The No More Page 3 campaign is certainly well-intentioned. But the campaign is poorly reasoned, ill-informed, and badly put together and the surrounding debate is even worse. The petition has now been signed by more than 48,000 people but much as I hate Page 3, I don’t think I can join their number. Here’s why:
Boobs aren’t news. This is the number one phrase being tossed about on the NMP3 bandwagon. It’s what Lucy Holmes is getting at when she writes that “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.” Sadly this argument is completely ineffectual. Boobs aren’t news? Well, ok. The recent Topless Duchess furore would immediately suggest otherwise but regardless, not everything that goes in a newspaper is ‘news’ (something that as a feature writer I’m rather grateful for). Think about the amount of centre spreads, web pages and air time dedicated to amusing/cute animal stories. Totally gratuitous, a calculated crowd-pleaser, and almost certainly not news but strangely no one is campaigning against them (except perhaps some particularly bonkers animal rights types). I’m not comparing hungover owls to the systematic objectification of women but as arguments go, ‘boobs aren’t news’ is one we can abandon from the off.
Page 3 is the single biggest factor contributing to the normalisation of objectification of women. Alright, you got me. I can’t disagree with this one. Except. That’s not quite what the petition says. The phrase ‘normalisation of objectification’ has come from the wider debate. The petition actually reads: “Stop conditioning your readers to view women as sex objects.” Conditioning? Ouch. Much as I am loathe to, I have to agree with Brendan O’Neill and say this smacks of an intellectual superiority complex. What O’Neill gets wrong, though, is his implicit assertion that viewing Page 3 has absolutely no effect on people’s attitudes towards women, breasts and sex in general. Evidence repeatedly suggests that people prefer to read newspapers that reinforce their views. So although Page 3 does not ’cause’ people to view women as playthings, it almost certainly fuels the already-held belief that tits are for titillation.
[Quite apart from being degrading, this belief is not helpful when it comes to promoting healthy attitudes to breast-feeding. But I will deal with that side of the coin in a future post: Why it’s time to ditch Page 3. Watch this space.]
I think we can safely give Holmes the benefit of the doubt on this one. Conditioning was probably just a bad choice of word. Fine. The thing is, there isn’t really room for a ‘bad choice of word’ in a campaign you intend to reach not only the editor of Britain’s biggest selling newspaper but also politicians and the general public. Thinking carefully about what you intend to say is surely The. Key. Thing. you need to do before drafting a petition.
This Morning is a bastion of equality. Unlike The Sun it would never objectify anybody. Er, you know, except its cute, blonde, 31-year-old presenter who was hired to replace the 55-year old Fern Britton. Ah. On second thoughts, maybe This Morning, a show where the lovely Holly shares a sofa with a 50-year-old man (who nobody saw fit to replace with a younger, ‘hotter’ model), isn’t such a great example to use in the context of sexism. This point has already been made by Martin Robbins in the New Statesman but it bears repeating. Because as I already mentioned, if you’re going to put out a petition for people to sign, it’s probably worth spending some time thinking about how to word it, what examples to draw on and what references to use…. no? Just a suggestion.
Page 3 is linked to domestic violence. Again, this isn’t something that Holmes talks about in the petition, it’s something that has come from the surrounding conversation, and most notably from Lib Dem MP, Lynne Featherstone. It’s also something that people who don’t enjoy my devil’s advocate attitude like to hurl at me without bothering to check whether it’s based in any way on fact. Which, of course, is why I object to it and why I object to a lot of the discourse that surrounds the NMP3 campaign in its current manifestation.
Lynne Featherstone’s assertion is that Page 3 has a “deleterious effect” on women which is about as vague as you can get. Essentially her argument is that viewing women’s breasts in the newspaper leads to a devaluing of women which in turn leads to violence towards them. A bit of a leap by anyone’s standards but like all politicians, Lynne Featherstone has a tendency to be single-minded. The problem is, there are certain topics which simply cannot be approached this way. Human behaviour is, I would say, a prime example.
Of course, there is some research which suggests a (albeit inconclusive) link between porn consumption and sexual violence but again, it is a big leap from the type of video porn being discussed in such studies to Page 3. There are also numerous differences between sexual violence and domestic violence (though the latter may include the former). To my knowledge no study has ever been done that can conclusively link Page 3 to increased domestic violence. To say that Page 3 is a contributing factor in domestic violence is pure conjecture.
That is not to say that Page 3 is ‘harmless’. Only that the link between seeing breasts in the paper and physically and/or psychologically abusing up your partner is very weak indeed and conflating complex issues in order to further your own agenda is not helpful to anyone on any side of the debate.
Which leads me to my final point.
You shouldn’t show naked breasts in a ‘family’ newspaper. My gripe here isn’t so much about the ‘family newspaper’ issue as the use of the word ‘shouldn’t’. Lack of clarity leads me to guess (which, again, is not ideal in a campaign like this) that Holmes’ point is that children viewing these images will grow up in the belief that a woman’s sole purpose is to decorate and titillate; that her value is in the way she looks, the way her body looks. Fair enough. Of course, there’s nothing actually wrong with valuing beauty and erotic titillation is a crucial part of human sexual experience and interaction but yeah, it’d be nice if we (and our families) were able to explore this in our own time, in our own ways, and to meet our own personal needs, tastes, and desires, rather than having it prescribed to us.
Speaking of which… I can’t help feeling that Holmes’ problem with showing naked breasts has less to do with her concerns for humanity and more to do with her own personal view of what sex should (or ‘shouldn’t’) be. And this feeling grows even stronger when I start to look at what else she’s written on the subject of sex. You see, for Lucy Holmes, ‘No More Page 3’ is not just a bid to make this country a more equal place, it’s part of her wider conviction that we as a society need to “wrestle sex back from the clutches of online porn and make it beautiful.”
But beautiful according to who, exactly?
On her ‘about’ page, she writes: “If someone had said, ‘here you go, human race, here’s this thing, it’s called sex, it’s an amazing, loving union between two people, where you celebrate and pleasure each other, it ends in waves of bliss. Take it, human race, and just for a laugh, see just how far you can debase it’, I don’t think we could have done a better job than we have.”
If by debase she means capitalise on, I couldn’t agree more. Money is, after all, the driving force in the porn industry. However, a) I don’t think this is what she means, I think she’s making a value judgement on the ‘kinds’ of sex depicted in porn and b) I have a problem with her definition of the sexual ideal as something which must necessarily be amazing, loving, celebratory, and blissful. Come to think of it, who’s to say ‘amazing’, ‘loving’, ‘celebratory’ and ‘blissful’ are even concrete ideas. One woman’s bliss is another woman’s… er, Dis?*
[I also have a bit of an issue with her analogy, partly because it seems to draw on a religious moral framework in which humans are the ungrateful recipients of gifts bestowed by some great benefactor and partly because of the idea of human instincts as things which we receive. No one ‘gave’ us sex. It did not come packaged in some preordained form. It is inherently ours and as rational beings we can choose to do what we want with it.]
I’m sorry, Lucy, if the kind of sex I like having/watching/reading/looking at/talking about, doesn’t fit your personal model but guess what, your personal model of sex doesn’t fit with mine. The difference is, I have no desire to force my definition of ‘beautiful sex’ on the rest of society. I desire there to be better communication between individuals on the subject and I would like to see the conversation opened up on the subject of different kinds of sex but never for a minute would I assume that my kind of sex is ‘the right kind’ or even that there is a right or a wrong kind (within the boundaries of mutual consent, of course).
At another point on her blog she says: “I believe that as a society we’ve made sex ugly. It makes me sad. As does the fact that I’m 35 and feel I haven’t even skimmed the top of how beautiful sex can be. So I’m on a mission to remedy that.”
In fact, the more I read, the more I realise that this is not really about ‘society’, this is someone on a journey towards making sense of her own sexuality, her own experience, preferences, and desires in a culture that seems to talk continually but care very little about these things. I appreciate this on two levels. Firstly, we are all on a journey towards sexual self-discovery and understanding. So I empathise. Secondly, as a sex writer I have to applaud any kind of attempt by anyone to embark openly on this journey. And I do. But I can’t applaud a national campaign and petition based entirely on one person’s subjective views on sex.
And I certainly can’t sign it.
Picture: Me papped reading Page 3 on holiday in Cornwall, 2011. Just what every feminist wants.
* The city of Dis was in the lower circles of hell according to Dante.