An American wife has claimed a divorce on grounds of cruelty because her husband ate too much garlic.
– So starts the main story on page 3 of the first edition of The Sun back in 1964, with not a nipple in sight.
By 1970, the now-Murdoch-owned paper was featuring racier matter and the topless “page 3 girl” was born. The Sun, which had been ailing, saw its circulation grow. On a typical day, The Sun is now read by over four million men and three million women.
And that has led to criticism, most recently from Lib Dem MPs Lynne Featherstone and Mike Crockart. Page 3 demeans women and is a damaging part of a culture that sees females as sex objects rather than equal members of society, they argue. It contributes to low self-esteem and unhappiness among girls. By putting pornography in the public arena, it forces these pictures on people who should not, or do not wish to, see them.
It’s also argued that this sort of pornography – along with the proliferation of images available on the Internet – leads to domestic violence, sexual assault and rape; along with boys and young men having totally unrealistic expectations of what women should either look like or want to do in the bedroom.
Overall, its critics argue, Page 3 is the unacceptably public face of pornography, doing so much harm, to those who neither choose to appear in it nor to view it, that a ban is justified.
The contrary view is equally well-known, and The Sun isn’t shy about shouting it out itself when the occasion arises. Page 3 is just a bit of harmless fun, its supporters say. Young women queue up to appear on the page, millions enjoy seeing it five days a week and what’s so terrible about the naked female body that we should be legally prevented from seeing it inside a daily newspaper anyway.
As is traditional, two sides of the debate shouting across the barricades at each other. But what about evidence-based policy? There’s no shortage of research on the effects of pornography, so might we be able to either look at the existing evidence or devise some new research which would tell us with a greater degree of certainty who was right and who was wrong?
When we look across societies, the evidence would appear to be on the side of The Sun. Over the last decade or two, access to pornography has increased massively. Twenty years ago, a teenage boy might have seen a few soft-core porn magazines and watched the odd “blue movie” that no doubt promised a great deal more than it delivered. Today, it seems that no perversion is more than a few screen-swipes away.
What has the effect been? Incidents of rape and sexual assault have remained pretty much static over the last decade, whilst the Crime Survey of England & Wales tells us domestic violence has fallen significantly over the same period. Young people are actually losing their virginity later on average than in years gone by, and the number of teenage pregnancies is at a thirty-year low.
We can look at other countries – do places with less access to pornography experience fewer problems with rape and sexual assault? I’ve not seen evidence to suggest that’s the case and a steady stream of (anecdotal) incidents certainly cast doubt on the idea. In those cases, though, it’s more complex to compare as there are so many other cultural differences between countries.
The evidence of pornography causing these issues seems to be weak.
But at the same time there is clearly a problem here. There’s good evidence that the images of women, and the activities that are increasingly seen as normal in pornography, do lead to many having self-esteem issues, seeing themselves as ugly in comparison and being pressured into sexual activities they would prefer not to engage in, because that’s what all the women do in those films on the Internet.
So what’s really the problem? I suspect the Page 3 debate may be asking the wrong question. It isn’t Page 3 (or indeed pornography in general) that’s intrinsically good or bad. The problems we see may be caused by a society that sends out all sorts of mixed messages about how men and women should be and behave.
After all, we now understand that the old 19th century idea of atomised human beings was well wide of the mark. We know that, as we grow up, we see ourselves as being members of different groups, of which our gender is the most obvious, and we take on many of the traits our society associates with that group as our own.
That isn’t an affectation, it’s a part of who we are, and the effect can be remarkably strong. Just one example: when asked to list their race before an IQ test, African-Americans did significantly worse than if they had not been asked. What our society tells us about how “people like us” behave shapes us as human beings. Having members of our own groups (gender, race, nationality, social class, political party, etc.) acting in stereotypical ways around us actually primes us to act in more stereotypical ways too.
Role models, good and bad, really make a difference. We have evidence from a huge number of studies: if the message we all get in our society is that women are bad at maths, men are violent and sexist, black men are criminals and teenagers are layabouts, that becomes part of who we are when we perceive ourselves as members of those groups.
So a debate about Page 3 is missing the real issue, which is how we want people to be in our society, and how we as a society shape ourselves to make it happen.
Unfortunately, that raises far more questions than it answers, and many will doubtless be uncomfortable with the idea of society being used to shape us. Yet the evidence is pretty clear: societies have always performed that role and will continue to do so, whether we like it or not. The real question is… to what end?
* Councillor Iain Roberts is the Leader of the Liberal Democrat group on Stockport Metropolitan Borough Council