The purpose of Page 3 is to humiliate, chasten and bully women. That was true when the Sun mocked Clare Short as “fat and jealous” for her campaign to end the nation’s favourite current affairs softcore feature. It was true when the Sun ran those needling, nasty “News in Briefs” boxes alongside the models, urging readers to chortle at the idea that a woman might simultaneously have symmetrical mammary tissue and a thought in her head.
It was true when I worked in a supermarket, sitting in the canteen holding my breath while the man on the table with me rustled over Page 3 – would he flick straight past it today, or would I sit there picking at my crisps and yanking awkwardly at the hem of my tabard, while he studied the curves and smiled his satisfaction that they were there on show for him? It was true when I worked in a pub, where the punters didn’t even bother to take their pleasure quietly, but would debate the merits of the aureola over lunchtime pints then send me for something from the bottom shelf so they could have a look at my bum.
It is true today, when the Sun gloatingly reveals – with all the moral intelligence and disarming wit of a small child grinning at you with cornflake-coated teeth and saying, “Fooled you! I didn’t really brush my teeth!” – that it’s not actually axing Page 3 after all. It’s impossible to know whether this is a deliberate stunt or a clumsy retreat, although the fact that the axing was initially reported by the Sun’s sister paper the Times means that it was definitely something. In any case, Sun PR head Dylan Sharpe was having a fine time of it on Twitter this morning, shooting the winking image of Nicola, 22, from Bournemouth at Harriet Harman and other perceived enemies of Page 3 – because what after all is Page 3 for, if not rubbing in the faces of women who’ve annoyed you by speaking out of turn?
What a joke, though. For one riotous, rumspringa day, women got to live in a world where in a small but symbolic way our bodies weren’t put on display as consumables. Sure, there was still the porn to deal with, and all the pornified advertising, and the magazines with their pictures of gleaming dead-eyed do-nothing beauty, and the paparazzi shots of the demi-famous in bikinis that appear regularly in the Sun anyway, but there was no more Page 3. That particular ritual of feminine submission – lips parted in a receptive smile, hair lightly tousled, breasts bare and available – was done for. (And please, don’t try the line that this is about the models “celebrating female sexuality”. One of the things about sexuality is that it encompasses things people do because they feel good. If the models were turned on, they wouldn’t need paying.)
And what in any case is stopping the Sun from making the call to end Page 3? As a feature, it’s tired and tawdry, stranded between the routine extremity of the degradations on offer online and a public increasingly unwilling to accept that it’s just normal to put female flesh on sale. Aggrieved men deprived of their daily dose of nipple can cry “censorship” all they like, but this was never about putting the press through the approval of any government agency. Editors decide not to publish things all the time. That’s what editing is. The No More Page 3 campaign has always been about asking – politely, kindly – if the Sun’s editor wouldn’t just consider that this one regular has run its course, and perhaps it’s time to start treating women as people worthy of coverage for more than our relative perkiness and willingness to go topless.
Such a small thing to ask after all. But it means so much to the men who need it: every day in newsprint, they can find the confirmation that women exist not to speak and not to act, but merely to be in placid service of male libido. That’s why the Sun won’t give Page 3 up easily. That’s why the tense-jawed male columnists all tumbled out their bag of clichés yesterday, squeezing together something about Charlie Hebdo and that Orwell essay about saucy postcards to reach the conclusion that – goodness – the right to print pictures of tits is one of the most sacred aspects of English free speech, and doubtless what the drafters of Magna Carta really had in mind.
For men who want women to be soft, pliable and wank-overable, giving up Page 3 really is too much to ask. And that’s why the Sun won’t let it go without exploiting it right to the very last gasp as a way to make women look stupid. Maybe we are. Stupid to think it was worth asking nicely. Stupid to think that if we were respectful and considered, we might get respect and consideration in reply. We have so much to fight for, and when the Sun finally gives up on its idiot daily pantomime of woman-as-shag-toy, it will only be the start.