Topless women endure in the UK press

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Women have been organizing against the tabloid mainstay, but some editors maintain that it’s a good way to sell papers

October 14, 2013
By Alison Langley


UK author and actress Lucy Ann Holmes bought a copy of The Sun one day last August to read its sports page— the previous day, six British women had won Olympic gold medals. But the predominant woman in the paper was the topless one on page three, a tasteless recurring feature.

“Lucy was horrified to see that the page-three image in The Sun that day was more than twice the size of any other photograph of a woman, despite the incredible recent achievements of British women,” said Jo Cheetham, a colleague. “(The) imagery … suggested that, regardless of your achievements, a woman’s primary role is to be sexually available to men.”

So Holmes enlisted Cheetham and others to fight for the end of the nasty nudie that has become a fixture on many tabloids across Europe, forming a campaign called No More Page 3.

Girlguiding, the UK version of Girl Scouts, lent their support to Holmes’ campaign. “The Sun is a family newspaper. Anyone can pick it up, turn to Page 3, and think that it is normal for young women to be treated as objects. This is just wrong,” the press release said. The British Youth Council joined in too. Members were encouraged to sign No More Page 3’s petition, which has collected about 120,000 signatures in the year since Holmes started her drive. According to a UK YouGov poll from last year, 49 percent of Britons wanted to ban the page-three porn versus 32 percent who thought they should stay. (The remaining 19 percent had no opinion.)

The campaign comes at a time when the British press—and Sun owner News Corp. in particular—is not exactly in the country’s good graces. Newspapers continue to suffer the aftermath of a pervasive phone-hacking scandal. The Leveson inquiry report was published last November. There are currently several ongoing police investigations and court cases involving alleged bribery and phone tapping.

The Sun, UK’s largest-circulation paper, began printing topless women in 1970, when German model Stephanie Rahn appeared shirtless to mark the tabloid’s first anniversary of a relaunched edition. After sporadic appearances, the topless on page three became a staple by the middle of that decade, albeit not without controversy. Feminists and conservatives alike called them misogynistic, pornographic, or both. One library banned the paper in the mid-1970s. When Clare Short, a member of parliament, started a campaign against the feature in the 1980s, she was targeted with a barrage of personal attacks, branding her as “fat and jealous.”

The Sun, for its part, is unrepentant. Editor in Chief David Dinsmore, who took over in May, directed questions about page-three girls to his public relations office, which did not return calls or an email. But Dinsmore has said that topless women are “a good way to sell newspapers.”

Susanne Kord, a professor at the School of European Languages, Culture, and Society at the University College London, said that while she did not favor censorship, she would like to see editors put more imagination into their papers rather than using women’s bodies for commerce.

Page-three girls are “one-sided and boring,” she said. “It is the job of the press, even the boulevard press, of not always appealing to the lower common denominator.”

Former Sun editor Dominic Mohan told the Leveson inquiry into media ethics in February 2012 that he believed page-three girls and similar features are “light-hearted fun.” But both Kord and Cheetham disagree, saying constant exposure to women in demeaning poses leads society to view that as acceptable and normal.

Public pressure has forced tabloids in other countries to change, slightly, their practices. In Austria, a free paper, Heute, alternates between scantily clad women and beefcake men. The Irish Sun began covering its nudies up, a bit, with swimsuits this August. Since March 8, 2012—International Women’s Day—Bild in Germany moved the topless or semi-nude photos from page one and instead prints them on the inside of the paper and online. It also asks readers to vote monthly for their favorite. So far, though, no tabloid in Europe appears to have eliminated the soft porn altogether.

Tobias Frohlich, a Bild spokeman, said “erotic photos are an element of boulevards. Not all the women are naked. It’s not a must to have them naked, but it helps.” He added that he found many of the photos of Bild girls far less offensive than, say, Miley Cyrus and her tongue or her twerking. “You see such photos all over the place,” he said. BothBild and The Sun ran large photos of Cyrus.

Cheetham called the “sexualization” of women and girls in the media a “huge problem,” adding that the page-three feature is part of it. She wrote in an email:

When girls are raised, surrounded by images of pouting, waxed, oiled-up teenagers posing in thongs, and this is celebrated in the national press, why shouldn’t they grow up thinking that it’s desirable to behave in the same manner? It’s extremely hypocritical that The Sun published an article slamming the behaviour of Miley Cyrus (in an article that included the words ‘put it away ladies’) on the page that followed a full size colour photograph of an eighteen year old posing topless in a thong.

Cheetham said her organization has received thousands of letters from women who have told stories of being beaten or raped by men who have mentioned page-three girls as they were in the act. In another letter, a middle-school-aged girl said she dreaded walking down the school corridor because “boys regularly hold up page three and rate the girls’ breasts out of 10 as they walk past,” Cheetham added.

For now, No More Page 3 is targeting The Sun because it has the largest circulation in the UK and because it advertises itself as a family publication. But Cheetham said that the group intends to expand.

“After we win this campaign, we’ll turn our focus elsewhere,” she said.