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Laurie Penny on page three: the real threat to young women’s health and happiness

David Cameron is wrong to try and ban pornography online when the casual objectification of women continues as a decoy for vicious xenophobia and social conservatism in the mainstream media.

Page 3 models.
As the industry suffers, press outlets of all stripes are turning to sexist filler and side-boob close ups to sell their wares. Photograph: Getty Images.
David Cameron is confused about pornography. The coalition government has just moved to impose mandatory filtering on the distribution of online smut, putting measures in place to ban certain search terms and impose an “opt-in” filter on explicit content. When challenged, however, about page three of the Sun – the topless softcore wank-matter that’s still distributed daily in Britain’s most-read newspaper – the Prime Minister was loath to support a ban. “On this one,” he argued, “I think it’s probably better to leave it to the consumer rather than regulate.”
 
This may or may not have anything to do with Cameron’s career-defining hesitancy to challenge Rupert Murdoch under any circumstances. Yet the fact remains that, according to the Conservatives, boobs on the internet are “toxic” for children, but soft porn all over the paper, where little boys and girls can easily find it and see their parents reading it, is just fine.
 
Page three has never just been about page three. Rather, it is a litmus test for whether or not one supports the objectification of young women as part of the cultural discourse – and what you think should be done about it. For some campaigners, page three is a symbol of everything wrong with our “sexualised” society; others are prepared to go to rather extreme lengths to defend an institution they claim is “traditional”, which means “archaic and sexist”, and “just a bit of fun”, which means “fun for men at women’s expense”.
 
I am not of the school of feminism which believes that the answer to the ubiquity of sexist imagery is to slap bans on everything we don’t like. I do not support David Cameron’s porn ban. I believe that it is extremely difficult to achieve radical ends by conservative means, and that censorship is invariably conservative. I also believe that giving this government, or any government, the power to monitor and control how we use the internet is a very risky proposition – because we’ve already seen, in the past few months, how such powers can be abused. I do, however, support the campaign against topless models on page three, and there are specific reasons why.
 
I have nothing against boobs before breakfast. I see my own most mornings in the mirror and I have yet to be traumatised into a tornado of abject self-objectification. Nor do I wish to deprive hard-working glamour models of a living: in its proper context, my main problem with softcore porn is the lack of mainstream provision for anyone who isn’t primarily attracted to slender young white women with submissive smiles. No, my problem with page three is a professional one. I have an interest, as a journalist, in working in an industry that does not rely on the ritual objectification of women to sell news content.
 
As the profit margins of the news industry disintegrate, press outlets of all stripes are turning to sexist filler content and sideboob close-ups to sell their wares – and ameliorate the appearance of their worst excesses elsewhere in their pages. What’s most abhorrent about page three is that it mitigates the xenophobic, hawkishly right-wing content of the rest of the paper. The problem with the Sun is not just page three, but pages one, two and four to 28, and the insertion of a bit of jolly soft porn into the mix puts a sexy smile on social conservatism. Sexism, from objectification to body-shaming to reactionary dissection of women’s life choices, is the strategy that tabloids have chosen to keep their profit margins healthy in an age where the internet threatens their business model.
 
As a young woman working in a media industry that remains, despite recent improvements, deeply sexist, I have had more dealings than I anticipated with the news economy of misogyny. It’s about what role women play in the press, both as journalists and, more frequently, as the subjects of reports, adverts and the vast amount of page-filler that falls somewhere in between. Women are there to sell papers, particularly young women, particularly young, white, attractive women between the ages of 16 and 30 who may or may not have experienced a recent wardrobe malfunction. The other things that sell papers include shaming celebrities for having the “wrong” body shape, endless coverage of famous women’s “weight battles”, and female columnists castigating one another for being too pretty, or not pretty enough, or too maternal, or not maternal enough.
 
On 12 July, the musician Amanda Palmer responded to the Daily Mail’s shocked coverage of her Glastonbury nipple-slip by stripping buck naked and singing a song about the newspaper that managed to find a rhyme for “misogynist pile of twats”. (Lyrics: “I’m tired of these baby bumps, vag flashes, muffintops/Where are the newsworthy cocks?”) I happened to be in the audience, and can confirm that it was the only possible response to a tabloid culture that treats women’s bodies as newsworthy commodities whose actual owners can expect a barrage of slut-shaming should they choose to take control of them.
 
Or at least that’s what I would have said if I hadn’t been jumping up and down in glee and squealing incoherently at the time. In Tabloid World, airbrushed soft porn is acceptable, but cellulite is the subject of lengthy, moist and expectant disapproval – as are skinny jeans, stray boob-flashes, accidental camel toes and Rihanna in any situation.
 
The news economy of misogyny is far more insidious, far more mainstream, and far more damaging to children and young people than online pornography. It titillates readers with hate and provides a steady stream of propaganda, reducing women to bodies for the rest of us to judge. From page three to the rest of the paper, it’s the oldfashioned press, and not the internet, that’s the real threat to young women’s health and happiness right now.