The Boy in the Newsagents

A few days ago I had what I like to call ‘a Page 3 experience’, and I posted an account of it on the NoMorePage3 Facebook page. This is it:

‘I was in London the other day and popped in to a local newsagents, which was one of those that has the newspapers displayed on the counter in front of you, next to the till. I was waiting to pay and in front of me were two children, seemingly brother and sister: the boy was about ten and the girl about thirteen. They were paying for some sweets, and as the woman put their money in the till I noticed the boy stealing a sideways glance at his sister. He then quickly turned over the front page of the Sun on the counter right in front of him, and displayed the Page 3 picture. His sister scolded him and the woman behind the till looked very disapproving, and the page was hastily closed again. The girl dragged the boy out of the shop, obviously angry with him. That incident sort of summed up why I support NMP3. The boy knew what he was doing was ‘naughty’ and also in some sense he knew he had power: he could annoy three women at once – myself, the shopkeeper and his sister, by doing what he did. Boys will always be naughty but the Sun provides them with the means and the permission to be naughty in a sexist way.’

The post generated so many negative comments along the lines of ‘You’re sexist for saying boys will always be naughty…’ that I thought I’d better explain my comments more fully.

In writing what I did I was very aware of the argument used against NMP3, that P3 does not ’cause’ bad behaviour, that people (men) would treat women the way they (some of them) do, with or without P3. In other words, P3 does not have a provable, causative, harmful effect, so we’re all wasting our time. My response to this is that images like P3 in the public space provide a background of acceptance for seeing women in a particular way, and therefore help to give (some) men permission to behave badly. It’s a ‘normalising’ image which makes it more difficult for women to feel like respected members of society. In telling my story I did not want to imply that P3 ’caused’ this boy’s behaviour, which is why I used the caveat ‘boys will always be naughty…’ to preface the particular ‘naughty’ that the boy was able to be that day. In retrospect I should have said ‘The Sun didn’t make this boy naughty but it provided him with the means to be naughty in a sexist way’. Which is what I meant.

The word ‘naughty’ by the way, was not supposed to be seen as a perjorative term: I use it as I would use ‘lively’, ‘mischievous’ ‘a scamp’ – in other words like most children are, or should be, as they go through childhood testing what’s acceptable amongst the adults around them. The boy’s behaviour was ‘normal’ – just the same as if he had hidden his sister’s sweets under the newspapers for example. The fault lies entirely with the Sun for giving him ‘permission’ to annoy his sister in that particular way. I was certainly not suggesting that only boys are naughty: of course girls are too, and a little girl in the same circumstances may well have hidden her big sister’s sweets as a joke. She is much more UNlikely to goad her sister with P3 though, and this is where the difference lies, and where it is relevant to single out boys for attention.

We debate all the time the subject of men’s treatment of women and why some men objectify or disrespect women and girls, and how that can lead to a greater acceptance of violence against them. So in my view, even though I did not want to come across as sexist against boys, the gender in this story is relevant. It is boys that grow up into men. Some attitudes start early and are conditioned by what is seen to be around and acceptable. Some people on the Facebook thread took exception to my suggestion that the boy knew he had power, and maybe in a short comment I didn’t explain this adequately. I said *in some sense* he knew he had power, because I don’t think he was necessarily conscious of it himself, but on a deeper level he was. In other words, something had already sunk in. He wasn’t deliberately being sexist but he knew what would upset his sister. He didn’t look so much at the image itself, but at his sister’s face to see her reaction to it.

For those people who have commented that this is all making a mountain out of a molehill, I might agree with you but for the fact that an innocuous little story about P3 in a  public space generated more adverse comments than I had expected, and even a little bit of hate. I had merely wanted to illustrate that (much like having P3 opened up in front of you on a train) a P3 experience is potentially always around the next corner, and can pop up when you’re least expecting it, or when you are not prepared for it. Just to recap – a 10 year old boy exposed a soft porn image in front of three females – an adolescent girl, a woman (me) old enough to be his mum and a woman (the shopkeeper) old enough to be his grandmother. I repeat, I am not blaming the boy or saying it was intentional, but that, simply, THAT’S WHAT HAPPENED. It would not have happened if there was not a soft porn image in the newspaper. The symbolic meaning of this is striking (to me), in a world where the visual plays a more and more important role in our lives, and symbolic meanings have impact. An undressed person amongst dressed people is a symbol of vulnerability, even without the sexual subtext, and will have more adverse impact on some people than others.

For myself, I am no longer personally affected by seeing P3 in a public place – followers of the campaign will know I like to get my camera out these days if someone dares to sit next to me on the train with a copy of the Sun. But I used to be; so I am doing this for my younger self, the one who did not dare to speak up, the one who felt bad, and humiliated, and sometimes even in danger. Without going into my own earlier experiences, I know that the woman behind the young boy, opening up the Sun to P3 as a joke, might be suffering from body dysmorphia or eating disorders, might have been left by her husband for a younger woman, might be taunted with P3 at home by her boyfriend, might be experiencing bullying on account of the size of her breasts, might be suffering from depression, might be a victim of sexual violence, might be a rape victim.

There was a time when that innocuous P3 experience would have caught me off guard and ruined the whole day for me. In today’s parlance it would have ‘triggered’ me. I would not have been able to write about it or risk sharing it with anybody else, let alone a group of strangers on Facebook. I am so thankful that I am stronger now, but on behalf of all those people out there who struggle with what P3- style sexist media triggers for them, I will continue to fight, and write, on behalf of this very wonderful campaign.

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2 thoughts on “The Boy in the Newsagents

  1. Toni Massari August 15, 2014 / 9:10 am

    I would add that there is a darker side to this episode: the boy was also given permission to “explore his masculinity” by seeking reinfrcement in a publicly available newspeper that HE COULD LEGITIMATELY BUY WITHOUT SANCTION and so provide him with an ‘entry-level’ rapist’s charter: Thou Shalt Do What The Hell You LIke To Women And Get Away With It Scott-free”. He WAS checked by the females present and THAT is the value of feminism, of refusing to kow-tow to male privileges that give them permission to disrespect us and form a united front, across the generations of women, that do, as a counteraction, an act of resistence, if you like, exactly what The Sun’s Page 3 does for men: give women permission to resist, fight back and sanction each other’s actiona nd disapproval. Well done the young girl, for taking action. The two older women could have applauded her to publicly shame the boy and called out to her “Well done youlg woman, resist letchery! Own your body!”… or ords to that effect.

  2. Kuvira January 24, 2015 / 4:41 pm

    Theres no need to apolgise, the commenters are just guilt tripping. If you handwaved his action or tried to play it off like it was cute. They wouldn’t have called it ‘sexist against boys’ for encouraging and excusing bad behaviour and lowering expectations for boys. I don’t see them claiming reverse-sexism about ‘boys will be boys’ even though its often applied to grown men. It’s because it’s condones bad behaviour from men and boys and excuses them to do stuff women and girls wouldn’t get away with.

    There’s no such thing as sexism against men and by extension boys. Just like there’s no such thing as racism against white people or discrimination against heterosexual people. The ‘isms’ were coined to discuss institutional and societal marginalised groups. Heirachies don’t go both ways.

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