So: recently, a young woman, Lucy-Anne Holmes, started a petition on Change.org aimed at getting The Sun to stop featuring topless Page 3 girls*. The Internet seems to have done its work well, because it’s been all over Twitter for days, with endorsement from such stalwarts as Caitlin Moran** & Graham Linehan, and is now claiming over 27,000 signatures. Many of the proponents of #nomorepage3 have made reference to feminism and the general well-being of women as justifications for the quasi-campaign. Even more baffling was when I saw sex educators, sex radicals and other generally sex-positive (by which I include sex-critical) folks endorsing it.
Therefore, I think there is an even greater need for countervailing opinions from the perspectives of feminists. Which, in this case, is me. Nobody ever said life was fair. But there are 2 things I’m not going to touch on: whether or not P3 is porn – I think it is and I think the discussion about whether it isn’t is a waste of time; and whether or not sex related work is, to use a tired word, “empowering”. It’s a fucking job. Sometimes I find my (utterly non-sexy) job “empowering”, especially when I think of the unemployment stats and how miserable I felt when out of work, but mostly I do it to pay my bills & afford me the odd treat. I suspect workers in every industry are pretty much the same, with a possible exception for those fortunate few who dedicate their lives to doing what they love. Funnily enough, some of those people might even have sex-related jobs! So, if you care to read more about sex work as empowerment, check out Hayley Stevens’ Heresy Club piece*** instead. She even provides – gasp – evidence!
Right: #nomorepage3. I’m not going to beat about the bush here. I think this is a fucking terrible idea, and I think the ideas driving this idea should give us pause, because they’re actually rather scary.
Starting with the original petition itself, there’s something of a lack of clarity about its long-term aims. It mentions “asking Dominic Mohan nicely” (by his first name! Not terribly polite) to stop featuring Page 3 girls, and that’s about it. It also indicts misogyny as a driver of rape & sexual assault, but does so by making a strongly implied reference to the old and never-proven belief that porn causes or at least encourages rape. Certainly, the wording of the actual letter talks about “conditioning readers to see women as sex objects”. Frankly, this is a claim I’d like to see analysed in Bad Science or on Factcheck, but I’m not sure that wouldn’t simply be co-opting the work of the many writers & researchers (often women) who’ve been challenging this notion for years. It’s on a par with claims that video games cause violence, or LGBT people make bad parents; any time rigorous research is conducted, the purported connections cannot be found. I’m not saying its completely beyond the realms of possibility for these theories to be true, but when proposing social changes, particularly if they might involve legal restrictions, I want better evidence than this. That said, here is a neat little article by Stuart Ritchie**** (via Stevens) which gives some starting points. As you’ll note, he does not find that the evidence supports these assertions.
In fairness, I’m not wholly sure that #nomorepage3 is advocating legal restrictions, although I’ll come onto that later. Assuming for a moment that its sole aim is “asking nicely” and no more, then it can be seen as little more than a publicity stunt running along very old political & class lines. Now, there is always the possibility that The Sun will take the view that times have changed and P3 should go; I regard that as stunningly unlikely, but on the off-chance that they did, I think it would almost certainly be down to a combination of cost-cutting in an era of austerity & image rehabilitation in a post-Leveson world where their former editor has been changed with phone-hacking, rather than a sudden burst of respect for women. Oh well, we might say, it’s an ill wind and the result is what we wanted, so what? Well, the obvious “what”, to me, would be “what will they replace it with?”. I doubt it’d be especially feminist-friendly, but perhaps that’s also unfair of me. While I am not a Sun fan, they’ve done some occasional good work on social justice issues in the past (eg their anti-domestic violence campaign, or running a reasonably decent report on Slutwalk*****), and for all that we regard tabloids as a very blokey environment, they’ve typically employed a greater-than-average number of women journalists. And, lest we forget, they actually had a woman, Rebekah Brooks, as the senior editor for 6 years, which is almost unheard of elsewhere, including at more ‘respectable’ papers.
But getting back to the topic in hand, to reiterate Hayley Stevens’ point, how many of the #nomorepage3 signatories would actually buy the Sun if P3 was gone? I don’t have any figures on this, but my impression is that most of them neither buy The Sun now nor would buy it if it wasn’t riddled with tits. So why the hell, in the midst of print media’s continual freefall, should a commercial enterprise risk alienating a single existing customer to please a group they get nothing from already and probably never will? Yes, perhaps this should be treated as a moral issue rather than economic one, but in light of hacking & Hillsborough, who the hell is naive enough to think this is important to the Murdoch empire?
So I can’t see Mohan doing anything about this petition, which is probably the best outcome. A worse outcome is that he acknowledges it and uses it as a perfect excuse to solidify brand loyalty and further brand feminists as man-hating killjoys, as happened with Clare Short’s famous campaign against P3 in 1986+*. Deborah Orr has already foolishly set this issue up as being about a struggle between right-thinking feminists and unenlightened, presumably male-identified, idiots who would like to be glamour models. Women she disgustingly describes as being visible “in any city on a Friday night, hobbled by their Lycra dresses & towering heels, so keen to be ’empowered’ they can barely walk”+** (as if feminists never wear towering heels!) and in doing so, handed the right-wing end of the media the same big stick to bash women’s rights with. Even more stupidly, she implicitly tells us all that women fitting this description aren’t welcome in feminism. It’s no good complaining that feminism isn’t “really” like that, if this is someone’s first exposure to it. First impressions count. Sometimes they’re all you get.
We (feminists) don’t command a lot of media power generally, so we need to be careful about how we engage with it at all, and continuing to play into the stereotype of frumpy middle-class Guardianistas obsessed with minutiae in the face of shocking austerity is a bad, bad move, one which only serves to turn away the very people who arguably need feminism the most. So thanks for the classist own goal there, Deborah. But then, I’ve staggered merrily home from city centre nightclubs in thigh boots, corsets & underwear-as-outerwear in my youth too, so I suppose that must mean I can’t be a feminist either.
Ah yes, you might say, but what about the sexism? Isn’t that dangerous & damaging to women? Well, of course it is, but, to paraphrase Susie Bright+***, picking on porn, or even on one specific kind of porn, and making that your focus for tackling sexism, is like drinking from several glasses of salt water & declaring only one of them salty. There’s plenty of sexism in porn, and I don’t deny that P3 is an example of it (I personally think the text is far more problematic that the images, but that’s by the by), but why start with the overtly sexual images? I don’t have to look very far to find revealing pictures of women in the mainstream media. Leaving aside the choice not to include other papers like the Daily Star in the “polite request”, I can look at degrading, body-hating pictures of women any day just by turning to the Daily Mail or ‘Heat’ magazine. At least P3 girls choose to be photographed and get paid for doing it; the unfortunate celebrities who have their privacy invaded so we can ogle them stumbling drunkenly out of nightclubs or laugh at their cellulite and “baby flab” because they’ve dared to wear a bikini on a beach never asked for the attention. Orr’s article even opens by talking about the topless Kate Middleton photos & goes on to make this somehow about P3, instead of drawing the obvious conclusion that the way women’s bodies are used for public consumption is a general problem. I can only conclude that it is the sexual focus of P3 which makes it seem more objectionable, as if wanting to fuck someone is more degrading to them than talking about how ugly they are for daring to be imperfect in public. And of course, the Mail has a sizeable female readership & often puts these kinds of features in ‘Femail’. ‘Heat’ is largely written by & for women. But if we included these examples, then we’d have to talk about how women enforce institutional sexism by policing each other, and that it isn’t just heterosexual male desire which is the conveniently simple problem to be fixed. This is a particularly pertinent conversation right now, since in the last week, both Kira Cochrane% and Tanya Gold%% have written articles about the specifically misogynist ways in which paparazzi culture attacks women, and the ways that our culture uses revealing images, published without permission, to shame women for their sexuality. Frustratingly, Gold also seems to think that P3 is somehow part of this problem despite the clear differences I have already outlined above; nevertheless, she does also go on to detail how the problem isn’t solely sexual in tone, so credit where it’s due. If #nomorepage3 were fit for purpose, it would also include a letter to Paul Dacre, asking him to stop printing stories about, say, Lady Gaga’s weight. But it doesn’t, and to me that is highly significant.
Anti-sex agendas being cloaked in paternalistic language about “protecting” women are nothing new, and they are often entrenched in deeply essentialist & misogynist ideas about women themselves, no less so when it’s women promoting them. Those who’ve been on the receiving end – ask a woman who’s worked worked in a sex industry or ‘glamour’ role in some capacity – often cynically note that the desire to “help” & “protect” women doesn’t extend to the desire to do so economically; as long as they keep their legs shut & their clothes on, they can starve on minimum wage as far as their protectors are concerned. Is it any wonder women doing these jobs are unimpressed? To steal a line from Neil Gaiman, glamour modelling probably does beat working shifts in a Bradford biscuit factory! But their poorer sisters are expected to accept that instead, to make middle-class feminists feel more secure in their nice homes? Please. Of course, as Mark Steel observed about the abolition of slavery+****, pretty much every appalling practice in history has been justified at some point by the claim that it provides work, and that doesn’t make any of them OK, but a commitment to harm reduction really ought to merit a close look at the specifics of the practice you want to see ended. If the people you think you’re trying to help want you to fuck off, that probably ought to tell you something.
As I said, I don’t know if #nomorepage3 wants to see more formal restriction on its target, because it’s been quite coy about what Stage 2 will be, once the polite request fails. But if Holmes or her signatories actually would like to see some sort of ban or age limit or sales restriction or anything of this sort, then they’re even bigger fools than I thought. If they haven’t thought long & hard about the implications, they need to shut up until they do. If they have but still want such an outcome, they and their agendas need to be rejected with the force of an imploding star. Because such approaches cause genuine, demonstrable harm, usually to groups who were already marginalised. Forgetting for a moment the liberal arguments about free choice and the right for the state not to interfere in our private lives, there are much more specific threats, many of which have been realised in the recent past.
In ‘Among Us, Against Us: Right-Wing Feminism’+*****, his article focusing mostly on the impact of Canada’s 1992 anti-porn laws under the so-called Butler decision (which drew its inspiration from the legal theories of Catherine MacKinnon), Patrick Califia observes that:
“so-called ‘feminist’ porn laws will not be enforced by feminists. They will be enforced for the most part by straight white men who think lesbianism is more degrading and more threatening to women than date rape or sexual harassment”
12 years on, those words seem as relevant as ever. He details how the scattergun approach of Canadian customs ended with the seizure of everything from ‘Hothead Paisan’ to (somewhat amusingly) Andrea Dworkin’s own works and a chili cookbook titled ‘Hot, Hotter, Hottest’, but the common theme was that it was queer, kinky, small-time producers & distributers who got hammered, both financially and legally, and that Butler had “almost no visible impact on the straight porn industry”. What a coincidence. Who could possibly have guessed that those generally doing the most to undermine the kyriarchy would be the ones attacked by its agents as a means of implementing a law purportedly existing for the purpose of furthering social justice? Well, I’d like to think anyone capable of critical thinking could have seen how this would work out, but apparently not. Make no mistake about it, when you advocate restricting naughty images & dirty words, you will hurt real people, and you will disproportionately hurt women, LGBT folk and others who are already further from political power (see debates about the “inherently exploitative” nature of porn featuring disabled performers for more on that). See the treatment of Simon Walsh and the travesty of the recent #porntrial++*, if you’re in any doubt about how it works. Yet the anti-porn feminists never seem to learn, or they don’t care.
No doubt at least some of #nomorepage3’s supporters would insist that they’re not trying to stop people enjoying ‘On Our Backs’, Indie Porn Revolution or dyke-run fisting workshops, only bad, tacky, misogynist, completely irredeemable porn like P3, or whatever else they deem as such, and indeed I’ve seen loads of comments claiming to be fine with x other aspect of porn or sex-related work, but just not Page 3. Again, Califia’s view was “You can’t write a law that will remove a porn book from the shelves but leaves ‘Our Bodies Ourselves’ unscathed”. Now, I disagree here: I think you probably can, but it’ll just be a bad law, and frankly not that different from existing case law in the UK which has seen “obscene” works permitted based on their redeeming artistic merit. Which brings us back to the old saw that pleasure for its own sake is wrong, and reinforces the class hatred which underpins the false distinction between ‘erotica’ and ‘porn’. Or, as Richey James Edwards of the Manic Street Preachers observed in a 1994 ‘Select’ article, the difference is that “erotica has a Man Ray cover”++**. Maybe some of you want to live in a world where we’re stuck with either Man Ray or OBO when we want to get off, but I don’t. Legislating aesthetics is a dangerous business.
And make no mistake about it, what we’re talking about is aesthetic. I don’t disagree that Page 3 is sexist, and I also don’t disagree with Deborah Orr about the element of nastiness in the Sun’s editorial policies. But our entire culture is riddled with misogyny: telling me Page 3 is the problem is like telling me that hanging is too cruel a death penalty & I’m going to get a lethal injection instead. Gee, thanks guys. Again, I’m sure Orr & Holmes want to see the culture as a whole tackled too, not just P3, but their choice of priorities is telling. To learn more about Holmes’ view of what ‘proper’ sex involves, see her blog under How To Start A Sexual Revolution++*** and be disappointed by the narrowness of her vision and her snarking about how a porn actor “should have brushed her tongue” . She describes sex as “an amazing, loving union between two people where you pleasure each other, it ends in waves of bliss”. Well, that sounds utterly radical and not at all like the limited & essentialist view of sex anyone else has been selling all these years. If what gives you waves of bliss is having anonymous sex with strangers, or sex with more than 2 people, or hell, sex with ZERO other people, then you, my friend, are doing it wrong. If you’re a woman who enjoys having her head held when she gives a blowjob, or a chubby teen who gets off on masturbating for a webcam, then you’re a traitor, sister, and you’d better start training your cuntini to tingle at the loving caresses of a respectful man instead of school uniforms or ageplay. Fine for Holmes to seek out sexual fulfilment as she desires it; not fine to try & tell the rest of us that’s how it should be. Why Holmes thinks she’s an authority on how sex should be performed when her research consists of poking Google and she freely admits to finding buttplugs hilarious (this is kind of sweet but still) is beyond me, but I’ve been told blogging can give you an inflated sense of your own importance. I’m fortunate it hasn’t happened to me but then, what I say is right, obviously. ++****
While I’ve always thought “why aren’t you concentrating on a more important issue!?” to be a deeply unhelpful criticism of activism, I’m aware I may appear to be saying exactly that. Well, I do think the P3 obsession is an example of fixating on a small and specific, totemic concern while failing to consider the wider setting, but I hope it’s clear that I don’t think it’s too small to matter. On the contrary, I think the way the campaign has recreated divisions between women along class and political lines, reified the virgin/whore dualism and allowed personal objections of taste to be treated as unassailable ideological positions is indeed a big deal and something to be taken seriously. The idea that all women must either oppose P3 or be dupes and pimp-mongers is both essentialist thinking par excellence and is also one of the types of sex worker silencing detailed in a recent post on the Feminist Ire blog%%%, which I highly recommend. As ever, identifying a problem which needs action (in this case, sexism) doesn’t mean that the action proposed is going to solve the problem. Let’s stop leaping on these bullshit bandwagons which exclude whole groups and do nothing to advance women’s rights in general, except to allow some more educated white women in the Global West to pat themselves on the back yet again for their brilliant achievements. Maybe next time we can come up with something useful instead.
** In ‘How To Be A Woman’, Moran talked about having watched lots of porn & been disappointed by how little genuine fun was being had, saying she would happily pay to see such a thing. Now, I’d say she just needs to be introduced to better porn, but why should Caitlin Moran be happy to watch cheerful fucking but not happy for others to peer at tits over breakfast? That gets harder to justify. Mind you, she also, shamefully, referred to strippers as “Vichy France with tits”, so she may just not have thought this out very clearly. For the record, I have liked Moran since I saw her on ‘Naked City’ in 1992 (I think) & generally enjoyed her book, but nobody gets a free pass from me.
***** http://www.thesun.co.uk/sol/homepage/news/4546694/Underwear-protest-at-10-Downing-Street.html – yes, I’m sure the presence of scantily-clad young women helped, but the article was not, in fact, full of cheesy references to this, which was a pleasant surprise. Of course, since then Slutwalk London have embarrassed themselves on Twitter with Assange apologism, but that just goes to underline the old saying about a week being a long time in politics. Sarah Ditum wrote about this here: http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2012/sep/28/slutwalk-london-julian-assange?newsfeed=true
+*** in her article about Catherine MacKinnon from the collection ‘Sexwise’ (Cleis Press 1995). You can read an excerpt here: http://harelbarzilai.org/heros/sb.mackinnon.html
Or you could buy ‘Sexwise’, which is great and now available as an e-book.
+***** see ‘Public Sex’, a Cleis Press collection of his non-fiction political articles about sex from c.1978-2000. I personally think people should read everything Patrick Califia has written, but this in particular is a must-buy. Own your own copy & send Califia some love in the form of cold hard cash!
If you’ve made it this far – congratulations! Here is an excellent article about poverty & class from a former stripper & sex worker. It’s very good, please read it even if you think sex work should be banned. Especially then: