Breast is best

There’s a story which may be an urban legend, because certainly when I heard it, it was in the form “friend of a friend”. But I haven’t found it on Snopes, and if I did, I think it would probably be “Veracity: Undetermined”.

A woman went to work for an engineering firm. She was the first woman hired on the technical staff: apart from a couple of administrators, the office had been all-men until her arrival, and several of the men had their cubicles plastered with soft porn pics of women with big breasts.

She tried complaining, because the pics made her feel uncomfortable, but this was quickly dismissed, her manager and the men involved arguing that it was none of her business what they had in their cubicles, this was just personal self-expression, if she didn’t like it, she didn’t have to look.

So instead she went beefcake. Her cubicle got plastered with pics of men posing to display their handsome muscular bodies and, yes, to make clear that underneath the posing pouch, the model’s equipment was of above-average size. She put more and more pics up, and the men in the office got more and more and more uncomfortable, and eventually the manager declared that all the pics had to come down and that no one was to have any pics like that again.

Why I suspect this is urban legend is that how I would expect the story to end is the manager telling her to take her beefcake pics down, but letting the men’s cheesecake pics stay up. Displaying semi-naked woman for male gaze is regarded as normal: displaying semi-naked man for female gaze is not.

I do not identify as an anti-porn feminist. I think the airbrushed and male-identified commercial porn produced with heterosexual men in mind is a symptom of what’s wrong with our society’s sexual mores, not a cause of it: I find the anti-sex stories told by religious activists (approved by Michael Gove for some British schools) far more disturbing than page 3. But I don’t see that it makes me “anti-porn” to say I think it shouldn’t be on page 3 of a national daily newspaper.

I agree thoroughly with what Sofie Buckland says:

There are many pitfalls to dodge in navigating early sexual experiences – touching, upsetting, confusing, sometimes damaging and frequently comic – and the effects of pornography and other sexist media on these and other relationships should be studied, thought through and understood. Erasing consent, making boys rapists and girls victims (‘implicitly’ perhaps, understood in a symbolic order only the privileged feminist with his ‘theory’ can access – oh the poor blind fools!), does not contribute to anyone’s understanding; it hugely overeggs the power of a medium, any medium, to influence our lives, while relying for its dramatic power on whitewashing the complex realities of the women it professes to speak for.

Yes, the basic standard of morality about porn is “Are the people in it being paid properly, treated respectfully on the set, and is their appearance good/bad for their current/future careers?” How the viewer – deliberate or accidental – feels about porn is a secondary ethical consideration, but secondary doesn’t mean non-existent.

It’s hardly secondary to ask how this unnamed man – now in his twenties – felt about seeing a picture of a young woman’s breasts, when he got a topless picture of the 16-year-old girl he had dated and immediately sent it to everybody in his contact list. Allyson Pereira

found out when everyone started laughing at her, and calling her a whore. Her mother initially said they would have to move, former friends called her disgusting and teachers made jokes about it. Six months later, Pereira felt so lonely that she attempted suicide. Having planned to become a teacher herself, she abandoned the ambition, because: “I would have had to explain to every single [employer] about my past, because you never know when a picture like that is going to resurface.”

Is the boy who did that now the creepy guy of his social circle? What does it do to a man to have an incident like that in his past? How could he think it was in any way normal or right to share with others a photograph someone had sent him intending for his eyes alone? If his friends found out today that he was once the boy who had done that to Pereira, how would their feelings change about him – and does he ever worry about being found out?

Mary Anne Franks, associate professor of law at the University of Miami, calls this kind of behaviour the product of rage and entitlement and notes that the response to these situations is so often to blame the woman involved.

Ali Sargent, a 19-year-old student and activist, says in her school years there were a few incidents of girls being filmed in sexual situations, without their knowledge or consent, and the attitude of other girls was dismissive at best – displaying that dearth of sympathy that distances people from the thought that it could ever happen to them. “It was mostly just, ‘well, she was pretty stupid,'” says Sargent.

Franks echoes this. She says the argument goes: “‘You shouldn’t have given those pictures to that person’, or ‘You shouldn’t have been sunbathing in a private residence’, or ‘You should never, as a woman, take off your clothes in any context where anybody could possibly ever have a camera’. That’s been shocking to me, that people aren’t just outraged and furious about this, but they’re actually making excuses for this behaviour, and blaming women for ever being sexual any time, at all.

But as far as I can discover Page 3 model work fulfils the basic standard of porn morality – informed consent, reasonable treatment, good pay. (See Keeley Hazell for some informed discussion on these points.) But surely the question can still be asked: why has it become normal for a national newspaper to publish soft porn on a daily basis?

Page 3 is defended with the argument that the women who are photographed topless are empowered by doing so: that it can (and has in some notable instances) be the launch-point for a glamour-model career: Or by making up pure straw man arguments, as Hayley Stevens does in her opening salvo here:

I don’t think women who pose topless are solely to blame for the objectification of women, and I think that telling women they don’t contribute as much to society with their clothes off as they would if they put their clothes on is disgraceful, but that’s just me…

It’s surely a sign that there is no strong argument for Page 3 when its defenders have to ignore the actual reasons people are against it and substitute a distorted and misrepresented argument in order to be able to attack the anti-Page3 position?

Hayley Stevens herself claimed that she’s not against the petition: she just objects to the reasons people are giving for signing it. Though she also argues:

I think petitions like this have good intentions but have the potential to deliver negative messages to younger generations – that people wont take you seriously if you take your clothes off, and that your nakedness betrays other women. This can be harmful. We should be encouraging a society where people who feel comfortable in their skin know it’s okay to feel like that, and where other people don’t react as though it’s the most morally outrageous thing they’ve ever seen.

This is a hypothesis piled on a hypothesis: the argument that this petition – currently with 32,359 supporters – will have a more negative effect on younger generations of women than a paper which is reckoned to have a readership of 7,302,000 people over six months. That this petition is so powerful it will have more effect than all of the other cultural messages telling young women that nakedness means you’re available for men to leer at. This hypothesis of the power of a feminist petition to damage the younger generations seems to me more like Baba Yaga fantasies than any realistic assessment of the relative power of a proportion of the feminist movement with the mass media itself.

Pile that on the second hypothesis Stevens makes, that pictures of bare-breasted airbrushed models in The Sun make us feel more comfortable to “be in our skin”. Really? Look – admission time: I have never been a naturist, but I’ve been a guest at naturist swimming clubs, and I’m very far from thinking that a naked human body is the most morally outrageous thing. But I don’t think this hypothesis stands up: The presence of airbrushed soft porn aimed at heterosexual men in a national newspaper makes us all feel more comfortable with being publicly naked? Really?

Page 3 has been soft porn at the Sun since November 1970. Thirty-seven years later the Tory council leader thought it only right to put restrictions on the Mayor’s use of the civic vehicle because the drivers objected to the Mayor breastfeeding her son in the civic car. Is this really a sign of the good influence of Page 3 making a woman’s naked breast a commonplace? I would say it is rather a sign that – regardless of the law, which tends to protect a woman’s right to breastfeed anywhere she has a legal right to be – still, as Rowan Pelling wrote 38 years after the Sun’s first page 3 porn:

Before I had children, I fondly imagined that Britain had become a touchy-feely nation of NCT foot soldiers. In practice, you realise that most attempts to feed your baby in a public space will be met with subtle but palpable resistance. Older chaps roll their eyes, slick young businesswomen purse their mouths, teenagers look disgusted, waitresses anxious.

Nevertheless, I have breast fed in Jigsaw’s changing room, in my London club, in a car-hire office and on Eurostar. But I know that what is an act of survival for me and my baby is an act of sheer provocation for others. In recent years, British mums who breast feed have been turfed out of pubs and cafés and one Norfolk mother was even stopped by police from feeding her four-week-old baby on a public bench.

In Britain, public breast feeding is all too often perceived as aggression or wanton exposure. But that in itself speaks volumes about our culture: people believe they can be intimidated by a tiny baby suckling on a bared breast, or that all bosoms equal sex objects.

There’s much muttering about why mothers can’t do the dark deed discreetly in a ladies’ loo. Clearly a good many people have never attempted to feed a delicate newborn while perched on a loo-seat in a bacteria-infested WC. Nor do they seem to realise that many babies can tussle with the breast for a good 40 minutes or more.

My own solution to public censure is to carry a fine silk shawl, with which I can enshroud baby and bosom. But it strikes me as ironic that many members of the public fret about British Muslims donning the hijab, yet happily condone the veiling of nursing mothers.

The council leader who allegedly told the Mayor that she should get her two-month-old baby on the bottle as soon as possible, complained when the council lost the discrimination case that the former Mayor had

“demonstrated a complete disregard for the people she represents and has sought to deprive the council of money that should be spent on service users, many of whom are very vulnerable young and older people.”

There was no acknowledgement, the former Mayor said, that the council had done something wrong in discriminating against a breastfeeding mother: the presumption – after thirty-plus years of Page 3, which apparently is supposed to make the British public feel comfortable with naked breasts – was that the Mayor shouldn’t be exposing herself even in the privacy of the Mayor’s chauffeured car.

At a 2010 photographic exhibition at the Tate Modern, “Exposed”, on Voyeurism, Surveillance, and the Camera, I noted that that vast majority of the photographs taken without the subject’s knowledge were of women, by men. (And I notice also that the Guardian, the Telegraph, and the Independent each sent a man to review it and none of the male reviewers commented on this disparity.) The only surreptitious photographs of a naked man (working out on a beach, unaware that forty meters away a photographer with a zoom lens was taking close-up pics of him) were also the only photographs labelled “disturbing” – in a exhibition that included photographs of a man being lynched and of the execution of a woman by electric chair.

Adrian Searle finished his review of Exposed with a mention of its ending:

with a film of a CCTV camera turning on a wall, by Thomas Demand. We look up at it; it looks blindly down at us. It is worth remembering that in Tate Modern there are cameras everywhere; weep in front of a Rothko, and someone in a back room will be watching. In the age of Facebook, YouTube and reality TV, many people don’t seem to care how much of themselves they expose. And in the end, maybe we all like looking.

Carsten Edwards of International Model Management, supplier of “girls” to the Sun and lad mags, says he reckons that

if the Sun ever does walk away from the topless Page Three, another paper will quickly step in.

“But I don’t think the Sun will ever pull out,” he says. “It knows its audience.” Page Three plays on male weakness and that makes the business recession free, he says.

So long as News International is convinced that The Sun‘s sales benefit hugely by having a bare-breasted young woman on Page 3, it seems unlikely to me that they will ever make a change, no matter how many people sign the petition. But it’s always worthwhile letting the editor of a paper know how you feel about it.

Legend has it that Murdoch was incandescent with rage when he saw the first bare breasts to grace his title. But the subsequent rise in paper sales – 1.5 million to 2.1 million in a year – rather soothed him.

Rupert Murdoch

When Clare Short

criticised the Sun at a Westminster lunch [January 2004], where she said she wanted to “take the pornography out of our press”.

“I’d love to ban it. It degrades women and our country,” she said.

“A survey of Sun readers’ wives and daughters showed they believed it degraded them. We need to push back the tide of nakedness. You can’t take it out of the whole of society but I think you can take it out of the mainstream,”

The Sun’s response was typically, Murdochianly vicious: they accused Clare Short of being “fat and ugly” and

Using a montage of Ms Short’s face superimposed on a topless model, it likened her to the back of a bus and and “jokes” that making her into a Page 3 girl would be “mission impossible”.

Clare Short MP

And there’s that. Ban the Sun.

Update, 26th September
Tanya Gold “We need to boycott the misogynistic paparazzi“:

It is easy to say, “But they are celebrities. Don’t they want the attention? Why should they choose when and how they get it?” Pah. There is a difference between a photograph agreed and a photograph stolen, and that goes for everyone. The famous are not a different breed; the paps may go for them, but what if they came for you? Or your children, or your elderly parents? How would you feel? It happens constantly. You may have issues with royal privilege, or celebrity wealth, and yearn for a more equal world. The paps will not give that to you; they are all malice and fury.

Nine “Just Don’t Call It Slut-Shaming: A Feminist Guide to Silencing Sex Workers” (via):

The feminist movement really is in a pickle these days. It used to be a given that things like prostitution, pornography and stripping were bad, but nowadays there’s some resistance to these time-honoured notions. Women are increasingly coming out as sex workers and demanding rights. As feminists seek to shut down strip bars and criminalise clients, those women are complaining not just that they’ll lose their livelihood, but that they’ll be at increased risk of abuse and violence if their industries go underground! You can’t let such trivial concerns get in the way of your crusade, so below are some handy tips for discrediting these pesky meddlers. Remember: being an actual sex worker doesn’t entitle her to speak about sex work!

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Filed under In The Media, Women

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