Defenders of Page 3—and there are many, many women among their ranks—tend to argue that true feminism supports the right of women to do whatever they want. The feminist movement, they say, is about ensuring that women have choices, not dictating what those choices should be. If men are silly enough to pay women to take their clothes off, then the joke is on them—women are more than happy to oblige and rake in the modelling fees.
This understanding of feminism is widespread. Responding to criticisms from Bette Midler, for example, Ariana Grande described feminism as “women being able to do whatever the F they [want] without judgement.” And talking about Miley Cyrus, writer Catherine Hakim told BBC Radio 4 that: “There’s absolutely no contradiction at all between being a feminist and taking your clothes off… She’s using it for her own purposes, she’s increasing her fan base, she’s making a lot of money, she’s doing what she wants to do.”
But feminism is not just about women having choices; it’s about women having equal choices and opportunities, being treated equally and viewed equally, and Page 3 does nothing to advance these goals. It’s not good enough to say that female pop singers like Miley “increase their fan base” and “make a lot of money” by wearing skimpy outfits; we have to ask why that’s the case when male singers so rarely do the same, and seem to make money just fine without it.
If taking their clothes off feels liberating to a woman, if it feels empowering, it’s because for so many centuries women’s sexuality was so tightly proscribed or denied. Crossing continents, the control of women’s sexuality was a global obsession. Even in the post-sexual liberation west, that proscription persists to a certain extent today, in the double standards applied to men and women’s sexual behaviour.
But contemporary visual culture—where women are oversexualised and plastered half-naked across billboards, TV and even, in the case of Page 3, newspapers—only perpetuates this obsession with women’s sexuality. Whether a patriarchal society prohibits female sexuality or glories in it at every possible opportunity, women are still defined by it in a way that men are not. It’s part of a culture in which women are more valued for the way they look than for what they think or do. Hence a 2011 study carried out by Women in Journalism found that, over a four-week period, the two women most commonly pictured on the front pages of national UK newspapers were Kate and Pippa Middleton, one famed for her appearance and marriage, the other for her appearance and specifically her derriere. The men most commonly pictured, meanwhile, were Simon Cowell and Nicolas Sarkozy, known for their business fortune and leadership of a country respectively. Unsurprisingly, then, in this recent experiment in which every picture of every man and woman printed in the Sun for a year was compared, it turned out it wasn’t just Page 3 that was the problem. The men are on the whole presented in active positions—doing things (and, usually, clothed)—while women are presented in passive positions, posing for the audience’s approval (the same would likely be true if you analysed other newspapers, too). It’s beginning to look like women might not be viewed and treated equally after all.
The fact that women out-earn men in sex-related industries, from glamour modelling to pornographic films, is often presented as a feminist victory by those who take part in them. In Louis Theroux’s 2012 BBC documentary about California’s sex film industry, Twilight of the Porn Stars, he spoke to Tasha Reign, a porn actress also studying for a degree in Women’s Studies and Psychology at UCLA. She commented that her studies had influenced her decision to join the industry because “adult is the only industry in America where women get paid more than men.” (Although difficult to verify, it does appear this may be the case). But—in a country that is one of the world’s top 20 for gender equality, according to the World Economic Forum’s rankings—the fact that there is only one industry in which women earn more than men is clearly no cause for a feminist celebration. And that that industry is one centred on displaying women’s appearance and sexuality for a largely male audience is no coincidence.
This is not to to criticise the individual women who take part in Page 3, who are obviously free to do what they want—I would defend a woman’s right to parade down the street naked if she wanted to. Glamour models benefit, in finance and fame, from society’s obsession with the female body. But they suffer, too, from the double sexual standard that chastises women for being so ostentatious with their sexuality and sometimes characterises such women as “cheap” or “trashy”—I appreciate that some people object to Page 3 on these grounds and I am no supporter of that view. Nor do I think that scrapping Page 3 would solve all our problems, since it’s a small part of a much wider issue—albeit one that declares each day to the Sun‘s 1.9m readers across the country that this is the place of women in world affairs.
But Page 3 is a very prominent and explicit example of a culture that values women’s appearance above their other attributes and that particularly values them as sexual prizes. It is no beacon of feminist empowerment.