It sounds like a GCSE English question: Discuss the rights and wrongs of Page 3, from the differing points of view of a) the Editor of the Sun and b) Germaine Greer. Odd then, to hear the former (Dominic Mohan, the paper’s current editor) extensively quoting the latter (the High Priestess of Feminism) at the Leveson Enquiry into Press Ethics earlier this month, on the subject of why featuring half-naked women centre stage in a national newspaper is something to be celebrated. “It cheers my odd job man up!” says Greer. It’s a British Institution!” proclaims Mohan.
I’m always suspicious of anything generally described as a ‘British Institution.’ It’s a phrase normally used either to exonerate the morally murky; like black and white minstrel shows, or hanging; or to elevate the tedious, like Gregg’s sausage rolls or Jeremy Clarkson. Page 3 is somewhere in that mix- its daily parade of glassy-eyed lovelies have become so commonplace and innocuous you hardly even notice they’re there. I’ve never met Greer’s odd job man, but I’d bet money he barely even glances at all those Brandi’s and Staci’s in their pouting, hip-jutting ‘glamour’ poses as he flicks through his morning paper. Admitting to getting a genuine sexual thrill out of Page 3 is like admitting you masturbate over the Argos catalogue- frankly embarrassing.
Mohan was extremely lucky that Germaine Greer jumped the shark back in 2010 and wrote a glowing editorial for the Sun to mark the 40th anniversary of Page 3, and that he was able to quote it at Leveson. In her piece, Greer vigorously defended the institution, with the main thrust of her argument being that in an age of increasing sexual explicitness in pornography, by comparison, Page 3 is tame:
“nowadays, all of us with a digital TV run a daily risk of beaming adult channels into our homes by pressing the wrong button. What we would then see and hear would make Page 3 look like a toothpaste ad. That is the truly extraordinary thing about Page 3. It is no more explicit, no more revealing than it was in 1970.”
Her argument reminds me of the man who denies cheating on his wife because there was no penetration involved in his tryst with his secretary, only oral sex. In suggesting that the level of explicitness of an image somehow denotes the level of sexism, Greer has missed the point. After all, a woman’s body only has so many private parts. We can’t just allocate them each a score and then add up the total at the end. The line between treating women as equals and objectifying them is not a line drawn between boobs and fanny. It’s about context.
With ‘real’ pornography, at least everyone knows what they’re getting. If (and I know this is a big ‘if’) everyone involved has consented, and their working conditions are fair, the buying and selling of sex is a reasonable transaction. Sex, in and of itself, is not sexist. But Page 3 places sexual imagery where it doesn’t belong, creating a landscape of objectification so deeply ingrained that we have almost ceased to notice it.
In my personal hierarchy of sexism, I’d place Page 3 higher than the channels Greer refers to. Adult channels are generally clearly marked as such, and cater to a market looking for sex. Remote control mishaps notwithstanding, if you don’t like it, you don’t have to subscribe. In contrast, Page 3 appears in the most widely read, and arguably most influential newspaper in the UK, alongside articles about the collapse of the European economy or Andrew Lansley’s health bill. It is a public forum that has absolutely nothing to do with sex, yet screams the message that women are sex objects.
It continues to be a long hard fight for women to advance and be taken seriously in public life. Articles in the paper about politics, or business will feature few women in significant roles, and on any given day, the Page 3 girl is likely to be the most prominent woman in the paper. Her daily naked existence sends a powerful message that women are not equal partners in areas that matter.
If you want to pay for sex, pay for sex. Just keep it out of the papers.