Long before smartphones, stories of sexual humiliation were used to sell papers and to keep women in their place
by Laurie Penny
July 7, 2014
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'The tabloid press has perfected a profitable combination of pornography and priggishness.' Photograph: David Levene David Levene/David Levene
Sex sells, but sexism sells even better. Last week the Sun saw no contradiction in slut-shaming an unknown teenager on its front page for "performing sex acts" on more than 20 men in Magaluf, while featuring softcore pornography on page 3. According to witnesses, the teenage girl was promised an exotic holiday which later turned out to be the name of a cocktail. This is exploitation in anyone's book, and yet the only story being told in the press is the story of a young girl's shame.
Hypocrisy oils the belching engine of modern media misogyny. The celebrity and tabloid press, particularly in Britain, has perfected a profitable combination of pornography and priggishness, whereby pictures of the precise acts of which the paper disapproves are printed in masturbatory detail. Look at how disgusting these girls are, the editorials seem to be saying – look harder. Look at the sex acts they're performing while drunk and vulnerable. Look at their parents crying. Look at the blurry cameraphone footage, so shocking that we're featuring it prominently on our website, with the flimsiest smear of pixels positioned to protect the paper from prosecution.
This has happened before. Last year, in the slow summer news season, extensive coverage was given to cameraphone footage of a teenage girl going down on a chap in a lime-green fedora at an Eminem concert in Ireland. The man pictured – arse out, two fists raised in triumph, grinning like an idiot – is considered a hero; the girl had a breakdown after the barrage of media bullying and was hospitalised.
This will happen again. In the age of the smartphone, members of the public are now doing the paparazzi's job for them, but they are only mimicking the same old sexual surveillance that has been the stock in trade of the print press for more than a century. In the first days of newspapers, editors relied on line drawings to illustrate the base morals of working-class women, breasts spilling out of dirty dresses, approaching gentlemen in stovepipe hats who are never held responsible for their behaviour. The shame, as always, is hers and hers alone.
Of course, the men featured in the footage will never be named, will never be made to feel bad about "performing sex acts" on camera. Why should they? Men's sexual behaviour is not policed in the same way: if a man and a woman have sex in public, he is a stud and she is a disgusting slut who deserves to die. It is unknown whether the drunken sex games of British tourists abroad have ever included young men going down on up to 30 women at once, but one suspects that if they have, the images would not be considered newsworthy, although they might merit some sort of award for lingual stamina.
The role of class hatred in this narrative deserves attention. The British press loves to hate women, but it particularly loves to hate specific, usually working-class, women who are singled out as symbols of moral degradation, offered money if they cooperate with the public humiliation which will happen with or without their consent. Journalists are currently descending on Magaluf, and we can anticipate a month or two of horror stories about a kingdom of sun and sin where the dignity of working-class women goes to die. Nobody is covering what goes on behind the scenes in Mustique or Monaco.
If there's one thing the tabloid press hates more than women, it's welfare recipients, but it saves up special stocks of loathing for people who are both. " White Dee" from the Channel 4 documentary Benefits Street has featured in much of the "Magaluf girl" coverage, for no other reason than the fact she once visited Magaluf. Readers were reminded of the precise amount White Dee claims in benefits, next to pictures of the single mother having fun on holiday, which is obviously not allowed. Poor people, and particularly poor women, are expected to be abject at all times.
The logic of misogyny is routinely used to undermine the social basis of welfare provision. The only way to ensure favourable coverage as a female in the public eye is to be young, white, rich and married to a member of the royal family. The antics of aristocrats and wealthy models, from Kate Middleton to Cara Delevingne, are covered by the same papers that profit from the sexual humiliation of working-class women – revering "good women" while demonising "bad women" and inviting readers to place themselves, their partners, relatives and friends, on that tired old scale.
Life at the other end of the scale of what the media deems acceptable femininity can hardly be stress-free – these women, too, are relentlessly harassed by photographers, their lives inspected for the smallest evidence of deviation from expensively maintained perfection. Their basic dignity, however, is deemed worthy of respect. The Sun even refused to publish topless photos of the Duchess of Cambridge, acquired by French Closer magazine – and not just out of pique that the French got there first.
Meanwhile, the many designer bikinis of "blonde celebutante" Paris Hilton were fawned over in the same issue of the Daily Mail that extensively charted the public humiliation of "Magaluf girl". Hilton has also featured in leaked sex tapes but, as Virginie Despentes observed in her important book King Kong Theory, she is of the class who can fuck in public without consequences.
Since the days of Gin Lane, sexual humiliation of women as a means of social control has been the profit model of the British press. The bottom line of papers across the political spectrum is shored up by slut-shaming, by stoking public anxiety over how working-class women in particular should behave. The message is clear: men can be as raucous as they like, but women, especially poor women, can only be sexual as long as they do not demand respect, pleasure or payment, as long as they understand that their bodies do not belong to them. If they slip up, they will be harassed to the point of breakdown. They are, after all, public property, and should know their place.