Skip navigation
The Progressive Policy Think Tank

The politics of porn: Page 3 and pushing social change

If the demise of Page 3 is to amount to more than a symbolic victory, the argument must move into online territory, where young people consume their media and the next generation's social attitudes are being formed.

To judge by much of the commentary today, political campaigns like 'No More Page 3' and its predecessors had little to do with the axing of the Sun's Page 3. Instead, it had just become 'old fashioned' and out of step with public attitudes; Rupert Murdoch was simply catching up with the times. This belies the fact that social attitudes do not change by themselves, even at a glacial pace. Instead, they are challenged and contested before they change. That is why Page 3's demise is a victory for all those feminists of the 1970s who were reviled and ridiculed for challenging the objectification of women in popular culture, as much as it is testament to the energy and creativity of contemporary campaigners.

Feminism has perhaps been the most successful of all the postwar new social movements, demonstrating that political advances occur outside of established parties and electoral politics, as much as within them. It harnessed deeper socioeconomic trends – deindustrialisation and the rise of female employment in the services, the growth of a skilled, university-educated middle class, and the widening desire for personal autonomy and self-realisation in advanced economies – towards what appeared at first to be radical projects of emancipation. Its success on numerous fronts has been profound and enduring, on equal pay legislation, publicly funded childcare services, maternity rights and more.

Yet what had come to be seen as 'old fashioned' about Page 3 was simply and narrowly the packaging and presentation of young women on a page in a printed newspaper by male proprietors and editors – the Sweeney-style everyday sexism of the 1970s – rather than the use of women's bodies to sell media, which continues unabated. Contemporary manifestations can be readily found, scattered down the 'sidebar of shame' on the Daily Mail's website, in the celebrity bikini pics, or splashed across the websites of any number of tabloids. And just as technology has eaten away at the printed press, so it has provided the vehicle for pornography – in all its variants – to flourish. Pornography is now ubiquitous, not just in the lives of adults, but those of children too. It stands as a rebuke to the claim that feminism has secured all its goals (or in current reactionary parlance, 'gone too far'). Little would it have seemed possible in the 1970s that pornography would go viral, migrating from the top shelf to the desktop and telephone, where it is instantly and abundantly accessible.

And so the politics of porn have shifted online, with even impeccably liberal societies like Iceland contemplating banning pornographic websites. They rest their argument on Mill's famous harm principle: women are harmed in the making of pornography, and by the objectification and violence against women it disseminates into wider society. Sex is degraded and dehumanised.

Such arguments are never easy to make. They bump up sharply against contemporary liberalism, as well as competing strands of feminism. And if the technology is hard enough to control, the bar for calls to ban or censor images has been raised by the Charlie Hebdo killings. But if the demise of Page 3 is to amount to more than a symbolic victory, the argument must move into online territory, where young people consume their media and the next generation's social attitudes are being formed.