The decision by the Irish Sun to stop showing images of a topless woman on page 3 of their newspaper has caused a bit of a storm of anxiety amongst supporters of Page 3 this week. One opinion which seems to be very popular is that a small bunch of extreme feminists are imposing their own prudish morals on ordinary people and telling everyone else what to do.
Those in support of the No More Page 3 campaign on the other hand have been engaged in the debate 'is a woman in a bikini any less objectifying than a bare-breasted woman on Page 3?'
It has been interesting to see how the term 'feminist' has been used as the biggest insult towards those opposed to Page 3 (ugly hairy jealous lesbians was spotted on Twitter this week) and yet is turned around by the same people - both men and women - in support of their argument, as in: 'I'm a REAL feminist because women should be able to do what they want with their bodies.'
As with any group, those who identify as 'feminist' cover a broad range of diverse people and the 'extremes' that we are seeing played out this week are between those who think that sexual objectification of young women in the mainstream press is harmful for women and those who think it is 'empowering'.
The Page 3 supporters' arguments sometimes deny that the model is objectified at all because she has made a free choice and doesn't 'feel' objectified. They then support their argument with 'Well what about all the men who are objectified too? What about David Beckham/Diet Coke Man/Torso of the Week?'
Leaving aside the fact that none of these examples are displayed daily in a mainstream newspaper, we need to ask the question: what do we mean by objectification and what is the big deal about Page 3?
Page 3 is unique in that a young woman's breasts are on display in a newspaper. The difference between a man baring his torso and a topless woman is that the male torso does not expose or reveal anything. It is not an 'indecent' image and therefore does not carry the visual impact and meaning that a woman baring her breasts does.
There is an important distinction to make between 'objectification' and 'sexual objectification'. The former, it may be argued, simply celebrates the human body, and who doesn't enjoy looking at a beautiful body? The gradual increase in objectified images of the male body beautiful has coincided with the spread of eating disorders and body image issues amongst young men - still nowhere near the level of young women, but we could reasonably expect this to increase if the proliferation of images of airbrushed photoshopped male bodies continues. So the beautiful male body in swimming trunks and the beautiful female body in a bikini are equal images in terms of our response to them - admiration, the 'whoooar!' factor, envy.
Sexually objectified images are a different case: sexual objectification involves presenting the subject as sexually ready, willing and inviting and the illusion is created through attire, body pose and facial expression. A woman displaying her breasts and looking straight to camera is enough to communicate sexual availability: the image is intimate and vulnerable in a way that an image of a bare-chested man cannot be.
The Page 3 image carries the highest sexual impact and currency of any image seen in the public space, because the cocktail of pouting/smouldering/inviting facial expression and the sexual body language is accompanied by exposed breasts.
Images communicating a highly sexualised message also include those on the covers of lads' mags, where nipples are covered but the message of sexual willingness remains the same. These images too carry a higher sexual currency than any image of a bare-chested man. Bare breasts have the highest visual impact, but we also read an image of a woman who is posed in the female 'uniform' of sex - skimpy underwear, stockings - in the same way. Men are never displayed in the male equivalent sex uniform of g-strings, thongs or pouches. We are in the area of pornography here: images designed purely to elicit sexual arousal, and only women are represented in this way in the public space.
So the question 'is getting rid of bare breasts enough?' is this: it's a massive step to get rid of the most sexually objectifying image of a woman in a newspaper. Whether it's replaced by another sexually-objectified image or just an objectified image, the question remains why it is necessary to give over two-thirds of a page to represent only women in this way in a national newspaper.
And in answer to the charge that a group of extreme feminists are trying to dictate to the rest of the world I would say that the fight for a level playing field and equal representation of women in the press is a reasonable campaign. Those feminists, both male and female, who fight for the rights of individual women to make money by selling their bodies publicly in order to sexually titillate men as they read the morning paper, that's the objective that seems extreme to me.