Published in The Guardian on 15 November 2005
On the 35th anniversary of Page 3, I suggested the Guardian Women’s page cover the story, with the view to asking why is a newspaper still getting away with representing women in this way, and rarely any other way? I interviewed former Page 3 models and asked MP Clare Short to write about her experience trying to outlaw Page 3. I also appeared on BBC Breakfast News for a discussion with two current page 3 models, which you can see here
What does it tell us that Page 3 is 35 years old? I think it has marked a cheapening of the image of women and of social attitudes to sexuality. Those who claim that Page 3 or pornography equals sexual liberation are in my view profoundly mistaken. I read recently of a study of young people and their early sexual experiences. One young woman said it first happened for her at 14 in a toilet. Her dream was to do it in a bed with someone she loved.
I stumbled into the middle of the debate about Page 3 and pornography in 1986 when I stayed in the House of Commons one Friday to prevent Enoch Powell’s Bill which sought to outlaw infertility treatment coming before the House. The way to do this was to make speeches on the previous business, which happened to be a Bill introduced by Winston Churchill – the grandson of the great Winston – to control pornography. The Bill consisted of a list of visual images which would be banned. It would have outlawed much war reporting, medical textbooks and sex education materials. I got up to make an unrehearsed speech, saying that I opposed the Bill for these reasons, but that I did agree that pornographic images of women degraded us all and that I thought we could legislate to remove them from newspapers and therefore their widespread circulation in the mainstream of society, without endangering any valuable freedom. As I spoke, I went on to say that I thought I would introduce my own Bill to this effect. I received a clutch of letters from women saying how much they hated Page 3 and how they hoped I would do so.
I then set about applying for a slot to introduce the Bill and to draft it tightly and carefully so that newspapers would not be allowed to carry pictures of naked or semi-naked women in sexually provocative poses. By chance, my date in the House of Commons came the day after my father died, so I left home with my mother and sisters and brothers quietly grieving to face a bear pit in the House of Commons.
In those days, the atmosphere in the Commons was very male and mention of anything remotely connected with sex or even cervical cancer would make them behave like immature schoolboys. And so they did, laughing and jeering at me and the argument I was making but with a fair number eventually voting with me in support of the Bill.
This was followed by an avalanche of tens of thousands of moving, passionate, sad and angry letters from women who strongly supported the Bill and wanted it passed into law. Some said shockingly that such pictures had been used when they were sexually abused. Teachers talked of the confusion on girls’ faces when newspapers were brought to school to cover desks and the Page 3 image caused the boys to leer. Some told me how they had been referred for psychiatric treatment because of their dislike of pornography. Many letters from nursing mothers told stories of how frequently they had been told to stop breastfeeding and how much they resented this as they moved about a society which bombarded them with images of women’s breasts. Many, many letters said how relieved the writer was to find that other women hated such images as much as they did.
The argument has continued ever since. The Mirror gave up its Page 3, but the Sun still flaunts it. The personal consequence for me was a campaign of vilification from the Sun which was taken up in the same smearing, sexualised way for a second time after I resigned from the government over Iraq in 2003.
Clearly the effort to outlaw Page 3 failed completely and pornographic images proliferate ever more widely in our society. But I think some good things were achieved as the argument became so public. Many women who had been accused of being prudish and screwed up about sex because of their dislike of pornography, found that their feelings were shared by most women. And those who defend pornography on the grounds that it somehow claimed to be a celebration of liberated sexuality fail to understand that those of us who have a different understanding of sexuality as something passionate, beautiful and tender which is deeply degraded by endless images of women available to be taken, used and then thrown away.
Clare Short MP, 11 November 2005
As a page 3 girl, there was a lot of pressure to behave in a certain way, to be a sexual creature, to be this free, available woman. I’ve never had a one night stand in my life, I was with Wayne three or four years before it all started. I got comments from some of the models that I was chubby. I love my food. There was no way I was going to be trapped into that way of thinking or obsessing about my weight. I was assisted by TV opportunities to move onto anyway.
I got a lot of letters from women asking me where I’d got my boobs done. I would certainly not do page 3 now. I feel no need. When I was young I felt inadequate, I felt I was being judged by other people. When you’re in your teens and early 20’s you want to be attractive. Then I realised it was my issue. When I was offered the job I was flattered. It was also the curiosity factor, the adventure, to see what all the fuss was about. I had the breast implants several years before I did page 3. I felt self-conscious, now I think you silly girl. There’s no more pressure now than there always has been. I was under pressure as a teenager growing up, looking at the likes of Demi Moore and Pamela Anderson. Breasts are seen in a sexual way. They will always be sexual to the opposite sex. That doesn’t mean we have to hand over our power and agree with that entirely. Breasts are devalued. They’re incredibly life-powering. They’ve given my children life. I’ve breast fed in the changing rooms of Laura Ashley and a woman did tut but I didn’t care.
If you don’t like page 3, don’t buy the newspaper. We all know it’s in there so it’s not a surprise. We have the power to decide what we buy. I don’t have The Sun in my house because my children are very young, my oldest is five, and I don’t think it’s appropriate.
Melinda Messenger, 34, appeared on page 3 in 1997
I was 16, naïve and in public school. I wasn’t strong, I was an unstreetwise kid. I didn’t think I was attractive enough to do page 3 so I was flattered at the time. Girls do it because they want to be sexy, to stand out, to be the centre of attention like on your wedding day.
I was bulimic for about seven years and I put it down to page 3. I had puppy fat at 16 and you had to look sexy all the time. Of course there was competition among the models. I didn’t feel pressure to have plastic surgery at that time but a lot of girls did. I remember being in Hollywood in a room with Michael Douglas and Tony Curtis and I was just a shy young girl who wanted to go down the pub with her friends but I felt I had to be this strong, sexy confident woman.
There was a lot of drugs, a lot of men preying on young girls. Most people treated you as a bimbo but I exploited that attitude. You exploited them. David Sullivan, who owned the Sunday Sport, The Daily Sport and clubs sent me flowers and said he’s bed me before I was 18. I didn’t. He chased me around a room once. He was known as David Blow Job or No Job. There were a lot of men and women trying to rip you off, sending you across the world to some job you never agreed to. I had a bad experience with a young lad.
I was extremely naïve and I was set up. I was supposed to be meeting a friend and when I got there this lad, he was one of the pretty boys at the time, said she’d gone with his mate. My friend was told the same story. I ended up in London on my own. I went to his flat and he basically raped me. I didn’t report it because I thought it was my fault just because I went to his flat. The only comeback I had was when I saw him in a club and I got him in the foot with my 5 inch stiletto. Then I heard he was in prison for rape. I had a few bad experiences.
If you’ve been a model and treated by your looks and your looks go, it’s very hard to adjust. Even when you’re in a zimmer frame, someone will say’ you used to be a model’ and expect you to look a certain way. People treat you differently because you looks have gone and you think it’s because you’re a bad person. You don’t like the skin you’re in. I went through therapy in the end for four years. It’s a milestone to get over. What did I learn on page 3? Don’t pre-judge someone on how they look and don’t trust anyone, not until they’ve earned it.
Debee Ashbee, 38, appeared on page 3 from 1983-89
We always got the tabloids in our house. I said, ‘Oh dad, I’d love to do that one day’. The page 3 models were quite breasty and I didn’t think I could do it. I don’t think my dad thought I could do it either but he wanted me to try, he encouraged me. One day my friend went to get some pics done to send to her boyfriend in the army. Not rude pics. I went with her and asked the photographer to take a shot of me as if I was on page 3. He said I could work with amateur photographers. I sent the shot myself to Beverly Goodway about 5 times. It took a few months before he got back to me. Then it was every week, well every two or three weeks. I was eighteen when I did my first page 3. He was easygoing, nice, he encouraged me, not really expecting it to happen. He was proud. We’re working class, you know. His mates saw me on page 3 and they didn’t take the mickey or anything.
I’d always wanted to be a page 3 girl. Since I was 15 really. It was probably when I saw Tracy Elvik. I thought she’s so pretty. She always looked elegant even though she had her clothes off.
I’ve moved on. I’m not earning enough money to live in London. I’m opening up a business, a spiritual shop on the south coast. Because you start young, a lot of girls haven’t been to college and don’t have qualifications. You’re used to travel and parties. Ego stops you from working on the till in Tesco’s. Men say, ‘Oh look what happened to you. Is it appropriate that children see page 3? It’s not my responsibility. It’s parents who leave the newspaper there to be honest. Parents should buy a newspaper that it’s not in. There are other kinds of newspapers. If I had a daughter I’d only let her do it if it went back to how it was. The whole image thing is changing a lot. Some of the journalism in lad mags is quite risky. Page 3 isn’t cheeky or Benny Hill anymore. It’s more sexual, not smiley and fun postcardy. There are less props. When it was Wimbledon, we’d have tennis balls. When it was Halloween, we’d have pumpkins. Yes I’d have concerns if it got too sexy. I’d want to be her agent. Cos you’re young and you’re living the life, you don’t really think about the wider picture. I think if people really object to page 3 they wouldn’t buy it. If it becomes too rude or sexual, I can see the argument in it. It’s only cheeky and fun. It’s something for the workmen to look at before they go on to the sport section. I preferred the cheeky or happy pictures.
Jo Guest, 33, appeared on page 3 from 1996/7 to 2001/2
I was insecure, I was mousy, I was easily bullied at school and it made me stronger. I had issues and it filled a big gap. A lot of the girls had needy issues and it’s a great way to build you up. It makes you grow up quickly. Everyone instantly thinks you’re thick. I had to fight tooth and nail not to be classed as thick, not to be stereotyped as a bimbo. After a stable of men who’ve been psychotic and misogynistic, I’ve met a gentleman. I struggled with bulimia aged 21-26. Page 3 exacerbated it. Going into that industry does make you more paranoid.
Page 3 taught me that I’m actually worth something. If it wasn’t for page 3, I’d still be an insecure doormat in Warrington. The way I see it, I wasn’t harming anyone, physically or emotionally. It didn’t hurt me and it didn’t hurt anyone I love. You have a choice to bring the paper into your house. If you don’t think it’s appropriate, don’t. I do think people are too heavily preoccupied with breasts.
I worked my arse off not to get into The Sport. You work with stock photographers so you can’t always control whether you’re in it or not though. Those sort are my limit. I don’t think boobs should be on the front page. I don’t want to look like a slut. People have a right to be offended about that sort of thing. If it’s on page 3 it’s not on the cover.
Would I be happy for my daughter, if I had one, to do page 3? You rotter. That’s a good question. I wouldn’t see anything wrong with my daughter doing it. It’s a cutthroat business sometimes. You’re on the frontline of drink and drugs. I wouldn’t want her to get hurt by it. Unless you’ve got a strong emotional base, I wouldn’t want her to do it but I wouldn’t be ashamed. Doing page 3 is a double-edged sword. But whether I did it or not, I’d get comments from men if I was out in a short skirt for example. You put yourself in the frontline for it on page 3.
Tracy Elvik, 37, appeared on page 3 from 1986-1995
I’m not ashamed of my body. Glamour’s not that rude, it’s not that bad, not in this day and age. Page 3 is no way as harsh as everything else is. the Daily Sport, that’s really harsh. It wasn’t a plan. Some girls think it’s this big boss thing. They get the wrong idea, like there’s loads of money. You have to work hard and travel to different shots and compete with other girls. You might be in this cold studio from 7am to 8pm and you don’t get to see daylight. It is quite harsh when you do a shoot and there is a big bunch of girls but everyone’s different, no-one’s perfect and it is intimidating sometimes. It is hard cos everyone’s competing for the best jobs. It’s not about being famous. I like meeting all the different people, the crews and the directors and travelling. I’ve done film work on Deuce Bigalow, castings and pop videos I’ve had some brilliant experiences. I reckon modelling could get boring after a year. I’ve gained loads of self confidence, not cos I’ve got my tits out but because I’ve been on my own, I’ve travelled a lot. You’re always somewhere else, you make lots of friends. I’ve been an independent woman. I’m really grounded, people expect me to stand and pose when I’m having a bevvy but I’m not like that. I want to get my own drink! Everyone’s lovely and my friends are made up for me.
Katie Downs, 21, currently appearing on page 3