Turning the Page on Page 3 Girls

Feminist groups want to rid U.K. media of sexism. Easier said than done.

Sady Doyle January 5, 2012

Every day, The Sun--a U.K. daily tabloid owned by Rupert Murdoch's News Corporation--features a (scantily clad) "Page 3" girl. The organization Turn Your Back On Page 3 is protesting the long-running feature. (Image from turnyourbackonpage3.wordpress.com)

When the Leve­son Inquiry was called for last July after the phone-hack­ing scan­dals sur­round­ing Rupert Murdoch’s media empire, it had very spe­cif­ic goals. It was called to inves­ti­gate the pre­cise involve­ment of the media and the police in the hack­ing, adver­tis­ing itself as an inquiry into the cul­ture, prac­tices and ethics of the press.” The inquiry’s web­site declares that In par­tic­u­lar, Lord Jus­tice Leve­son will exam­ine the rela­tion­ship of the press with the pub­lic, police and politicians.

And so we face some very tricky questions: Can we regulate something as multidimensional as "sexism in media?" How would we do so?

Which makes this, among oth­er things, a sto­ry about choos­ing your words care­ful­ly. As it turns out, U.K. fem­i­nist groups have sev­er­al ideas about what’s wrong with the media’s cul­ture, prac­tices and ethics.” Five dif­fer­ent groups – rang­ing from the august and glob­al Equal­i­ty Now to Turn Your Back on Page 3, the web pres­ence of which is com­prised of a Word­press blog – are now push­ing for the inquiry to inves­ti­gate the cul­ture of sex­ism in British media. 

And so we face some very tricky ques­tions: Can we reg­u­late some­thing as mul­ti­di­men­sion­al as sex­ism in media?” How would we do so? And: Does any­one know, for cer­tain, all of the sex­ism in media” that has to be dealt with? 

Broad, noble goals

Along with Turn Your Back on Page 3 and Equal­i­ty Now, there are sev­er­al very dif­fer­ent groups now pres­sur­ing the Leve­son Inquiry. There is OBJECT, a group which protests the sex­u­al objec­ti­fi­ca­tion of women and girls, and the main­stream­ing of the sex and porn indus­tries in the media and pop­u­lar cul­ture,” with the aim of end­ing sex object cul­ture,” and which is work­ing with Take Back Page 3. There is Eaves, which pro­vides peer sup­port groups for sex­u­al assault sur­vivors and hous­ing for sur­vivors of domes­tic vio­lence. And there is the End Vio­lence Against Women Coali­tion (EVAW), the goals of which are to end all forms of vio­lence against women and girls.”

It’s no sur­prise, then, that the prob­lems and demands pre­sent­ed to Leve­son (and his pan­el of six inde­pen­dent asses­sors with exper­tise in key issues” – it’s unclear if sex­ism is one of those issues) are broad-rang­ing. The OBJECT/​Turn Your Back On Page 3 report cites top­less pho­tos news­pa­pers (for exam­ple, the top­less-pho­to fea­ture on Page 3 of The Sun). Equal­i­ty Now, in a state­ment e‑mailed to me, rec­om­mend­ed aware­ness-rais­ing and edu­ca­tion­al cam­paigns direct­ed at women and men, and specif­i­cal­ly at media and adver­tis­ing agen­cies, to help ensure the elim­i­na­tion of stereo­types regard­ing the roles of women and men in soci­ety and in the family.” 

The EVAW report focus­es large­ly on the ethics of report­ing: It cites harass­ment of female celebri­ties, reporters who are not trained on pro­to­col around report­ing rape cas­es or main­tain­ing vic­tims’ anonymi­ty. (OBJECT also notes the report­ing of domes­tic vio­lence cas­es as odd news:” A man’s planned three­some with his wife and anoth­er woman end­ed with him behind bars – when he threw a TEL­LY at his mis­sus!‟) And, final­ly, there is the pres­ence of mate­r­i­al, writ­ten or at least dic­tat­ed by women, which – in the words of the OBJECT report – is clear­ly intend­ed to tit­il­late the read­er (pre­sumed male).” 

Which is the trou­ble. Despite the noble goals of the groups press­ing for this inquiry, and despite the clear and tox­ic sex­ism of the mate­r­i­al they cite, some of their sug­ges­tions are not some­thing that any Amer­i­can fem­i­nist can rea­son­ably support. 

Tit­il­la­tion and regulation

Now that the Leve­son inquiry has opened the flood­gates of pub­lic scruti­ny of the British press, ortho­dox­ies that were pre­vi­ous­ly held to be unas­sail­able are now being chal­lenged,” says Lau­rie Pen­ny, a British jour­nal­ist with exten­sive expe­ri­ence in both the U.K. and the Unit­ed States, who has writ­ten favor­ably about this mat­ter for The Guardian. 

Pen­ny says that in the U.K., stan­dards of jour­nal­is­tic train­ing are far more lax than they are in the Unit­ed States. So are the stan­dards for what is print­able: “[The] ques­tion of ethics in jour­nal­ism is more fun­gi­ble and down to the con­science of the indi­vid­ual reporter or edi­tor. The key issue in decid­ing whether or not to include a giv­en sto­ry or piece of infor­ma­tion is, Is this like­ly to infringe UK libel law?’ [Which] is def­i­nite­ly not the same thing as, Is this true?’” 

The result is a cul­ture of report­ing that is often slop­py, fre­quent­ly sen­sa­tion­al, and not above a cheap shot. And misog­y­ny is a cheap shot that reli­ably sells papers. Such a cul­ture is not unfa­mil­iar to Amer­i­can read­ers, though we typ­i­cal­ly don’t have top­less pho­tos in papers. 

But the ques­tion of reg­u­lat­ing that cul­ture is tricky. Con­sid­er this pas­sage from the OBJECT/​Take Back Page 3 report: 

The sex­u­al objec­ti­fi­ca­tion of women is found implic­it­ly” – how implic­it­ly? – to encour­age, nor­malise and legit­imise atti­tudes asso­ci­at­ed with dis­crim­i­na­tion and vio­lence against women and girls.” Which atti­tudes? And how? This is of grave con­cern” – is it? If we don’t know what evi­dence it’s found­ed on, why? – when we live in a soci­ety in which one in three women will expe­ri­ence male vio­lence in her lifetime.”

That last clause is true. It just hap­pens to rest on the hypoth­e­sis of a causal link between sex­u­al­ized images and vio­lence against women – an asser­tion OBJECT does not con­clu­sive­ly prove, or cite research to sup­port, in its report. EVAW makes sim­i­lar claims, with a sim­i­lar lack of out­side research to back them up; one study (PDF link) cit­ed by British psy­chol­o­gist Lin­da Pap­padopolous, who was in turn cit­ed by EVAW and OBJECT, did appar­ent­ly prove that high pornog­ra­phy use is not in itself an indi­ca­tor of high risk for sex­u­al aggres­sion. How­ev­er, adults who are already pre­dis­posed to vio­lent activ­i­ty and who also score high for pornog­ra­phy use are much more like­ly to engage in sex­u­al aggression.” 

How much more like­ly? It doesn’t say. What proof is there that the pornog­ra­phy use pre­ced­ed or incit­ed the sex­u­al aggres­sion, rather than being a result of it? We don’t know. 

This may seem unsis­ter­ly. But, in fact, this hypo­thet­i­cal causal link would be the basis for not allow­ing cer­tain mate­r­i­al to be pub­lished. And it’s deeply unwise to base such a pol­i­cy on a phe­nom­e­non that may not exist. Sim­i­lar­ly, ban­ning tit­il­lat­ing” mate­r­i­al, even mate­r­i­al cre­at­ed by women, is fright­en­ing. The sto­ries in ques­tion are cheap real col­lege girls talk about sex” sto­ries, of the kind you can find any­where. But where does one draw the line, on tit­il­la­tion?” Where do Ter­ry Richard­son pho­tos go? What about pho­tos by Annie Liebowitz? In one of her books, the fem­i­nist poet Eileen Myles includes a long pas­sage describ­ing and prais­ing her lovers’ vul­vas, also known as pussies.” Things are done for the pussies; func­tions of the pussies are cel­e­brat­ed; vary­ing shapes and sizes of pussies are discussed. 

I, for one, was tit­il­lat­ed. And this sec­tion was pub­lished by VICE mag­a­zine in 2009. Would this be unwel­come, in the media as defined by OBJECT? Would this be unal­low­able sexism? 

The obvi­ous omission

Many of the rec­om­men­da­tions made by the U.K. fem­i­nist groups are good ones. Bet­ter train­ing for reporters, and bet­ter ethics when report­ing on rape and domes­tic vio­lence, are urgent­ly need­ed. The con­nec­tion between slop­py and uneth­i­cal rape report­ing and the endan­ger­ment of rape accusers, or the per­pet­u­a­tion of mis­un­der­stand­ings about rape, cer­tain­ly does exist. 

As Pen­ny notes, “[some] of the sug­ges­tions put for­ward by fem­i­nist groups in the U.K. – such as greater train­ing for jour­nal­ists in the law on vio­lence against women – might, in fact, be of more use in coun­tries like the USA where more jour­nal­ists are actu­al­ly trained.” True enough. 

But it’s strange to review all these reports and doc­u­ments on sex­ism in media, and how to com­bat it, and to not see the most obvi­ous solu­tion rec­om­mend­ed first. In all these pages and pages of writ­ing, by women, about women, for women, we seem to miss it. That is: Per­haps the prob­lem could be resolved if there were more news­pa­pers staffed and run by fem­i­nist women.

Sady Doyle is an In These Times con­tribut­ing writer. She is the author of Train­wreck: The Women We Love to Hate, Mock, and Fear… and Why (Melville House, 2016) and was the founder of the blog Tiger Beat­down. You can fol­low her on Twit­ter at @sadydoyle.
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