responding to the discovery of the Higgs Boson with: “I’ve often wondered how quarks and other sub-atomic particles gain mass” – the ‘joke’ being that a woman with big boobs would know anything about physics. Other captions promote crude propaganda, turning the women into mere editorial avatars: “The axe should fall next on those silly politically-correct council jobs,” Natasha, 21, allegedly opines. It’s these dehumanising subtexts of mockery and puppetry that make Page 3 so sinister.

In magic, reality television or tabloid culture, the sex itself isn’t really the problem. There are sexy feminist entertainers in magic, film and theatre, feminist porn producers, and sex-positive groups within feminism. The danger comes from the prevailing culture – a context in which women must be a certain type or play a particular role. Tabloids aren’t misogynistic because they publish pictures of exposed flesh, they’re misogynistic because they relentlessly attack, punish, humiliate and belittle women – whether famous or not – for any aspect of their behaviour, appearance or sexuality that deviates from an incredibly rigid and narrow set of standards. The most disturbing thing about Page 3 isn’t the fact that there are naked breasts on it; it’s that every pair of naked breasts looks the same, expresses the same opinions, and exists in a context where the owners of naked breasts are casually belittled and dehumanised.

All of this brings me to Lucy Holmes’s recently-launched petition, asking The Sun to scrap Page 3. The petition says nothing about the problems with Page 3 I’ve raised above, fixating instead on the nipples. “George Alagiah doesn’t say, ‘And now let’s look at Courtney, 21, from Warrington’s bare breasts,’ in the middle of the 6 O’ Clock News, does he, Dominic?” reads the text, continuing: “Philip and Holly don’t flash up pictures of Danni, 19, from Plymouth, in just her pants and a necklace, on This Morning, do they, Dominic?” It goes on to inform the hapless Dominic (Mohan, The Sun’s editor): “you shouldn’t show the naked breasts of young women in your widely read ‘family’ newspaper.”

It’s worth pointing out that the belief that bare boobs are family-wrecking weapons of child corruption is not a particularly helpful one, and fuels exactly the sort of mood that makes it difficult for mothers to breast-feed in public places. That aside, both comparisons seem misguided. The Sun is more adult comic than family newspaper, as Liam Mullone pointed out in HuffPo (“Tits please, I’m a liberal”): “Boobs are not news, but then neither is anything else in a paper comprised entirely of hearsay, gossip and trenchant opinion.”

Meanwhile This Morning is a show that has recently featured both the world’s biggest penis (no, not Schofield, behave) and the world’s biggest breasts. Like many such shows, it’s presented by a grey-haired 50-year old man accompanied by a glamorous woman 20 years his junior; in this case a former lingerie model who is a regular fixture in FHM’s ‘100 Sexiest Women’ list, and who celebrated winning a ‘best celebrity cleavage’ award last spring. Whatever your views on this, it’s hard to understand the logic of holding breakfast TV shows up as some sort of feminist standard for The Sun to meet.

But then this petition isn’t really about misogyny at all, it’s rooted in the same desire for sexual hegemony we see in anti-porn campaigns, or Naomi Wolf’s latest literary clusterfuck, or – ironically – in The Sun itself: the idea that there exists one sexuality superior to all others, and that it’s this sexuality we should all should aspire too. For the woman who started this petition, that’s ‘beautiful sex’, a concept she explains in a manifesto posted on her blog, “How to Start a Sexual Revolution” . It’s possibly the first manifesto that invokes Lenin in the pursuit of better sex.

“I don’t think sex is beautiful at the moment,” Holmes rudely declares, before doing some searches on That Internet and regurgitating some Daily Mail sound-bites about how our precious innocent children are being corrupted by porn. Holmes finds a facial cumshot and a ‘cute chubby girl’ masturbating and a lady giving a blowjob and declares that these images are ‘ugly’. It doesn’t seem to occur to Holmes that what she considers beautiful (“loving union culminating in waves of bliss”), or what I consider beautiful (angry Scrabble followed by several hours of whisky and punishment), may not be what everybody else considers beautiful. As Hayley Stevens puts it:

“It’s naive to suggest that sex should be beautiful because sex is a personal thing and what works for one doesn’t always work for another – to suggest that those who prefer rough or dominant sex are doing an ugly thing is really uninformed and perpetuates a damaging stigma against those who act on their sexual desires that happen to involve such activities. Some people like to be dominated, some like to play rough, some like to be humiliated. Others don’t. As long as all involved are consenting adults there isn’t a problem.”

Live and let live I say, but this isn’t enough for Holmes. She describes: “a 13 minute video of a lady in lap dancer shoes, who could really have done with brushing her tongue, giving a man a blowjob while he kindly holds her head held down”. The gratuitous implications of dirtiness and submission to violence feel a lot like slut-shaming, and as Hayley Stevens points out these attitudes are written all over the petition and the comments left by its 42,000 signatories (at the time of writing). Many of the comments and sound-bites could have come straight out of the campaign against online porn, or the tragically ill-informed sexualisation debate. The politician Lynne Featherstone even linked Page 3 specifically to domestic violence, an extremely unhelpful assertion to make without evidence, and one that suggests nudity rather than misogyny is the issue.

That’s hardly surprising, because the only reason to pick Page 3 as a target - while ignoring far more misogynistic content on pages 1, 2, 4, 5, or indeed the entire Mail Online "sidebar of shame"- is the nudity. In this respect, the petition has hijacked a legitimate concern – misogyny – to get support for a morally-conservative campaign against adult publishing, sucking in careless celebrity supporters along the way.

Nudity is not automatically misogyny, nor is the appreciation of beauty or sexuality. The female body is not something to be ashamed of or to fear - it doesn’t corrupt men as rape apologists or anti-porn campaigners would claim, nor does it damage the minds of children. Removing the nudity from Page 3 would not in any way decrease the misogyny on that page, or in the paper as a whole. At best, misguided attempts to censor nudity distract from the real battle that must be fought, to challenge a tabloid culture in which misogyny oozes from every page. At worst, campaigners are engaging in exactly the same sort of sexual policing and censorship that The Sun does: one side attacking non-conformists, the other belittling the choices of ‘sluts’.  

Personally I can’t stand Page 3, but I say the answer is more nudity in newspapers, not less. Put more boobs on Page 3, and add some cocks too. Show people of every size, shape, colour, gender and sexuality; let them speak in their own voice, and celebrate them all. That, rather than self-censorship of adult-oriented content, would be a progressive tabloid revolution worth fighting for. 

Delicious buns. Photo: KHRawlings/Flickr, used under a Creative Commons licence.

Martin Robbins is a Berkshire-based researcher and science writer. He writes about science, pseudoscience and evidence-based politics. Follow him on Twitter as @mjrobbins.

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Find the EU renegotiation demands dull? Me too – but they are important

It's an old trick: smother anything in enough jargon and you can avoid being held accountable for it.

I don’t know about you, but I found the details of Britain’s European Union renegotiation demands quite hard to read. Literally. My eye kept gliding past them, in an endless quest for something more interesting in the paragraph ahead. It was as if the word “subsidiarity” had been smeared in grease. I haven’t felt tedium quite like this since I read The Lord of the Rings and found I slid straight past anything written in italics, reasoning that it was probably another interminable Elvish poem. (“The wind was in his flowing hair/The foam about him shone;/Afar they saw him strong and fair/Go riding like a swan.”)

Anyone who writes about politics encounters this; I call it Subclause Syndrome. Smother anything in enough jargon, whirr enough footnotes into the air, and you have a very effective shield for protecting yourself from accountability – better even than gutting the Freedom of Information laws, although the government seems quite keen on that, too. No wonder so much of our political conversation ends up being about personality: if we can’t hope to master all the technicalities, the next best thing is to trust the person to whom we have delegated that job.

Anyway, after 15 cups of coffee, three ice-bucket challenges and a bottle of poppers I borrowed from a Tory MP, I finally made it through. I didn’t feel much more enlightened, though, because there were notable omissions – no mention, thankfully, of rolling back employment protections – and elsewhere there was a touching faith in the power of adding “language” to official documents.

One thing did stand out, however. For months, we have been told that it is a terrible problem that migrants from Europe are sending child benefit to their families back home. In future, the amount that can be claimed will start at zero and it will reach full whack only after four years of working in Britain. Even better, to reduce the alleged “pull factor” of our generous in-work benefits regime, the child benefit rate will be paid on a ratio calculated according to average wages in the home country.

What a waste of time. At the moment, only £30m in child benefit is sent out of the country each year: quite a large sum if you’re doing a whip round for a retirement gift for a colleague, but basically a rounding error in the Department for Work and Pensions budget.

Only 20,000 workers, and 34,000 children, are involved. And yet, apparently, this makes it worth introducing 28 different rates of child benefit to be administered by the DWP. We are given to understand that Iain Duncan Smith thinks this is barmy – and this is a man optimistic enough about his department’s computer systems to predict in 2013 that 4.46 million people would be claiming Universal Credit by now*.

David Cameron’s renegotiation package was comprised exclusively of what Doctor Who fans call handwavium – a magic substance with no obvious physical attributes, which nonetheless helpfully advances the plot. In this case, the renegotiation covers up the fact that the Prime Minister always wanted to argue to stay in Europe, but needed a handy fig leaf to do so.

Brace yourself for a sentence you might not read again in the New Statesman, but this makes me feel sorry for Chris Grayling. He and other Outers in the cabinet have to wait at least two weeks for Cameron to get the demands signed off; all the while, Cameron can subtly make the case for staying in Europe, while they are bound to keep quiet because of collective responsibility.

When that stricture lifts, the high-ranking Eurosceptics will at last be free to make the case they have been sitting on for years. I have three strong beliefs about what will happen next. First, that everyone confidently predicting a paralysing civil war in the Tory ranks is doing so more in hope than expectation. Some on the left feel that if Labour is going to be divided over Trident, it is only fair that the Tories be split down the middle, too. They forget that power, and patronage, are strong solvents: there has already been much muttering about low-level blackmail from the high command, with MPs warned about the dire influence of disloyalty on their career prospects.

Second, the Europe campaign will feature large doses of both sides solemnly advising the other that they need to make “a positive case”. This will be roundly ignored. The Remain team will run a fear campaign based on job losses, access to the single market and “losing our seat at the table”; Leave will run a fear campaign based on the steady advance of whatever collective noun for migrants sounds just the right side of racist. (Current favourite: “hordes”.)

Third, the number of Britons making a decision based on a complete understanding of the renegotiation, and the future terms of our membership, will be vanishingly small. It is simply impossible to read about subsidiarity for more than an hour without lapsing into a coma.

Yet, funnily enough, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Just as the absurd complexity of policy frees us to talk instead about character, so the onset of Subclause Syndrome in the EU debate will allow us to ask ourselves a more profound, defining question: what kind of country do we want Britain to be? Polling suggests that very few of us see ourselves as “European” rather than Scottish, or British, but are we a country that feels open and looks outwards, or one that thinks this is the best it’s going to get, and we need to protect what we have? That’s more vital than any subclause. l

* For those of you keeping score at home, Universal Credit is now allegedly going to be implemented by 2021. Incidentally, George Osborne has recently discovered that it’s a great source of handwavium; tax credit cuts have been postponed because UC will render such huge savings that they aren’t needed.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle