Lucy-Ann Holmes’ burgeoning No More Page 3 campaign may be the straw that breaks the camel’s back and brings about the demise of that less than lauded British institution, the topless women on page 3 of The Sun newspaper.
Although topless, nearly so or merely well-developed women are ubiquitous in the advertising world, The Sun’s Page 3 has become the, well, poster girl for this practice and the low-grade sexual frisson it gives its fans. It’s naturally a high-priority target for the current wave of feminists, fighting with some success on multiple fronts from Page 3 to lads’ mags, internet porn, lap dancing clubs and even sexually inappropriate beer pump clips.
Feminist progress is well overdue in our society, a necessary antidote to several millennia of emotionally and sexually repressive patriarchal rule that ultimately victimises everyone. The damaged caused by this repression is what gave rise to Page 3 in the first place.
Unwittingly or otherwise, editor Larry Lamb tapped into a deep vein in the British male psyche when he introduced topless nudity to The Sun on 17 November 1970 with German model Stephanie Rahn.
There’s a picture of her on the ‘net, sitting naked in a field with her legs drawn up, arms resting on her knees, one nipple exposed in its then-shocking totality. Rahn stares directly at the camera, her half-smile free of sexual inflection. The picture has a naïve quality, more naturist’s snapshot than pornographic still. She is no doubt still bemused that a German girl initiated what would become a peculiarly British institution.
On the surface, it’s hard to imagine that someone as seemingly benign as Stephanie Rahn gave rise to so much fuss.
On the surface, it’s hard to imagine that someone as seemingly benign as Rahn gave rise to so much fuss. But Page 3 and other sexually exploitative media don’t exist simply because some men like to look at pictures of nude women. They exist in response to an impulse that otherwise has no legitimate social outlet (or at least semi-legitimate; we are dealing with a Rupert Murdoch organisation here).
A deeper malaise
Page 3 is a superficial symptom of a deeper malaise: the lack of avenues for sexual expression that many men experience, sometimes for their entire lives. For all the strides made by feminism in empowering women to lay full claim to their sexuality, no similar advances have occurred for men.
Many men—particularly older ones—are still stuck in an unconscious paradigm where being a breadwinner led to marriage and some sort of sex life. Today’s women, increasingly empowered from the bedroom to the boardroom, are rapidly rewriting this paradigm—and men, ill-equipped to deal with emotional change, are getting left behind.
Traditional male reluctance to seek help for sexual issues compounds the problem. The more women are—quite rightly—emboldened to demand higher standards from potential partners, the more men consign sex to the ‘too hard’ bin. Instead they seek solace through sublimation—work, pedantic male hobbies, cars and boats named after women—or the obvious gravitation to pornography.
Embedding topless images in a mainstream, i.e. socially legitimate, publication allows its fans to dismiss them as non-pornographic, frivolous and harmless. This in turn permits a quick leer at Page 3 (which has been trademarked by The Sun’s parent company) while pretending to be engrossed in the vital news on Page 2 (which hasn’t).
This slippery rationalisation is necessary for the viewer to maintain a positive sense of themselves while violating society’s taboo on the consumption of porn. Men with genuinely satisfying sex lives don’t give a hoot about Page 3. Neither do those into serious porn. It appeals to a narrow yet clearly delineated stratum between the two.
Men with genuinely satisfying sex lives don’t give a hoot about Page 3. Neither do those into serious porn. It appeals to a narrow yet clearly delineated stratum between the two.
Releasing sexual tension
For these men, Page 3 releases a certain amount of sexual tension. Everyone has sexual feelings and in a healthy society these are expressed in consensual, respectful, healthy ways. In historically repressed Britain many people struggle to express their sexuality so tension builds at pressure points such as Page 3.
Sexual behaviour is shaped by a complex web of inter-related energies. Removing the topless women from The Sun does more than simply remove a symptom of our current sexual dysfunction from the public gaze. If a given outlet for sexual energies is dammed (or should that be damned?) then the flow it handled must go elsewhere, much like sitting on a balloon squashes one end but causes the other to bulge.
In this context it’s sobering to look at another example of sitting on the balloon of sexual energies without due attention to the ensuing bulge. In 1999 Sweden criminalised buying sexual services. The law has been hailed as a success due to the reduced number of street-level sex workers. However, another statistic paints a very different picture: since the early 2000s sexual assaults have risen by 500%. Yes, 500%. It takes a particularly wilful blindness to dismiss any possible connection. (See my post Grimm reality behind Swedish prostitution laws?)
Omission and taboo
There’s another consideration: that which is absent from the mainstream is, by omission, internalised as taboo. The message that the absence of nudity from the public milieu sends is clear: your body is not acceptable. If no displays of mainstream nudity are permitted, just how are young women—or men for that matter—supposed to grow up without feeling ashamed of their bodies?
Terminating Page 3 will remove one of the trigger-points for the body shame felt by some self-conscious young women, but it doesn’t address the shame at the root of those feelings. Page 3 is merely a trigger for the shameful feelings; it is not the shame itself. The symptom may be removed but not the cause. The shame some women feel at seeing nude images, and some men’s shame-tinged impulse to view porn are both products of our patriarchal society’s deep-seated antipathy to nudity and sex.
I’m not saying any of the above in defence of Page 3.
Like The Sun itself, it’s a malevolent anachronism well past its use-by date and I hope the whole wretched paper goes the same way as The News of the World. What we really need are changes that go beyond the banning of outlets that cater to damaged and disempowered male sexual feelings.
We need a new ‘masculinism’, a counterpart to feminism. A new conception of masculinity that casts off the emotionally rigid shackles of the past and creates a 21st century Renaissance Man.
We need a new ‘masculinism’, a counterpart to feminism. A new conception of masculinity that casts off the emotionally rigid shackles of the past and creates a 21st century Renaissance Man who, comfortable with both male and female sexuality, doesn’t need a prurient peep at latter-day Stephanie Rahns on Page 3.
Note: The Sun stopped printing topless images on Page 3 on 22 January 2015.