Opinion: Debate on Page 3 is missing the real issue

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?

* Iain Roberts is a Stockport councillor, LGA Peer and consultation, communications and public affairs consultant specialising in the built environment.

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This entry was posted in Op-eds.


  • mixed messages is absolutely the point – the p3 campaign says society shouldn’t judge people by physical appearance, yet government spends millions on healthy lifestyle capaigns to reduce obesity etc.

    Is it ok to be overweight?

  • Richard Dean 1st Oct '12 - 11:08am

    Last night I briefly watched someone being murdered on TV, apparently by a human in a bear costume with religious overtones. The previous night I saw a psychiatrist possibly called Robson throttle a patient, in gory close-up. It might have been BBC. These things are disgusting, why are they broadcast? They probably do a lot more harm.

  • I think the page 3 debate is mostly to do with a general antipathy towards The Sun mixing with the Lefts weird attitudes to the working classes. Note also that their are many campaigns to stamp out racism in the multi cultural world of football, but no mention of the absence of ethnic minorities in sports such as tennis.

    Really Britain has never got beyond the “would you let your maid or servant read it” idea. There’s always someone , usually lower in the financial scale, who needs to be protected from something lest they become dangerously inflamed.

    Censorship is nearly always political.

  • This is a very thoughtful piece and a good addition to this debate.

    On the back of our membership cards we are reminded we believe that ‘no-one should be enslaved by conformity’. Yet the evidence you present here shows that there are natural instincts for people to conform to their social stereotype. This is a dilemma – do our values fly in the face of the evidence?

    It all depends. It may be that *on average* African-Americans do worse in IQ tests when prompted to consider their race, but what’s the variance? While some black people may feel highly enslaved by conformity, others may not.

    As liberals we believe in empowering individuals. We always need to remember that the average person is not everyone. Even when the numbers suggest the average person is doing fine, that does not tell us everyone is fine, and equally when the numbers suggest the average person has a problem, it does not follow that every person does.

    Clearly there are some women who are choosing to take their clothes off for a living. To my mind these women are degrading themselves (but I imagine they would argue this is not the case). However, it is sad that we then make the leap to say that a few women choosing to degrade themselves associates itself to the degradation of all women.

    It’s similar to what we see happen in the tabloid press across a whole host of issues. An immigrant commits a crime, so by association all immigrants are seen as a bit more criminal. An unemployed family receives a large amount in housing benefit, so by association the unemployed are seen as having it better than the working. Those who scratch beneath the surface quickly see through these lazy associations and see a far more complicated picture.

    As liberals I hope we can try and work to break these associations rather than run campaigns which perpetuate them.

  • @Cllr Mark Wright
    As a devotee – I insist that you put your money where your mouth is on a marmite pledge 😀


  • Stuart Mitchell 1st Oct '12 - 6:56pm

    I’d say the difference between Page 3 and the sort of hard-core pornography available a couple of clicks from this very page is of the same kind of magnitude as the difference between someone who has a glass of wine once a week and someone who is a chronic heroin addict.

    I’m firmly in the “Page 3 is harmless fun” camp. It’s no worse than the posters of semi-clothed One Direction members that many pubescent girls have on their walls at the moment.

    I totally agree. I’m much more worried about my kids seeing things like Coronation Street (where domestic violence is the norm, sometimes ending in murder) than I am about them seeing Page 3. I will never, ever understand why we as a society are so much more relaxed about violence than we are about sex.

  • Tony Dawson 1st Oct '12 - 8:12pm

    @Stuart Mitchell :

    ” I will never, ever understand why we as a society are so much more relaxed about violence than we are about sex.”

    Page 3 is nothing to do with sex. It is about objectification of women, essentially a power/control thing for immature minds who could probably not develop any kind of serious adult sexuality. It is a licence for some males to say:

    ” I am a fat smelly ugly bastard but because I have testes it gives me the right to slaver over women who I judge entirely by their tarted up looks.”

  • – the point that seems to be missing in all this fascinating discussion is the fact that few page 3 photos that I have seen look anything like ‘normal’, ie they don’t look like the women I have been fortunate enough to know. The possible effect that concerns me is that many young women grow up thinking their boobs should be like those on display, and that they need to get some artificial implant to make themselves right.
    The problem is not the libertarian right to publish, to show, to buy such images, but the distortion of the facts.. – but then isn’t distortion of the facts what the UK tabloids are all about?

  • I don’t want to ban page 3, or the Sun. I want people to be smart enough to not want to buy it; not just because of page 3 either, but because of the shoddy journalism and fearmongering they perpetrate.

    That said, I think possibly the first step in evidence based policy is obtaining some evidence. The problem with “does page 3 affect people’s views of women’s place in society” is it’s impossible to isolate page 3 from all of the myriad other influences on a person’s thoughts.

  • I think it’s rather unlikely that impressionable young girls with self esteem issues are influenced by Page 3. Do they even look at newspapers? Get rid of Cheryl Cole, Miley Cyrus, pretty actresses, thin older sisters, nasty mothers, bullies, Twitter, advertising, Lara Croft, other teenage girls and mean boys, and it MIGHT just be a factor, but I doubt it.

  • Stuart Mitchell 2nd Oct '12 - 6:48pm

    Tony: “” I am a fat smelly ugly bastard but because I have testes it gives me the right to slaver over women who I judge entirely by their tarted up looks.”

    All I can say in response to that is that the kind of “objectification” you refer to is very much in the eye of the beholder. Who are you to say that those women are “tarted up”? You know nothing about them.

    Is there really something wrong with men (however fat and ugly) enjoying looking at pictures of attractive women? Isn’t that just, like, NATURE?

    The other week I went to a burlesque show. Packed theatre with 1600 people, more of them women than men, including several hen parties. Thankfully there are plenty of people in this world who can see a bit of titillation for the harmless fun it is. If you really think Page 3 is so offensive, you should seek out some of the internet porn many kids have unlimited access to in their bedrooms these days.

    Objectification of women by inadequate men occurs in all societies, including (perhaps especially) those societies where women are beaten by religious police in the street for showing a few locks of hair. It’s a man problem, and the answer is not to hide women away from view.

  • Simon,
    yes, there is a difference, but it goes beyond the measurable demand on taxpayer-funded services.

    The judgement that overweight people have increased chances of certain health problems is accepted (at least in your comment) as objective fact, and the social view is that it is acceptable to state this opinion is because it is objective fact not a judgement, whereas the argument against p3 rejects the view that fair judgements of objectivity can or should be made on the basis of appearance.

    Is a visual diagnostic acceptable? Clearly this debate shows society accepts judgements made on the basis of concern about individual health, but not on the basis of appreciation for individual health.

    Should I be disgusted by the objectification of men inherent in one friend of mine’s regular comments (especially during this sporting summer) that cyclists are ‘hot men in lycra’, that footballers are ‘hot men in shorts’, athletes are ‘hot men in vests’, swimmers are ‘hot men in skimpies’…? Is it right that my body image is demeaned by constant comparison to these prime specimens and my self-esteem may suffer as a result? Should we ban sport on TV because some girl comments any bloke without 30’ biceps isn’t a real man?

    If the view of some men towards the female of the species is somewhat antediluvian, the same is also true of the reverse. Campaigners would be more likely to achieve the end of gender equality by understanding where unwanted attitudes originate as the means to address the deeper causes, not simply by clamping down on how such views may manifest themselves.

    We need a more equal attitude to equality.

    So rather than asking whether judging by appearance is acceptable, the correct response is to answer how judging according to appearance is avoidable by stating where this is and is not desirable.

  • Iain Roberts 3rd Oct '12 - 6:22am

    Many thanks for all the comments.

    A few people have discussed the issue of evidence vs. our political beliefs. Most of us at least pay lip-service to “evidence-based policy” these days; but the comment that we tend to boost the evidence that supports our political belief seems to me to be pretty much right.

    If we’re serious about following the evidence, surely we need to be trying to look at all the evidence and, when that clashes with our political philosophy, it’s the philosophy that needs looking at.

  • @Tony Dawson: It is a licence for some males to say: ” I am a fat smelly ugly bastard but because I have testes it gives me the right to slaver over women who I judge entirely by their tarted up looks.”

    Is there not a general right to slaver? And you write against objectification, but aren’t you judging these theoretical men by their looks? Do handsome and fragrant men enjoy a right to slaver, while ugly and smelly men do not? Does being fat mean I can’t look at attractive people who are being paid to be nude?

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