There’s one thing worse than the limp tit in the Sun’s view, and that’s the absent one.
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Page 3 vs breast cancer: whose side are YOU on?

The Sun's Page 3 is a malignant growth of sexism on our press, and trying to use it to raise awareness of breast cancer only perpetuates the kind of single-organ fetishism that makes it all the harder for women with the disease.

Do you like Page 3? Or do you hate breasts and want them to have cancer? That is the dilemma that the Sun issues on today’s front page, where the paper announces a collaboration with the charity Coppafeel to promote self-screening among young women. The initiative is called Check ’Em Tuesday and it’s not so much a public health initiative as a war: according to the headline, it’s “PAGE 3 V BREAST CANCER”. So which side are you on?

It’s very sweet of the Sun to take an interest in my boobs. In fact, it’s downright incredible, since my boobs are basically anathema to Page 3: they’re had-a-couple-of-babies, been-through-a-few-years-of-breastfeeding, gained-and-lost-the-odd-cup-size, attached-to-a-30-something-feminist boobs. I mean, I like them a lot. We have good time together. But Sarah, 32, from Bath is not likely to make a topless visitation to the newsagents soon, or indeed ever (unless the Sun decides to give me the Clare Short treatment).

I don’t want to sound cynical, but consider this: the Sun’s concern for my rack may not be fully sincere. Page 3 is under pressure. The No More Page 3 petition has over 130,000 signatures, and there’s a growing feeling that a topless teen is not a good use of a page of newsprint. However much the Sun and its defenders want to cast Page 3 as a cheeky bit of fun or a charming Fleet Street tradition, women are taking a second look at it and coming to the conclusion that, actually, this is some sexist bullshit.

The biggest circulation newspaper in the country devotes more column inches to a salivating portrait of a pair of tits than it does to the achievements of, say, British sportswomen. What does that tell women about their place in the world? It tells them that their place is to look sexy, be quiet, stay young, make themselves available to male sexual interest – and if they can’t reach the requisite standards of perkiness then for God’s sake don’t try to force yourself on the public view, because this is no country for saggy women.

But there’s one thing worse than the limp tit in the Sun’s view, and that’s the absent one. That’s the problem with so much breast cancer awareness work: it’s all about the tit. Coppafeel’s founder has advanced breast cancer herself, and I can only admire the energy with which she’s devoted herself to raising awareness. Nevertheless, I cringe at some of the tactics the charity uses, such as sending runners round half-marathons with giant disembodied foam boobs joggling on their backs: you couldn’t really get a better example of the single-organ fetishism that pervades some breast cancer campaigns.

For the Sun, Coppafeel is a reason to put a gorgeous young woman on the cover giving herself a grope. For the women who get breast cancer, it not a sexy disease. It is painful. It is tiring. The women who contract it are not, for the most part, young and fresh-faced: they are middle aged and older. The treatment can be almost as unpleasant as the disease, invasive surgery may be required, and many women would die without a mastectomy – and it can be extraordinarily traumatic to lose a breast when you live in a culture that thinks a woman only exists if she’s got the wherewithal to fill a bra.

I wonder how much thought Sun editor David Dinsmore gave to those women’s feelings when he was signing off the front page. Did he realise that the Sun’s breast fixation might be an insult to these survivors? Or did he give any thought to those who have cancers every bit as menacing, but which tragically afflict only non-sexy organs: the cervix, the pancreas, the prostate? Of course not: this is a move of strictest self-interest from the Sun. Page 3 is a malignant growth of sexism on our press. If the Sun really cared about women, it would start by losing the boobs.

Sarah Ditum is a journalist who writes regularly for the Guardian, New Statesman and others. Her website is here.

Photo: Getty Images
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I'm far from convinced by Cameron's plans for Syria

The Prime Minister has a plan for when the bombs drop. But what about after?

In the House of Commons today, the Prime Minister set out a powerful case for Britain to join air strikes against Isil in Syria.  Isil, he argued, poses a direct threat to Britain and its people, and Britain should not be in the business of “outsourcing our security to our allies”. And while he conceded that further airstrikes alone would not be sufficient to beat Isil, he made the case for an “Isil first” strategy – attacking Isil now, while continuing to do what we can diplomatically to help secure a lasting settlement for Syria in which Assad (eventually) plays no part.

I agreed with much of David Cameron’s analysis. And no-one should doubt either the murderous barbarism of Isil in the region, or the barbarism they foment and inspire in others across the world.  But at the end of his lengthy Q&A session with MPs, I remained unconvinced that UK involvement in airstrikes in Syria was the right option. Because the case for action has to be a case for action that has a chance of succeeding.  And David Cameron’s case contained neither a plan for winning the war, nor a plan for winning the peace.

The Prime Minister, along with military experts and analysts across the world, concedes that air strikes alone will not defeat Isil, and that (as in Iraq) ground forces are essential if we want to rid Syria of Isil. But what is the plan to assemble these ground forces so necessary for a successful mission?  David Cameron’s answer today was more a hope than a plan. He referred to “70,000 Syrian opposition fighters - principally the Free Syrian Army (FSA) – with whom we can co-ordinate attacks on Isil”.

But it is an illusion to think that these fighters can provide the ground forces needed to complement aerial bombardment of Isil.  Many commentators have begun to doubt whether the FSA continues to exist as a coherent operational entity over the past few months. Coralling the myriad rebel groups into a disciplined force capable of fighting and occupying Isil territory is a heroic ambition, not a plan. And previous efforts to mobilize the rebels against Isil have been utter failures. Last month the Americans abandoned a $500m programme to train and turn 5,400 rebel fighters into a disciplined force to fight Isil. They succeeded in training just 60 fighters. And there have been incidents of American-trained fighters giving some of their US-provided equipment to the Nusra Front, an affiliate of Al Qaeda.

Why has it proven so hard to co-opt rebel forces in the fight against Isil? Because most of the various rebel groups are fighting a war against Assad, not against Isil.  Syria’s civil war is gruesome and complex, but it is fundamentally a Civil War between Assad’s forces and a variety of opponents of Assad’s regime. It would be a mistake for Britain to base a case for military action against Isil on the hope that thousands of disparate rebel forces can be persuaded to change their enemy – especially when the evidence so far is that they won’t.

This is a plan for military action that, at present, looks highly unlikely to succeed.  But what of the plan for peace? David Cameron today argued for the separation of the immediate task at hand - to strike against Isil in Syria – from the longer-term ambition of achieving a settlement in Syria and removing Assad.  But for Isil to be beaten, the two cannot be separated. Because it is only by making progress in developing a credible and internationally-backed plan for a post-Assad Syria that we will persuade Syrian Sunnis that fighting Isil will not end up helping Assad win the Civil War.  If we want not only to rely on rebel Sunnis to provide ground troops against Isil, but also provide stable governance in Isil-occupied areas when the bombing stops, progress on a settlement to Syria’s Civil War is more not less urgent.  Without it, the reluctance of Syrian Sunnis to think that our fight is their fight will undermine the chances of military efforts to beat Isil and bring basic order to the regions they control. 

This points us towards doubling down on the progress that has already been made in Vienna: working with the USA, France, Syria’s neighbours and the Gulf states, as well as Russia and Iran. We need not just a combined approach to ending the conflict, but the prospect of a post-war Syria that offers a place for those whose cooperation we seek to defeat Isil. No doubt this will strike some as insufficient in the face of the horrors perpetrated by Isil. But I fear that if we want not just to take action against Isil but to defeat them and prevent their return, it offers a better chance of succeeding than David Cameron’s proposal today. 

Stewart Wood is a former Shadow Cabinet minister and adviser to Ed Miliband. He tweets as @StewartWood.