The Blog

Four Things People Keep Getting Wrong About the Page 3 Debate

Institutionalised sexism is dangerous because it assimilates into our culture to the point that we don't see it anymore, and conforming to the dominant narrative ends up being mistaken for a choice.

One thing we can say for sure about the whole page 3 saga: it has struck a chord with the nation. Apparently, it was all a 'mammary lapse', but now we've started talking about it you can't shut us up. Women, hey?

So let's talk, because if there's something positive to come out of this, it's the re-ignition of the debate about the legitimacy of Page 3 in the year 2015. But first, we need to clear up some misconceptions:

1. Relax, freedom of speech is not under attack

This is such a hot topic right now, it's time for some much needed clarification.

Freedom of speech is the ability to express one's opinions without State interference. This means without government censorship and without fear of being arrested, imprisoned, deported, tortured or even killed. Britain has freedom of speech. North Korea doesn't.

Despite what some people will have you think, freedom of speech does have limitations, e.g. in the case of libel or incitement to hatred. But broadly, it means that you have a right to say almost anything you want.

It doesn't mean other people have to like it.

If we decide that you're being a bit of a dick and take our custom elsewhere, use our own freedom of speech to criticise you, or drum up an awareness campaign, your freedom of speech has not been infringed. You can still print whatever you want. And we can still oppose it.

Which brings me neatly to the second point.

2. Page 3 will never be 'banned'

Let's get this straight: the Sun will never be forced by law to stop printing pictures of naked women. The decision to phase out page 3 rests and will always rest with the editor.

That's why opponents of page 3 are petitioning David Dinsmore, as well as campaigning to raise awareness about the societal damage of the culture of objectification promoted by the paper.

It is also the reason why the initial news that page 3 had been dropped was hailed as such a momentous victory. Hurrah! We finally live in a society where even the Sun editorial team has come to the realisation that, come on guys, naked boobs in a newspaper - it was okay 44 years ago, but now it's pushing it a little. And possibly, that's not too far from what happened. The sudden disappearance and reappearance of page 3 has been interpreted as a trolling exercise, but it might have been a testing-the-waters experiment, to see how badly sales would slump. I guess the answer is, pretty badly.

3. 'But isn't feminism about empowering women to do whatever they want?'

This is one of the most dangerous arguments, because on the surface it makes a lot of sense and I'm sure it's presented in good faith. But it's still fundamentally flawed, as it fails to acknowledge just how much our culture (and our cultural pitfalls, such as institutionalised sexism) can influence our choices. I feel strongly about it, so much so I wrote a whole article on this aspect alone. So allow me to be bold, and perhaps a little arrogant, and quote myself:

Page 3 girls chose to take their tops off. Nobody's forcing them.

But is it real choice when you grow up thinking that's your lot? Is it real choice when everything around you reinforces the notion that you're only as good as your looks? When female singers are sexualised from an early age, female TV hosts (and even newsreaders) are unceremoniously dropped for being too old and every actress on Game of Thrones has to get her tits out to secure a career changing role? Is it real choice when society tells you that middle-aged men scrutinising your naked breasts on their work commute is just dandy, and not creepy at all, and you should be flattered to have made the cut?

It's not. It's brainwashing masked as empowerment.

Institutionalised sexism is dangerous because it assimilates into our culture to the point that we don't see it anymore, and conforming to the dominant narrative ends up being mistaken for a choice.

4. 'If you don't like it, don't look at it'

This argument completely misunderstands the point of the complaints and assumes they're motivated by some sort of anachronistic prudishness. Let me assure you that I have no problem whatsoever with the sight of naked breasts. They don't offend me. In fact, I think the female body is beautiful and should be celebrated.

The problem is not the sight of breasts. It's the creation of a culture of women's objectification, which doesn't go away just because I close my eyes. And since we're all living in the same cultural contest, I have a vested interest in what shapes it. See point above: Moira Stuart doesn't strike me as a reader of the Sun, so according to this argument she should have no problem with it. However, she does have a legitimate grievance when she's dropped because we live in a society where women are a thing to look at, and age and perkiness of body trump qualifications, experience and good-old fashioned competence. So no, looking away doesn't cut it.

Then, what is the Page 3 debate all about?

It's not about the restriction of free speech - it's about responsible usage of that freedom of speech.

It's not about repressing women's sexuality - it's about reframing it away from an outdated model of passive objectification.

And it's not about banning Page 3. It's about creating a society in which Page 3 will not be there, because readers will want more than naked breasts from their daily newspaper.