Bare Breast Ban – Irish Sun Right to Drop Page 3?

During a month in which one of the biggest news stories has been the widespread ‘trolling’ of female campaigners on Twitter, it would seem that women’s rights activists have little to be happy about. But this week it was announced by the editor of the Irish Sun that its Page 3 will no longer feature photos of topless women.
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This is undoubtedly good news. But if you are opposed to topless pictures in ‘family’ newspapers, don’t start celebrating just yet. Only the Irish version of The Sun has agreed to the change, and the move isn’t as radical as you might think –pictures of topless women have just been replaced with those of women wearing swimwear.

 

Still, this is progress of sorts for Lucy Holmes, who began a campaign called ‘No More Page 3’ last September, attracting over 100,000 signatures in support.  In a press release yesterday, the group welcomed the move:

We think this is a huge step in the right direction and we thank the editor…for taking the lead in the dismantling of a sexist institution like Page 3.

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But when the numbers are added up, the editor Paul Clarkson’s decision to axe bare boobs seems like an altogether more modest achievement. The Irish version of the paper shifts 60,000 copies a day, but the UK version – still defiantly pro-nipple – sells around 2.2 million. And its editor, David Dinsmore, has explicitly outlined his plans to keep Page 3 as it is, telling a BBC reporter in June:

It’s a good way of selling newspapers.

 

With an opposition as determined as this, Lucy Holmes and her fellow campaigners still have plenty of work to do.

 

They will also find it disheartening to note that the Irish Sun’s move was not an ideological one. In fact, Clarkson’s decision was equally motivated by a desire to sell more papers. Ireland, he says, is more socially conservative than Britain, so fewer readers are likely to buy a paper with nipples on its third page. He may be on to something here. After all, on its first day without topless photos the paper received only one complaint.

 

So what’s the answer? Should we all be signing Lucy Holmes’ petition and writing to our MPs? Or should we just sit back and let editors do as they see fit?

It all comes down to how much harm is caused by topless photos of women. Of course, it’s very difficult to measure ‘harm’ when we’re talking about something as prevalent as Page 3. But if there is a demonstrable link between topless photos of women and the widespread nature of sexist ideas, then we are all duty-bound to do something.

 

However, there is still the problem of cause and effect. If this link is proven, how can you tell which one gives rise to the other? Does reading Page 3 make you more sympathetic to misogynistic ideas, or do you read Page 3 because you already hold them?

 

Maybe you can’t separate the two. It’s likely that pictures of topless models in a national paper both satisfy and reinforce your ideas about women. And, because 2.2 million paying customers are prepared to buy The Sun, these ideas gain the approval of an enormous and silent mass of readers. The sad consequence of all this is that men and women are discouraged from thinking critically about gender, and damaging ideas about women are left unchallenged.
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In spite of this, many people still feel reluctant to sign Lucy Holmes’ petition or to speak up against Page 3. And not all of these people will be apologists for sexism – many will be people who, although they are uncomfortable with Page 3 and its effects, are even more uncomfortable with the idea of forcing their ideas upon others. These people may argue that, although sexist ideas are ugly and widespread, we should be extremely careful about attempting to legislate against them.

 

So it seems that we have two sets of rights being pitted against each other. On the one hand we have the rights of Sun readers to enjoy a daily dose of titillation. On the other, we have the rights of women everywhere to live in a society that values them for the things they say and do, not just for what they look like naked.

 

It’s a conflict that won’t be resolved for a very long time. But as the Irish Sun proved recently, newspapers and magazines will change their content in an instant if they think it will win them readers.

 

The day that Page 3 loses more readers than it creates, Lucy Holmes and the anti-Page 3 campaigners will be successful.
Then they can start worrying about the ‘sidebar of shame’ on MailOnline…

 

WORDS: Joe Kavanagh
For more from Joe, head to his Tinge of Ginge blog.
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