Reclaim our Public Spaces: not just a feminist cause

This post was originally published by Shifting Grounds on 4th March 2013.

How do you feel when you are standing on a station platform and emblazoned across the wall in front of you is a picture of a semi-naked young woman suggestively posed and making eyes at you?

I feel it as an assault on my freedom.

I have nothing against attractive women cavorting in their underwear when they want to, but do not think I should be forced to look at images of them doing so while I wait for a train, bus or when I wander down the street.

There are other issues here, but for me the lack of choice in situations like these is what matters most.

It is why the No More Page Three campaign makes me uncomfortable.

The girls themselves are choosing to pose topless, and being paid for it. The Sun’s readers are choosing to see them topless, and paying for it. We may not like it, but tolerating things that we do not like but others choose is one of the prices we pay for enjoying our freedoms in a liberal democratic society.

In contrast, we are given no choice about the billboards and adverts that have colonised our public spaces, and we do not get paid to look at them. We are forced to view, plastered all over our buses, bus stops, tube stations and buildings everywhere we go, countless pretty female models and the odd male one (David Beckham in his undies anyone?), all stuck there to make us buy stuff.

As Neal Lawson of Compass has written: “Adverts are not there to inform but to sell one thing: unhappiness. They work because they make us dissatisfied with what we’ve got or what we look like”.

Being forced to deal with these intrusions into our public space every day is not freedom: it is coercion, made possible by the appropriation and privatisation of public space, which is in turn encouraged by the impoverishment of local authorities.

Lawson has suggested we ban outdoor advertising altogether. He points to the online petition that campaigners in Bristol have set up, and also to São Paulo in Brazil, Auckland in New Zealand and Chennai in India – all of which have bans in place already.

Banning adverts in public spaces is a decent aim, but for me a sensible first step would be to ban images of semi-naked people from our public spaces (unless there could be some genuine public interest in doing so). Once people see and feel the change to their daily lives that this brings, then we could explore further steps to reclaim our public spaces.

I think this would be a more sensible campaign than No More Page Three, and its achievements if successful would be greater.

Crucially, it could also go beyond the bounds of the currently dominant brand of feminist politics by involving ordinary people of both sexes and all sorts of backgrounds.


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