The Blog

Why David Cameron Should Support the Girl Guides

The guides came out with a very eloquent statement this week on why they want Page 3 to go.

And David Cameron fumbled a response on the ITN News at 10 last night, repeating his mantra 'It's the parents' responsibility'.

Good to hear our Prime Minister admitting in public that 'Page 3' is harmful to children. A little odd that he said 'Turn the T.V. off' - we don't need to Mr. Cameron, T.V. has a watershed and our kids are in bed by then. That's how our society takes its share of the responsibility to protect children. 'Turn the page over' he said. Ah yes, we do have to be very vigilant there, because the Sun is an unrestricted 'family' newspaper and so it will be left around in the homes of young children.

Perhaps those 'feckless' parents who need help with the T.V. could do with a little support from the print media too?

The problem is, Mr Cameron, some parents don't realise that it's damaging to their children, because after all it's in a family newspaper so it couldn't be harmful right? And the Sun says it's just 'a celebration of natural beauty' and what could be wrong with that? An awful lot of people believe what they read in the newspaper, Mr. Cameron, and I'm guessing you're probably glad in many ways that they believe the Sun.

But I digress. What struck me was that the Girl Guides are not little children. They are a bunch of young women, aged 16 -25. They were not asking you to protect children, they were telling you that Page 3 is harmful to young women.

I'm really impressed with how perceptive those Guides are at such a young age. I had to do a lot of research over many years to be able to say with conviction that Page 3 is harmful to women. But the science is there now to show exactly why the drip-drip of these images in the mainstream media has such a damaging effect.

In modern society the mass media has unprecedented influence not only in communicating society's values but in creating them.

The most obvious example that springs to mind is how a British family newspaper 42 years ago decided to create and promote a career option for young women which we might call 'Standing in Just Your Pants and Being in the Newspaper'. (They in fact call it 'Glamour Modelling'). As evidence of the media's conditioning power, increasing numbers of girls now see this as a desirable career choice. They didn't all have 'irresponsible' parents.

You see, by the time young girls reach puberty they will see it anyway, unless we lock them up. They will see it outside the home just as they are entering the critical stage of sexual development. So will boys. They will see it on their paper rounds, they will see it in MacDonalds, in takeaways, on the bus, on the train. It is a family newspaper, it occupies the public space.

This is a vulnerable time in a girl's development. Her job is to define herself as a 'sexual being' and she looks to her culture for clues, not to her parents. They don't understand about sexuality, they're a bit past it. She looks to the media to find out what her society values in women.

And she finds that in modern Britain we value passive, sexually available, commodified women whose only purpose is to sexually titillate men. Objects.

So what about the lucky young women who have experienced such 'good' parenting that they are able to consciously resist internalising the Page 3 'ideal' as they become young women?

Well they don't get away with it completely. Page 3 represents the most negative sexual 'stereotype' of a woman. She exists only for the pleasure of men. She is dehumanised, interchangeable. The 'stereotype threat' is a real phenomenon established by psychologists who found that reference to a negative racial or gender stereotype has a negative impact on cognitive performance.

Sociologist Shelley J Correll in 2004 suggested: 'This threat of social devaluation generates anxiety, arousal and/or task-irrelevant processing that interferes with intellectual functioning'.

And Jesse J Prinz in 'Beyond Human Nature' (2012) said: 'This phenomenon, which has been replicated many times, is called stereotype threat; if you make a negative stereotype salient to people, they will inadvertently conform to it. These effects are widespread.'

This particular negative stereotype is made salient to girls and women every time someone nearby opens a copy of the Sun to Page 3. In the public space, on the way to school, in the workplace, on college campuses. In the House of Commons.

They are pretty worrying effects on women's cognitive functioning aren't they? They can't help with women's confidence. If we seriously want to level the playing field for our girls how about we decide, as a society, to just stop sending them?

The Girl Guides are right. David Cameron, please listen to them.