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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The fall of Milo Yiannopoulos: Only the mainstream right has the power to stop the populist right

The lessons of the provocateur's sudden fall from grace.

Alas, poor Milo Yiannopoulos, we hardly knew ye. Well, actually, that's not true. I first encountered Yiannopolous in 2012, when he tried to slut-shame a friend of mine, sex blogger Zoe Margolis, after she criticised his tech site, the Kernel.  "We write about how tech is changing the world around us," he tweeted. "You write about how many cocks you've sucked this week. Back off."

It was a typical Milo performance. Flashy, provocative - and steeped in misogyny. 

Fast-forward five years and he had managed to parlay those qualities into a gig with Breitbart, a public speaking tour, and until yesterday, a $250,000 book deal with Simon & Schuster. But last night, that was cancelled, "after careful consideration". Yiannopolous's invitation to speak at the Conservative Political Action Conference had been cancelled hours before. Over the years, CPAC has hosted Ronald Reagan, George W Bush and all the Hall of Fame right-wing blowhards: Glenn Beck, Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity. 

What changed CPAC's mind? On 18 February, the organisation had tweeted that "free speech includes hearing Milo's important perspective".

Milo's important perspective on what was left unanswered, because it is unanswerable. Does anyone, really, think that Milo Yiannopoulos has deep and rigorously researched convictions? That his statements on feminism, on transgender people, or his criticisms of Ghostbusters actor Leslie Jones, spring from some deep well of evidence and sincerity?

Do me a favour.

Yiannopoulos was invited to CPAC to do what he does: be outrageous. To give the attendees a frisson of excitement at being in the presence of someone so notorious, someone willing to "say the unsayable". To outrage the left, and remind those watching of the gulf between them and the people waving placards outside.

Except the provocateur is finding out that some things really are unsayable. Some things - all his previous things, in fact - are extremely sayable, as long as you have the protection of the mainstream right and a media industry which craves - and monetises - attention. But a few are not.

So what did Milo Yiannopoulos actually say to prompt this outbreak of condemnation, and the withdrawal of lucrative marketing opportunities? The first thing to note is that the comments which kicked off the latest row are not new. After he appeared on Bill Maher's show improbably dressed as Like A Virgin Era Madonna (in an appearance up there with Jimmy Fallon rustling Trump's tawny locks on the Vom-O-Meter), old YouTube videos surfaced which, in the BBC's words, "showed him discussing the merits of gay relationships between adults and boys as young as 13". He said that the age of consent was "not this black and white thing" and relationships "between younger boys and older men … can be hugely positive experiences". 

He has since denied endorsing paedophilia, said that he is a survivor of child abuse himself, and added that the videos were edited to give a misleading impression.

In the tweet announcing that he had been dropped, CPAC accused him of "condoning paedophilia". But he argues that elsewhere in the video he said that the US age of consent was in the correct place.

For those on the left, the overwhelming reaction to all this has been: why now? Why these comments, not the ones about "preening poofs", or lesbians faking hate crimes, or the danger of Muslims, or the harassment campaign against Leslie Jones which got him permanently banned from Twitter? (Do you know how consistently and publicly awful you have to be to get banned from Twitter???)

There's only one answer to that, really: yesterday marked the moment when Milo Yiannopoulos ceased being an asset to the mainstream right, and became a liability.

***

On 8 February, Jan-Werner Muller wrote a fascinating piece for the FT in which he argued that the populist right was not, as the narrative would have it, an unstoppable grassroots movement sweeping the world. Instead it should be seen as an outgrowth of the mainstream right, which fed it and gave it succour. 

These colourful images are deeply misleading. Mr Farage did not bring about the Brexit vote all by himself. He needed two mainstream Conservative politicians, Boris Johnson and Michael Gove. More important still, the Leave vote was not just the result of spontaneous anti-establishment feelings by the downtrodden; Euroscepticism, once a fringe position among Conservatives, had been nourished for decades by tabloid newspapers and rebel MPs.

President Trump did not win as an outside candidate of a third-party populist movement either. Where Mr Farage had Messrs Johnson and Gove, Mr Trump could rely on the blessing of establishment Republicans such as Newt Gingrich, Chris Christie and Rudy Giuliani."  

This is unarguably true in the case of Milo Yiannopoulos: he started his career at the Telegraph, once the newspaper of choice for retired colonels eating marmalade in the shires. Iain Martin, a colleague of his there, yesterday jokingly acknowledged that he was "partly to blame".

A quick look at Nigel Farage's experience during the EU referendum is also instructive. The Vote Leave campaign worked hard to shut him out of the public discussion in the weeks before 23 June - reasoning that his overt anti-immigration broadsides would turn off swing voters. They even accused broadcasters of "joining the IN campaign" by inviting Farage to debate David Cameron. To understand Farage's bewilderment at this treatment, read his speeches from the time, or his grumpy appearance on TV the morning after the victory, where he said the £350m NHS claim was a mistake. The guy felt betrayed.

And it's not surprising. A significant number of Tory Eurosceptics in parliament had, until Cameron announced the referendum would happen, found Farage's existence extremely useful. There he was - a living, breathing, chainsmoking reminder that MPs (and voters) could move to Ukip if Britain didn't get a say on membership of the European Union. But once the campaign began, they found him an embarrassment. The "Breaking Point" poster was repellent. He was turning off moderate voters. And so he was frozen out. Boris Johnson and Michael Gove suddenly discovered that - hey, this guy says some pretty outrageous things!

A similar dynamic happened with Donald Trump. We now know he performed on 8 November about as well as a generic Republican after eight years of a Democratic president. Certainly no better - had he run as an independent, that small core of Trump-lovers would be a speck within a wider population, instead of being held up as the vanguard of a new kind of politics. Throughout the campaign, GOP grandees like Paul Ryan struggled to condemn him, reasoning that a Republican president - any Republican president, even one who didn't seem to believe in most of the alleged values of the Republican party - was better than a Democrat. Trump was boosted and bolstered by significant portions of the mainstream right, and even the centre: CNN employed his former campaign manager as a pundit. Fox, a mainstream news channel owned by a huge corporation, gave him waves of adoring coverage. 

***

What's in all this for the mainstream right? Two things. The first is that the populist right are useful generators of heat. They say outrageous things - black people are lazy! Muslims are terrorists! - putting their opponents in a bind. Do you let such assertions go, on the basis that those voicing them are a tiny fringe? Or do you wearily condemn every single instance of bigotry, making yourself look like a dull Pez dispenser of condemnation? Either way is debilitating, either for public discourse broadly, or for the left's appeal to disengaged people. 

Secondly, the populist right are useful outriders. Sheltered by the mainstream right - would anyone read Katie Hopkins if she had a blog, or Piers Morgan? nope - these "provocateurs" can push extreme versions of narratives that many on the mainstream right feel to be true, or at least to contain a kernel of truth worth discussing. If Breitbart says "black crime" is a distinct phenomenon, then it's much more acceptable for Trump to threaten to "send in the Feds" to Chicago, or to describe inner cities as wastelands in need of a strong hand. If Katie Hopkins writes about migrants drowning in the Mediterranean as "cockroaches", she dehumanises them - turning them from fathers, mothers, children into a faceless mass, not like us, and therefore not deserving of our pity. That makes it much easier for the government to stop taking child refugees. After all, didn't I read somewhere that they're all 45 and just pretending to be children, anyway?

The populist right are extremely good generators of memes - those little bits of information which move virally through society. Take the grooming gang in Rochdale. It gets invoked every time feminists try to have a conversation about male violence. Um, did you condemn Rochdale? By the time you reply, wearily, that yes you did, it's too late. The conversation has been derailed for good. What about FGM? Well, yes, of course I'm agains-- oh, too late. We've moved on. 

***

The "alt right" - the online version of the populist right - loves to talk about left-wingers being "triggered" or "snowflakes". This is clearly a rhetorical tactic to delegitimise any criticism of them. I don't write about misogyny because I'm upset by it; I write about it because it's wrong. But it's a playbook that works: look into examples of "political correctness gone mad" and you'll often find a story that has been exaggerated, twisted or straight-up invented in order to paint the left as dolorous monks intent on killing fun. But anyone with any strong beliefs, anyone who holds anything sacred, will react when some shows disrespect to something they care about. The right has just as many shibboleths it is unwilling to see violated. (If you don't believe me, try burning a poppy or the American flag.)

The strangest part of yesterday was seeing Milo Yiannopoulous's increasingly sincere Facebook posts, as the awful realisation dawned on him - as it dawned on Nigel Farage during the referendum - that the sweet shelter of the mainstream right was being withdrawn from him. When he had attacked his female peers in the London tech scene, when he attacked transgender people for being "mentally ill", when he attacked an actor for the temerity to be black, female and funny in a jumpsuit, he was given licence. He was provocative, starting a debate, exercising his free speech. But yesterday he found out that there is always a line. For the right, it's child abuse - because children, uniquely among people who might be sexually abused, are deemed to be innocent. No one is going to buy that a 13-year-old shouldn't have been out that late, or wearing that, or brought it on himself. 

I would not be surprised if this isn't the end of Milo Yiannopoulos's career, and I will watch with keen interest what strategies he will use for his rehabilitation. He's still got his outlaw cachet, and there are still plenty of outlets where the very fact that people are objecting to a speaker is assumed to mean they have something that's worth hearing. And there are plenty more ideas that some on the right would be happy to see pushed a little further into the mainstream - with plausible deniability, of course. If that's the extreme, then the mainstream shifts imperceptibly with every new provocation. Because he's not one of us, oh no. They're not, either. But you see, they must be heard. And provocateurs are useful, until they're not. But it's not the left who decides when that is. Only the mainstream right can stop the extremists on their flanks.

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.