So Rupert Murdoch has hinted on Twitter that he may be rethinking his 40 year mission to deliver a daily couple of nipples to the breakfast tables of the nation.
In a reaction on Comment is Free, Rhiannon Lucy Cossett argued that nudity is not the principal problem with Page 3. “The presence of a few designer labels in the crucial areas makes little difference if the poisonous attitude remains the same,” she wrote. I broadly agree. My general take on the issue is that The Sun is a paper which peddles the exploitation, vilification and undisguised hatred of, well, just about everyone. The focus on Page 3 seems to me to miss the broader point, but more precisely, my problem with the tradition is not the nudity, but the way that it uses women as decoration, implying that a woman’s most significant role in the news media is to provide eye candy for a predominantly male market. Related to that, my main problem with the campaign against Page 3 is that by focusing on the nakedness, it veers rather close to an anti-nudity, even anti-sexuality narrative. It seems to say that exploitation is just fine, so long as you keep the boobs covered up.
While I generally agreed with Rhiannon’s main point, there was one paragraph in the article that betrays a profoundly mistaken view of what Page 3 is and does, and how it is viewed by men. It’s an extreme example of an argument that is often made by feminists within this debate.
I remember, as a teenager, how awful it was to be sitting next to a man on the bus leering at Page 3. I remember the embarrassment, the discomfort, at the lascivious drool coming from his chops, and the physical revulsion at his presumed erection from looking at a girl pretty much the same as me
…it’s about the sense of entitlement, the presupposition that an entire page of a national newspaper should be given over to the sexual gratification of men
Of course one can never underestimate the diversity of human personality and sexual behaviour, and I need no convincing that women experience the most rank sexual harassment and intimidation on public transport. I will take it on trust that at some point(s) in her life Rhiannon really did find herself sitting next to some freak who was “leering at Page 3” with “lascivious drool coming from his chops” in such a way that she presumed he had an erection from all the “sexual gratification” on display. I do, however, strongly reject the implication that this is how men typically view Page 3.
Straight men generally find pretty young women attractive. They are drawn towards them. Pretty young women with clothes on are attractive, and pretty young women with fewer clothes on are even more attractive. Boobs are nice to look at. I don’t think I’m sticking my neck out too far in making that assertion.
Murdoch started putting semi-naked women in his newspapers back in 1970 to attract buyers, in exactly the same way that car show exhibitors drape models over the bonnets of their cars. He figured that if men are attracted to women with their tops on, they would be even more attracted to women with their tops off. And he was probably largely correct about that.
However attraction is not the same thing as sexual arousal. If images in The Sun or any other paper were genuinely sexually arousing they would actually lose readers. Murdoch has always wanted The Sun to be something that families could have lying around the breakfast table. That’s why the classic Page 3 look has always been strangely sexless and innocent, all happy cheerful smiles rather than the sultry, seductive pouts of pornography, even softcore porn.
Here is a fundamental truth about men: we hate getting erections at inappropriate moments. It is embarrassing and (literally) uncomfortable. The greatest horror is to get an erection at work or when surrounded by your mates. Men (and teenage boys in particular) develop all kinds of squirming techniques and tactics to try to disguise them. If we thought reading the Sun was likely to produce spontaneous erections at inopportune moments, we wouldn’t buy it, or we would but would keep it hidden under the mattress with the porn mags.
I suspect one of the reasons why Murdoch is now considering covering up the nipples on Page 3 is because he realises that they’re not actually that important a part of the equation. He started using them 40 years ago because he thought he could get away with it and it might add to sales. He now knows he could take them away and it wouldn’t really make any difference, because the nipples really aren’t what it is all about. The likelihood is that Murdoch can grant campaigners their victory, get some good PR, and continue to use women in the same exploitative, sexist, decorative way he always has.
There is a tendency among some feminists to assume the worst of male sexuality. I understand where that has come from, but it can lead debates on topics such as sexualisation, porn and objectification to be conducted rather at cross purposes, and to generate a lot more heat than light. I don’t doubt for a moment that when a woman (especially a very young women) sees a man looking at The Sun, and specifically Page 3, she might be made genuinely uncomfortable by it. She may genuinely believe that the man is awash with lust, drooling with sexual gratification and sheltering a raging boner underneath his newspaper. I would suggest that unless the man has just escaped from decades in a monastery or is about 12 years old, this is almost certainly not the case. Much more probably he is thinking something like “she’s cute, nice tits, what a ridiculous speech bubble they’ve given her. Wonder if United will win tonight.”
Perhaps there was a time when Page 3 was still sufficiently new, daring and shocking to produce a frisson of genuine sexual excitement, but those days had passed long before even I hit puberty – a long, long time ago. When I was 13, round about 1980, we boys were on a perpetual hunt for sexual stimulation of any kind. Copies of Mayfair and Penthouse would be dealt and shared like valuable contraband. Even then Page 3 would barely register. It was what you might wank to if you couldn’t get hold of your mum’s Kay’s Catalogue lingerie section.
This wouldn’t matter too much were it not for one nagging concern. I can’t help thinking that the reason many women suppose that Page 3 is the salient tip of a huge iceberg of slavering male sexual desire is because so many other women have told them that Page 3 is the salient tip of a huge iceberg of slavering male sexual desire. Perhaps it is time to turn the page on that particular myth.
I have no wish to undermine or resist feminist campaigns against Page 3, on the contrary I think it we’d have a slightly better society without it. On the other hand, I’d prefer if we could have that debate and that campaign without the need to further demonize male sexuality. Whatever Page 3 might be about, it is really not about sex.