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.
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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.

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.

Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things.

This article first appeared in the 29 July 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Summer Double Issue

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After Richmond Park, Labour MPs are haunted by a familiar ghost

Labour MPs in big cities fear the Liberal Democrats, while in the north, they fear Ukip. 

The Liberal Democrats’ victory in Richmond Park has Conservatives nervous, and rightly so. Not only did Sarah Olney take the votes of soft Conservatives who backed a Remain vote on 23 June, she also benefited from tactical voting from Labour voters.

Although Richmond Park is the fifth most pro-Remain constituency won by a Conservative at the 2015 election, the more significant number – for the Liberal Democrats at least – is 15: that’s the number of Tory-held seats they could win if they reduced the Labour vote by the same amount they managed in Richmond Park.

The Tories have two Brexit headaches, electorally speaking. The first is the direct loss of voters who backed David Cameron in 2015 and a Remain vote in 2016 to the Liberal Democrats. The second is that Brexit appears to have made Liberal Democrat candidates palatable to Labour voters who backed the party as the anti-Conservative option in seats where Labour is generally weak from 1992 to 2010, but stayed at home or voted Labour in 2015.

Although local council by-elections are not as dramatic as parliamentary ones, they offer clues as to how national elections may play out, and it’s worth noting that Richmond Park wasn’t the only place where the Liberal Democrats saw a dramatic surge in the party’s fortunes. They also made a dramatic gain in Chichester, which voted to leave.

(That’s the other factor to remember in the “Leave/Remain” divide. In Liberal-Conservative battlegrounds where the majority of voters opted to leave, the third-placed Labour and Green vote tends to be heavily pro-Remain.)

But it’s not just Conservatives with the Liberal Democrats in second who have cause to be nervous.  Labour MPs outside of England's big cities have long been nervous that Ukip will do to them what the SNP did to their Scottish colleagues in 2015. That Ukip is now in second place in many seats that Labour once considered safe only adds to the sense of unease.

In a lot of seats, the closeness of Ukip is overstated. As one MP, who has the Conservatives in second place observed, “All that’s happened is you used to have five or six no-hopers, and all of that vote has gone to Ukip, so colleagues are nervous”. That’s true, to an extent. But it’s worth noting that the same thing could be said for the Liberal Democrats in Conservative seats in 1992. All they had done was to coagulate most of the “anyone but the Conservative” vote under their banner. In 1997, they took Conservative votes – and with it, picked up 28 formerly Tory seats.

Also nervous are the party’s London MPs, albeit for different reasons. They fear that Remain voters will desert them for the Liberal Democrats. (It’s worth noting that Catherine West, who sits for the most pro-Remain seat in the country, has already told constituents that she will vote against Article 50, as has David Lammy, another North London MP.)

A particular cause for alarm is that most of the party’s high command – Jeremy Corbyn, Emily Thornberry, Diane Abbott, and Keir Starmer – all sit for seats that were heavily pro-Remain. Thornberry, in particular, has the particularly dangerous combination of a seat that voted Remain in June but has flirted with the Liberal Democrats in the past, with the shadow foreign secretary finishing just 484 votes ahead of Bridget Fox, the Liberal Democrat candidate, in 2005.

Are they right to be worried? That the referendum allowed the Liberal Democrats to reconfigure the politics of Richmond Park adds credence to a YouGov poll that showed a pro-Brexit Labour party finishing third behind a pro-second referendum Liberal Democrat party, should Labour go into the next election backing Brexit and the Liberal Democrats opt to oppose it.

The difficulty for Labour is the calculation for the Liberal Democrats is easy. They are an unabashedly pro-European party, from their activists to their MPs, and the 22 per cent of voters who back a referendum re-run are a significantly larger group than the eight per cent of the vote that Nick Clegg’s Liberal Democrats got in 2015.

The calculus is more fraught for Labour. In terms of the straight Conservative battle, their best hope is to put the referendum question to bed and focus on issues which don’t divide their coalition in two, as immigration does. But for separate reasons, neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats will be keen to let them.

At every point, the referendum question poses difficulties for Labour. Even when neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats take seats from them directly, they can hurt them badly, allowing the Conservatives to come through the middle.

The big problem is that the stance that makes sense in terms of maintaining party unity is to try to run on a ticket of moving past the referendum and focussing on the party’s core issues of social justice, better public services and redistribution.

But the trouble with that approach is that it’s alarmingly similar to the one favoured by Kezia Dugdale and Scottish Labour in 2016, who tried to make the election about public services, not the constitution. They came third, behind a Conservative party that ran on an explicitly pro-Union platform. The possibility of an English sequel should not be ruled out.  

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.