Martin Robbins wrote a blistering riposte to the current (and remarkably widely-debated, given its essential triviality) campaign against Page 3 at the New Statesman, accusing those behind it of slut-shaming and being unhealthily obsessed with nudity as a source of moral pollution, and suggesting that the rest of the Sun would be just as misogynistic a publication without the daily breasts.
At best, misguided attempts to censor nudity distract from the real battle that must be fought, to challenge a tabloid culture in which misogyny oozes from every page. At worst, campaigners are engaging in exactly the same sort of sexual policing and censorship that The Sun does: one side attacking non-conformists, the other belittling the choices of ‘sluts’.
The No More Page 3 petition is "rooted in the same desire for sexual hegemony we see in anti-porn campaigns," Robbins writes - which isn't perhaps a surprise because, in essence, it is an anti-porn campaign. It's no coincidence that those opposed to Page 3 tend to use the same language and make the same claims as when they're calling for Internet filtering or worrying about adverts that feature women (never men?) in various states of undress. There's the same talk of sexualisation, of objectification and degradation, of misogyny; the same claims that it leads to violence against women. Lynne Featherstone, Equalities Minister until the last reshuffle, said that. She didn't offer any evidence because, of course, there isn't any.
Here's the thing. Page 3 is an anachronism. Its datedness, indeed, is one of the arguments regularly used against it by its opponents, who denounce it as a throwback to a more sexist era, when misogyny was pervasive and upfront, the stuff of jokes on popular suburban sitcoms; a reminder of the days when a female judge or politician was a rarity, when the thought of golf clubs admitting female members would have had the guys choking on their G&Ts in the 19th hole, when Benny Hill was a big name in family entertainment, when Bond Girls had names like Pussy Galore.... you get the idea. The bad old days.
Throughout the vast social changes of the past four decades - changes that folk memory insists began in the 1960s but which for most the the population have occurred far more recently - Page 3 has been there, a cultural coelacanth. The more you think about it, the stranger it seems. All those interchangeable young women, all those Hollies and Nickis and Samanthas, with their interchangeable mammaries and their interchangeable ghost-written opinions about the issues of the day, just what are they doing there?
If the point, as the more conspiratorially minded of the campaigners like to imply, is to keep women in their place as objects for the contemplation of men then it isn't working very well. Despite familiar claims that we live in an unregenerate patriarchy, the progress made by women - professionally, socially and sexually - has been profound. Page 3 has patently not retarded the journey toward sexual equality. Nor has it prevented the overwhelming majority of men from relating to the women in their lives as human beings rather than as objects of lust or receptacles for their DNA.
Originally, one assumes, Page 3 existed to sell newspapers. Because heterosexual men wanted to look at breasts (as they always did - ask Titian - as they always will - ask Desmond Morris) and the Sun, which has always liked to call itself a "family newspaper", afforded them a reasonably respectable opportunity for doing so. (The Sun or the Mirror? I'll have the one with the tits, please.)
But now? Well, say I woke up one morning with an overwhelming need to look at a photograph of some naked breasts. Now I could haul my frame down to the newsagents and spend my 30p, or whatever it is these days, and take a chance on whether the breasts on Page 3 are to my taste. Or I could turn on the laptop and put the phrase "naked breasts" into Google Images and (I just tried it: it worked) Hello Boys! From which I conclude that, whatever else Page 3 of the Sun is still doing there, it is not catering to an otherwise unmet need in the male population to see breasts.
If the point of Page 3 were really to titillate, one would expect more variety. Many heterosexual men - most perhaps - would be just as turned on by the sight of a pert, well-shaped female bum as they would be by nipples. Type "naked bottom" into Google Images and the bottoms that show up are at least 90% female: make of that what you will. But Page 3 is invariably breasts: a sure sign, I think, that we are dealing with a phenomenon as stereotyped and circumscribed as, say, Japanese Noh theatre or the Welsh poetic form of cynghanedd.
It could of course simply be that Page 3 girls have survived because - ever since Clare Short tried to ban it thirty years ago - no Sun editor wants to go down in history as the one who gave in to the po-faced feminists by discontinuing the feature. But if readers didn't want it to be there, no appeal to editorial conservatism or political bloody-mindedness would save it. Fans of Page 3, I think, crave reassurance. They want to see breasts on Page 3 not because they want to see breasts (there's the Internet for that, and a whole lot more) but because "it wouldn't be the same without it". It is, after all, an institution, even a "great British institution", a signifier of demotic nationalism no less than fish and chips, pubs or football. Tracy, 22, from Luton is not reminding her admirers that 22-year old women have nipples, but rather assuring them that in this world of constant change, financial crisis, job insecurity, mortgage payments and all the rest of it some things can still be relied upon.
There'll always be an England
While there's a pair of breasts
Where Page 3 has a pretty girl
With nothing on her chest
There's an essential innocence about Page 3, I think, that its opponents completely miss. Yes, it's tacky, and juvenile, and pointless, and the world wouldn't stop turning if it ceased to be. I will even concede that it's sexist. But it proclaims a very traditional British attitude towards sex as a source of humour and embarrassment: it's the sexuality of seaside postcards, Carry On films and "nudge-nudge, wink-wink" rather than that of top-shelf magazines or hardcore porn. It is not erotic. In fact it's determinedly unerotic; it's anti-erotic, an antidote to eroticism. But by now Britain, finally catching up with the rest of the developed world, has moved on to "proper" porn, leaving Page 3 as a nostalgic reminder of a lost age, of the days when Barbara Windsor represented the height of sexual allure and Jim'll Fix It was on the telly.