Keep your shirt on Zac – we'd all be better for it

I consider the sexualisation of Mr Efron's body to be the mirror of Page 3

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Somewhere out there, wherever things went before there was an internet, a mere mote in the eye of scandal, smaller even than the baby moon that’s just been discovered running rings around Saturn, perhaps at the back of someone’s drawer or pasted into an ancient journal of the heart, creased, faded, but I fear still identifiable, is a photograph of me without a shirt. I am wearing a pair of those prickly bathing trunks that men and boys were forced into in the early 1950s, made of elasticated Brillo pad, and I have my fists up like Joey Maxim, light heavyweight champion of the world. After his retirement Joey Maxim became a stand-up comedian, as I might become after mine. But I knew nothing of that at the time I posed bare-chested, trying to look menacing. I just wanted to be light heavyweight champion of the world.

Believe that and you’ll believe anything. In fact, I wanted to be a novelist and literary critic, as would be obvious from the photograph, were you to see it, which I hope to God you never do. I was 10 when it was taken, at a holiday camp near Morecambe, and had been forced to adopt the pose by my father who I reckoned could have been light heavyweight champion of the world had his heart been stronger. Why he couldn’t see that I had no such ambition, that I felt humiliated to be photographed without a shirt, I have never understood. He was not without his own prudishness in such matters as swearing, but he couldn’t sympathise with mine in the matter of exposing my chest. But I still believe today what I believed then: clothes maketh the man.

This reminiscence of delicate feeling is prompted by a story concerning Zac Efron, someone of whom I don’t expect my readers to have heard. Me neither, but research tell me he stars in films made for schoolgirls, goes to the gym, and has just had his shirt ripped off at the MTV Movie Awards.

Given that Efron was at the awards to receive a prize for Best Shirtless Performance, you would expect him to have come prepared to lose his shirt again. A little powdering and plucking, or whatever you do to look like that, must surely have gone on. He did, though, tweet a thank-you afterwards to the person who unbuttoned him, a young woman called Rita Ora, of whom we also haven’t heard, saying he didn’t know whether he could have done it on his own, by which – since we must assume he has no difficulty unbuttoning his own shirt – he could only have meant brazenly baring what was underneath it. A confession that suggests he is not without a consciousness of modesty at least.

If I now introduce the name of Cyril Smith it is not to encourage readers to imagine him without his shirt. But there is no escaping the issue of sexual abuse at the moment, whether it’s some public figure being charged, or some other public figure exonerated, and innocent or guilty, accused or accuser, it would seem that we are all being called to account in the matter of sexism and the abuse of power, what we mean by such terms, how much responsibility we bear for the seedy atmosphere of contemporary life.

Called in by Newsnight last week to address the hair-raising claim made by a UN investigator that sexism in the UK is worse than in other places, three highly intelligent women calmly discussed the sexualisation of women, from exploitation, to denigration, to harassment, to bullying, to rape, agreeing that while some of the UN investigator’s findings were more pertinent than others, it was right nonetheless to talk about a continuum that linked small infractions of common decency to significant manifestations of contempt, denials of opportunity and acts of violence. It is easy to deride the continuum argument. Matters of apparent insignificance at the one end – things we think we should laugh off if we are good sports – and murderousness at the other. A woman playfully ripping off a man’s shirt here, and Cyril Smith brutalising children there. Come on!

Something, however, is seriously amiss, and we don’t get far discussing what it is, how it has come about, or how to intervene, if we refuse to accept that causes accrete, that the tone of society determines our actions within it, that the lives we allow to be held cheap in the name of a bit of fun one day are lives we might be prepared to hold cheap in far more serious circumstances the next. Maybe monsters like Jimmy Savile and Cyril Smith create themselves. But are we certain we know why they thrive when they do? And what subtle signals of allowance and even encouragement we might be sending them?

To be clear: I am not using the sexualisation of Zac Efron’s body to discredit those who complain about the sexualisation of women’s. On the contrary, I consider the one to be the mirror image of the other. The Page 3 girl pinned on a workshop door degrades all parties to its being there: the inanely objectified girl and those who inanely ogle her. And we should not discount the coarsening effects of inanity itself. To trivialise is also to dishonour. Dumb also degrades. Similarly degraded and inane, anyway, are the girls who shout “phwoar” the minute a boy, a man, a Chippendale, a birthday stripper, undoes a button. I know the argument. It’s irony: women enjoying being the ones who do the gawping for a change. “How do you like it when you’re at the receiving end, boys?” But we’ve had years of that now. If the reversal of roles was intended to liberate and empower women, then where’s the evidence it has?

Someone might have a better idea – and that won’t include any of the forms of purdah favoured by male societies still frozen in neolithic terror of women – but until I hear it here’s my recommendation. Let’s all keep our shirts on for a bit.

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