No sex please, we're Australian

Katherine Neil on Helen Vnuk's Snatched: Sex and Censorship in Australia

Helen Vnuk, Snatched: Sex and Censorship in Australia, Random House, Australia, 2003 ISBN 1 740 51088 7

Helen Vnuk’s Snatched: Sex and Censorship in Australia is a high impact, detailed exposé of Australia’s appallingly quiet censorship of sexual content in entertainment media. Some of the material in this book is so shocking that as an ex-pat New Zealander, I wondered just what kind of sick and bizarre society I had relocated to 6 years ago.

Most people would know that the sale of X-rated videos is illegal in all Australian states. But why are women’s magazines forced to hide female anatomy in sexual health articles? Why does the Australian state think it can single-handedly ban porn from the internet? And how is any of this consistent with the first principle of the National Classification Code, which states that “adults should be able to read, hear and see what they want”? Helen Vnuk has interviewed key politicians, government censors and porn industry personnel to find out how, over the course of 2 decades, we have ended up with a censorship regime in which “facts, majority views and basic civil liberties have been overridden.”

Vnuk takes a swipe at the classic anti-porn campaigners: conservative ‘morals’ crusaders and Andrea Dworkin-style feminists. In Australia, this alliance has enabled religious lobby groups and right-wing politicians to adopt pseudo-feminist rhetoric to legitimise their stance. Ultra-conservative Senator Brian Harradine, for example, argues that Australian-produced X-rated material “degrades” the image of Australian women. Vnuk reiterates the view of the opposing camp of feminists who believe that far from advancing the rights of women, censorship silences us:

Despite the disapproval of the moral minority, despite the disapproval of anti-porn feminists, many women are discovering that they enjoy watching porn films. Restricting the availability of these films restricts the social freedom of the women who want to watch them.

She challenges the view that pornography is a male domain with some interesting data about the readership of adult magazines. 23% of People’s readership is female for example. She also cites films, websites and magazines created by women, for women, which are frequently attacked by Australian censors. Vnuk is the former editor of one of these publications, Australian Women’s Forum. She lays a large part of the blame for the magazine’s demise on the rising costs of meeting unclear classification requirements and the alienation of readers due to the forced gradual toning-down of content.

Already riled over the sinking of her magazine, there was one final incident that incensed Vnuk enough to write Snatched. This was the foiling of an attempt to show her readership what women’s genitals are supposed to look like, in order to reassure women who are running off to get plastic surgery because they’ve somehow acquired a distorted view of female genitalia. The fact that Australian magazines since the mid-90s have had to Photoshop the genital “detail” from photographs of naked women as a result of the classification guidelines undoubtedly has something to do with this trend. “When a guy goes down on a woman, he’s going ‘What’s all this stuff?’” Graham Brown of Penthouse told Vnuk. Interestingly, men’s sexual organs aren’t considered offensive enough under the guidelines to warrant similar treatment.

From protecting women to protecting children, Vnuk also interrogates one of the legislation’s fundamental principles of censorship in relation to sexual content: that “minors should be protected from material likely to harm or disturb them.” She’s not the only one to take issue with a system of censorship based on “the belief that sex is a bad thing” and that effectively criminalises “sexual activity among 16 and 17 year olds.”

I heard Gunnel Arrback, Head of the Swedish National Film Classification Board, speak on this topic at the International Ratings Conference in Sydney last year. She gave an example of a complaint from a mother alarmed that her 7 year-old daughter asked awkward questions after watching explicit sex scenes in a G-rated movie. Arrback’s response was simple: “If you haven’t told your daughter the facts of life by now that’s hardly our fault, now is it?”

Unfortunately for teenage boys looking for sexual excitement (or should I say “minors looking to be harmed or disturbed”), they’re better off having a perve at their sister’s copy of Cosmo or their mum’s Mills and Boon than a Penthouse. This is because of the inconsistencies and double standards in the regulation of sexual content between media. Erotic literature in book form remains untouched while “unwarranted” or “highly detailed” descriptions must be cut from the text of porn magazines, zines and comics to avoid restriction. It should be added that video games endure the harshest treatment of all media when it comes to sexual content. Perhaps the most powerful and controversial point this book makes is about cultural snobbery and the double standards at play in the classification debate.

Vnuk points to the subjectivity of such a nebulous concept as ‘artistic merit’, a phrase in the classification guidelines that allowed the Classification Review Board to lift the ban on the film Romance in 2000. The Board concluded that the depictions of actual sex and sexual violence were allowable, given the ‘sophisticated’ nature of the film’s likely audience, thereby implying that a different set of rules should apply to ‘unsophisticated’ people who don’t appreciate French arthouse movies.

She chastises the “letter-to-the-editor civil libertarians” (perhaps some of the people who read and write for RealTime?) for their tendency to fight censorship on the grounds that exceptions should be made for certain material because “it’s art.” Vnuk asserts that these arguments serve to bolster the notion inherent in the guidelines that sex viewed for entertainment is somehow not legitimate.

So, who or what should we blame and what changes should we argue for? Vnuk criticises the structure of the OFLC board, the vagueness of the guidelines and the ability of minority groups to exert undue influence through a community consultation process based on submissions rather than statistically representative surveys. She also cites surveys that show the guidelines are out of step with current community attitudes towards the availability of X-rated material.

Given the reactionary political climate of the last few years, it seems likely that it will take more than a simple change to classification processes to alter the current censorious environment. Freedom of sexual expression will have to be fought for in the broader context of attacks on free speech through “anti-terrorism” laws and the ‘family values’ agenda pushed by both major political parties. From the denial of the rights of lesbian couples to IVF treatment, to the continued illegality of abortion and the contracting-out of social services to religious organisations, the censorship regime described in Snatched is only the tip of a much broader reactionary trend.

RealTime issue #60 April-May 2004 pg. 12

© Katherine Neil; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

1 April 2004