Two voices, one question: Should this be the end of Page 3?

Ruth Whippman and Edwin Smith debate whether it's time to say goodbye to the 42-year-old feature from The Sun.

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The Independent Online

The No More Page 3 campaign has attracted over 25,000 signatures so far, but is it time to say goodbye to the feature which is branded sexist by so many? Join our debate.

FOR: Ruth Whippman "Page 3 is the equivalent of a Gregg’s sausage roll"

It’s pretty clear that the prominent daily presence of a woman in her knickers in Britain’s most influential national newspaper is sexist, by any definition.  Even the most inventive misogynists rarely bother to claim that it isn’t. Instead, arguments defending the institution tend to focus on whether or not we should care.   

They suggest that when it comes to pornography, we have bigger fish to fry; that objections to Page 3 amount to press censorship (they tend to get their censors and censures confused) or that it should be the inalienable right of hardworking men to enjoy a ‘good bit of British fun’ with their cornflakes.

Page 3 is the equivalent of a Gregg’s sausage roll or Jeremy Clarkson, a mildly depressing slice of life that has somehow been elevated to the status of a ‘British Institution’ (for this read ‘international embarrassment’) by sheer staying power.  It certainly isn’t about sex- after more than 40 years, the parade of glassy-eyed lovelies has become little more than background noise.  Admitting to getting a genuine sexual thrill out of Page 3 is like confessing to masturbating over the Argos catalogue.   

It is this innocuousness that makes Page 3 so pernicious.  Its defenders often claim that the bare breasts are positively quaint compared to the mind-bending filth that twelve year olds can now view at the swipe of a finger in double geography on their i-phones.   In other words, boobs are tame, ‘first base’ stuff and not worth wasting feminist anger credits over.

It’s an argument reminiscent of the man who denies cheating on his wife because during ‘that incident’ with his secretary, no penetration occurred, only oral sex.   The idea that the level of explicitness of an image somehow determines the level of sexism completely misses the point.   The line between equality and objectification is not a line between boobs and fanny.  It’s about context.  And it is the context which makes Page 3, to my mind, more sexist than pornography, not less.

Sex, in and of itself, is not sexist- in general, I have no objection to porn.  The buying and selling of sex, when everyone involved has consented, is properly remunerated and knows what they are getting into, is a reasonable transaction.   The users, male or female, have signed up for a sexual experience.  But Page 3 is placing sexual imagery where it doesn’t belong, smack in the middle of the most widely read and arguably most influential newspaper in Britain, creating a landscape of objectification so ingrained we have almost ceased to notice it.

Women are still sorely underrepresented in public life generally and on any given day, the Page 3 model is likely to be the most prominent woman in the most prominent paper in the country.     This sends a powerful message that women are not men’s equals, but their eye candy. 

Those who feel the need to pay for sex, should pay for sex.  Just keep it out of the papers.

Ruth Whippman is a freelance journalist, blogger and documentary maker from London, living in the USA.

AGAINST: Edwin Smith "In a free society we'll always have things some won't like"

There may be those (and I include myself in this) who think that publishing crass, chauvinistically-captioned pictures of topless teenagers and twentysomethings in the pages of an openly available newspaper is, on balance, a bad thing to do. However, to move from disapproval and criticism to a formal campaign that aims to put a stop to the practice is a different thing entirely. It is an affront to the liberal values that underpin life in modern Britain.

The supporters of No More Page 3 give a number of reasons for the abolition of The Sun's 42-year-old institution. There isn’t enough space here to analyse all of them, but it should be pointed out that to submit to the idea that Page 3 causes rape and sexual assault is to remove some of the blame from the people who perpetrate these appalling crimes. We shouldn't allow that.

Whatever the weight of the other arguments against Page 3, none of them seems to prove that the decision taken by News International and Dominic Mohan to continue publishing pictures of “bare boobs” directly affects the lives of people who make the choice to snub the newspaper.

Whether the proponents of No More Page 3, realise it or not, contemporary British society is built on foundations most famously laid by the philosopher John Stuart Mill in his 1859 treatise, On Liberty. Mill argued an eminently sensible point: we all get along best and live most happily if people are only prevented from doing things that harm others.

That the campaign chimes with the sensibilities of so many people is the very reason that it shouldn’t be allowed to succeed. Allow mass opinion to dictate what can and can’t be said, done or published – even when these things do not directly harm other people – and you begin to step into book-burning territory, to invite a bonfire of our liberties and to establish what Mill called the “Tyranny of the Majority”.

Consider interracial relationships, homosexuality and freedom of expression. These things have all, at one time or another, come in for the same criticism as Page 3; that they have negative effects on individuals and society at large. It’s to our credit, as a society, that we have overturned objections to all of these with arguments for liberalism, pluralism and the realisation that the negative effects that they are purported to have do not amount to “harm” in a real sense. Anyone who disagrees with any of these things has the freedom to simply refrain from engaging with them.

In a free society it is inevitable that some people will do things that we do not like – it’s the trade-off we make to lead lives that we choose for ourselves. But when faced with the undesirable consequences of Page 3, we shouldn’t become arrogant evangelists who tell other people how to run their own affairs. Instead, we should encourage our daughters, sisters and friends to reflect for a moment; the young women who choose to exchange their dignity for a shot at fame and a couple of hundred quid have a benign influence too. Not as role models, but as a cautionary tale.

Edwin Smith is a journalist whose work has appeared in the Sunday Telegraph, the Guardian and numerous other publications

Which do you agree with? Leave your comments in the For or Against section below.