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Through the Looking Glass with No More Page 3

If you want to attract mass support for a dodgy cause, the trick is to sound eminently reasonable. Extremists tend to alienate most people, including those that are inclined to agree with them. If you have extreme objectives, the important thing is to deny them vociferously, however implausible the denial. Remember that most of your supporters don’t pay close attention to the detail: it’s the presentation that counts.

The far-right know this. The British National Party abruptly switched from an anti-Asian message to an anti-Muslim one within days of 9/11. Their target (working class Pakistani communities) hadn’t changed, but the presentation had. Similarly the English Defence League, eager to avert accusations of fascism, tried to show how pro-Jewish they were by carrying Israeli flags on their protests. “You see,” they were saying, “how can we be Nazis when we love Israel so much?” (although their supporters didn’t always get the message).

The anti-sex movement has had similar presentational problems. The powerful campaigner Mary Whitehouse had become widely mocked by the younger generation by the end of the 20th century. The new generation could no longer be convinced that enjoying and flaunting their sexuality was a bad thing. It seemed that the fear of sex had become a thing of a more prudish past.

The Whitehouse style of moral outrage gave way to a new presentation, re-wrapped in feminist terms. The new anti-sex movement talked in terms of objectification rather than decency or permissiveness, and tried to demonstrate that sexual expression was harmful to women, and thus censorship could be justified in the name of feminism. But beyond the realm of student unions and Guardian comment pages, anti-sex feminists suffered from the same problems that had afflicted Whitehouse: they were seen as prudish, humourless and ideological.

The biggest problem with building a popular anti-sex movement is that most people like sex. Trying to ban all visible displays of sexuality is unlikely to attract mass support, especially when the reasoning (“OMG Objectification, Sexualisation and RAPE CULTURE!!!”) is so easy to pick apart, given the chance for debate.

The problem is one of presentation. Just as the far right was forced to adopt a “we’re not racist, but…” approach, so the anti-sex movement had to learn to to be more subtle than repeating “porn is rape”. A soft target for censorship had to be found – one that attracted little sympathy. Enter No More Page 3.

The success of the No More Page 3 campaign has been based on two decisions: first, to pick the widely-hated Murdoch-owned Sun newspaper as the target for censorship; and second, to deny that their blatantly anti-sex, pro-censorship campaign was either anti-sex or pro-censorship. The first move was smart; the second took sheer brass nerve, reminiscent of Saddam Hussein’s Information Minister Muhammed Saeed al-Sahaf (aka Comical Ali), who famously claimed Iraq was winning the war, against a backdrop of invading American troops.

As well as nerve, denying the obvious with a straight face takes a good deal of PR expertise and media training, and NMP3 clearly has no shortage of such resources. In politics, most people follow the voice they like, not the one with reasoned argument, and the nice ladies of NMP3 have fashioned themselves an image as the Women’s Institute of the anti-sex movement (though of course, they’re NOT anti-sex). They have successfully formed a broad church ranging from middle-English Christians and girl guides to various strands of feminism and the puritan left.

Last week, my long-held ambition to meet NMP3 came to fruition, when I was invited to debate the issue against a NMP3 representative at Loughborough University. The NMP3 “argument” is almost identical to the anti-porn one that I’ve found so easy to overturn in numerous debates; the big difference is that NMP3 caveat everything they say with “But we’re not anti-sex, we only care about Page 3”.

Thus: Naked models “objectify women” BUT ONLY WHEN THEY’RE ON PAGE 3! WE LOVE PORN!; Bare female breasts contribute to a culture of misogyny and sexism BUT ONLY WHEN THEY’RE ON PAGE 3! WE LOVE BOOBS! And so on…

It’s all so silly, one should laugh; except that 250,000 people have signed a petition on the back of this nonsense, and various public figures, including MPs, have supported the campaign.

The debate itself felt like some combination of Alice Through the Looking Glass and Orwell’s 1984. Bianca, the NMP3 representative, seemed to be treating the occasion as though she were a government minister, sent to appear on Newsnight to defend a policy she didn’t really agree with. So, for example, when I questioned whether she really didn’t have a problem with sexual imagery in general (for example, lads’ mags), she simply refused to answer, saying that her own views were irrelevant, and she had come to represent the official position of NMP3. When I pushed the issue, she embarked on a long, skilled and off-topic ramble of the type that Jeremy Paxman is so often forced to deal with.

Again, asked why NMP3 appears to have strong links with anti-sex organisations and individuals, the response was one of faux outrage: To label NMP3 anti-sex was totally unjustified! (Although I hadn’t actually done that). Yet she refused to provide any clarity as to why NMP3 mingles with anti-sex campaigners when it is a pro-sex organisation. Questioned as to why NMP3 attended the extremist Stop Porn Culture conference in London, she simply denied that they were anti-porn, but didn’t clarify why they had attended. Surely if an “anti-racist” had attended a BNP conference, they would at least have a case to answer.

I was genuinely impressed, and somewhat thrown, by the skilled use of doublespeak. When I pointed out the the lack of any research evidence linking Page 3 with harm against women, Bianca announced that NMP3 have never claimed Page 3 was harmful! And as I tried to stop myself falling off my chair, she then embarked on a speech listing instances of harm caused by Page 3: body image problems, a culture of sexism, and so on. So no evidence of harm, but lots of harm. Who needs evidence when you just know, deep in your heart, that it’s wrong? Again, doublespeak was much in evidence when dealing with the issue of censorship: NMP3 is definitely NOT in favour of banning anything, explained Bianca, before proudly stating that 33 student unions, with the support of NMP3, had voted not to allow sales of the Sun on campus. But – I questioned – isn’t that a ban? No, she replied, because NMP3 don’t call for legislation. The Sun isn’t banned from those 33 campuses. It’s simply not sold because the student unions voted to – er …. No, not ban it! Simply prevent it from being sold. There’s a word for that kind of thing… it’s on the tip of my tongue.

Similar wordplay is in evidence whenever NMP3 talk about their goals. They don’t want to censor anything! They simply want the Sun to remove Page 3 so people can’t see it any more. I was ultimately reduced to suggesting the attendees should look up the words “ban” and “censor” in a dictionary, as well as read 1984, to get an understanding for how skilled NMP3’s abuse of the English language was. Dictionary.com provides this definition of censor: “any person who supervises the manners or morality of others”… and what could better describe a mob of non-Sun readers trying to dictate what Sun readers can look at?

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The debate ended with a stereotypical, and comical, student-leftie discussion about “capitalism”: It’s outrageous, claimed a speaker, that Rupert Murdoch is profiting from women! Ignoring the fact that “profit from women” happens anywhere that women choose to work, from banking to sport to journalism to… well, everything. The only solution to this horrible exploitation would be to ban all women from working! And although that may sound snarky, it reveals a truth about much that is said in the name of feminism these days: many self-declared feminists are working to reverse, not defend, the gains of the Women’s Lib movement.

No More Page 3 is establishing a dangerous pro-censorship precedent: that there are cases (or one case, anyway) where imagery of women must be suppressed for the wider good of all decent women and girls. It’s an old, moralistic viewpoint with a new twist. That precedent being established, where would the anti-sex, anti-woman witch-hunt end?

No More Page 3, Baby Sol, and Me

Baby Sol - photo by Jerry Barnett
Baby Sol – photo by Jerry Barnett

Some days, really weird sets of coincidences happen. For me, yesterday was one of those days.

Readers of this blog are probably not aware that I’m a photographer, and for a number of years I’ve followed many of London’s up-and-coming soul singers, musicians and hip-hop artists. London is brimming with musical talent, and my photography has allowed me to follow and get to know some of the best. Among the most amazing singers I’ve got to know is Baby Sol. I was lucky enough to see one of her first public appearances during a gig in Mau Mau Bar, Portobello Road, when she was handed the microphone by the performer. I’ve attended and photographed several of her performances, and once shot her in the studio. She’s beautiful, smart, has a wonderful, distinctive voice, and yet is utterly modest, with no hint of diva about her. It’s no surprise that in the last few years, Baby Sol has rapidly climbed the ladder to success.

Yesterday, I was contacted by Baby Sol’s manager to request use of one of my photosbaby-sol-no-more-page-3-guardian-screenshot in a Guardian blog post. I made clear that I don’t provide images free of charge to commercial publications; but, due to a miscommunication, the image appeared on the blog. I then spoke to Baby Sol’s manager, who explained that the image was being used to back the launch of a new charity single, in support of the No More Page 3 campaign. Those who know me and my views will realise that I am not a supporter of NMP3. Finding that my image had appeared without my permission, to support a cause I object to was a surprise, to say the least. I made my view clear, and the image was removed from the article early this morning.

Why Oppose NMP3?

I founded the Sex & Censorship campaign with the primary aim of countering anti-sex moral panics, which in turn are used to build support for censorship. Of all the moral panics that have raged in recent years, the one created by NMP3 has probably been the cleverest and most successful. Targeting the Sun newspaper, which is hated by many left/liberal British people, was a stroke of genius, as it brought on board people who would normally consider themselves too liberal to support a pro-censorship cause. It also tapped into that most potent of all bigotries: snobbery. The “Sun reader” has for many years been the archetypal ignorant working-class person.

I too have always disliked the Sun: for years, it has poured out anti-immigrant, anti-gay and other nasty attitudes. It was blatantly racist until blatant racism went out of fashion at some point in the 1990s. It was a strident supporter of the Thatcherite war on trade unionism, and in 1986 was the focus of one of the great attacks on trade unionism, when Rupert Murdoch suddenly relocated his newspapers to a new location, with a new, non-unionised workforce.

The way to deal with publications one doesn’t like is to boycott them, and encourage others to do the same. In my dislike of everything Murdoch, I’ve never bought the Sun, nor its sister paper the Times, nor have I ever taken a Sky TV subscription. But anyone who values free speech will defend the right of a publisher to distribute whatever content they choose, without censorship. NMP3 have instead taken a directly censorious approach, calling on the Sun to withdraw Page 3, and applauding student unions that have banned the Sun from sale on campuses. Oddly, NMP3 deny being pro-censorship, even though censorship is all they stand for. They show as much disdain for Sun readers, and their right to choose what to buy and read, as they do for the free speech of the publisher. And as for the models’ right to work? This is a right that NMP3 don’t recognise.

NMP3 also claim that their only goal is to close Page 3; that they have no interest in wider anti-sex campaigning and indeed they claim on their site: “We love breasts!”. The dishonesty of this claim was revealed when they attended the Stop Porn Culture conference in March, which played host to anti-sex fundamentalists from around the world, including the British anti-sex worker hate group Object. So although they claim they only want to close Page 3, NMP3 have links with campaigning groups that seek to ban pornography, close down strip clubs, remove lads’ mags from supermarkets, criminalise prostitution, and attack music videos from “sexualised” artists such as Beyoncé, Rihanna and Nicki Minaj (yes, all black artists – surprise!)

The NMP3 people I’ve encountered are all terribly nice: they seem to be the Women’s Institute wing of the anti-sex movement, leaving the nastier attacks on women-who-dare-to-be-sexual to Object and Gail Dines. But for all the politeness, they are building a formidable pro-censorship movement, and a head of steam that can be directed far beyond Page 3.

The arguments made by NMP3 employ a variety of false claims and moral panic techniques that we’ve seen many times before. Although there is no evidence for the nonsensical “sexual images cause men to objectify women” claim, they make it frequently, and then go on (completely dishonestly) to link Page 3 with abuse and violence against women. The NMP3 organisers are no-doubt aware that there are no studies linking Page 3 (or any other sexual imagery) to harm against women, and yet they encourage, and retweet, these claims from their supporters.

The anti-Feminists

Although the NMP3 attacks are couched in the language of women’s rights, the campaign actually creates false “rights” in order to attack real ones. The Women’s Lib movement (which, ironically, created the conditions for sexual freedom that allowed Page 3 to ever come into existence) focused on choice and agency: the right for women to choose what they do with their own bodies and how their bodies are depicted. Models have the right to go naked in front of a camera, and to allow their image to be published. Against this genuine right, NMP3 creates a false right: the right for other women to attack the choices of models as to how and where they are depicted.

Thus, NMP3 (and other groups that attack depictions of female sexuality) tell women that they have the right to censor the depictions of other women’s bodies. NMP3 supporters often say things along the lines of “I have the right to sit on the train without having to see breasts”. But that right doesn’t exist. This abuse of the idea of rights comes from the fascist play-book, and is equivalent to “I have the right to go out without seeing gay people kissing”, “I have the right to live in a street with no black people”, and “I have the right to buy my food in a shop that doesn’t sell halal meat”. These rights are fabricated, and are perversions of liberalism.

Women have the right to control how their own bodies are treated and depicted, NOT the right to control how other women’s bodies are treated and depicted. By spreading the false idea that women have the right to attack the way other women are depicted, NMP3 creates the precedent that (overwhelmingly middle-class) women have the right to suppress the depiction of any sexual imagery featuring women.

Boobs Aren’t News?

With no evidence to present, NMP3 falls back on “but what about the children?” type statements, and silly slogans: Boobs Aren’t News. In the argument-free space of NMP3, this is as near to reasoned discussion as it gets. Sure, boobs aren’t news. Neither are horoscopes, but they also feature in the Sun. Shouldn’t these be withdrawn too, especially since they perpetuate silly superstition? How about travel reports, or recipes, or concert reviews? None of those are news either.

NMP3 claim they seek diversity of female representation: but this already exists. Women are presented in a thousand different manners and roles. Nobody attacks any of them, except one: the sexual woman.

The Oldest Taboo: Suppression of the Sexual Female

The idea that women’s bodies must be hidden away – for their own good – is hardly a new one. This idea appears in the Old and New Testaments of the Bible, and the Quran, and doubtless other religious texts. Over and over again, throughout history, woman-as-sexual-being has been attacked, and depictions of sexual women have been destroyed.

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An exhibition of erotic Roman sculpture that took place last year at the British museum focused heavily on male erotica, and had almost no female erotica. When interviewed, the curator explained that this wasn’t his choice: there was simply a lack of female imagery to choose from. It had probably once existed, but had been smashed in some later, more conservative era.

Later, women who dare to be sexual were branded witches and murdered. Later still, in Victorian times, sexually liberated women were branded nymphomaniacs and hysterics, and locked in asylums.

And European colonisers of Africa brought “Christian morality”, including the idea that breasts were shameful and should be covered. This old European fear of female nudity has never gone away: it’s just continually reinvented, in new ways, with new language: from witch-hunting to objectification, slut-shaming is one of mankind’s oldest instincts.

There are a thousand good reasons not to buy the Sun. Breasts are not one of them.