Ever since we could have sex, humans have loved the expression of filth as much as filth itself. Tracing the outlines of our lovers on cave walls, using chiselled stone tools to carve fantasies into anything harder than air, transferring to the printed word, the photograph and film almost as soon as the technology came into being. And for all the times we’ve expressed our natural impulses there has been someone telling us not to; sex and power have forever been inseparable.
Much of the blame for the stigma around smut today can be traced to 18th-century Europeans, who reinvigorated censorship in an era when what was said in public was in stark contrast to what was done in private. This modernised prudishness coincided with the industrial revolution, becoming a warning that there is always someone watching, controlling our leisure, and enforcing an appreciation of power among the masses.
Australians have it bored into our heads from childhood that we are anti-authoritarian, a scrappy nation of prisoners who took on the colonial masters, knockabouts and underdogs who loathe cops and wowsers. Hell, the Federal Government even has a site describing the Australian “anti-authoritarian” sense of humour.
“In the second half of the 19th century, as the national image began to take shape, Australia was presented by Australians in verse and picture as a young virginal girl, absolutely pure,” historian John Hirst writes. “The purity came from being free of old-world ills of caste, inequality and class prejudice; Australians were one people on a single continent living in harmony, with no civil strife, with opportunity for all, isolated from the rest of the world by the encircling sea, a nation made with no blood spilt (the battles with the Aborigines being entirely overlooked).”
Federation only cemented our place as one of the western world’s great censors, obsessed with obscenity. Last century some 16,000 publications were banned, including some of the best literature of the age: The Catcher in the Rye, Lolita, Naked Lunch and James Baldwin’s Another Country, which explored interracial relationships in America. Customs got off on rummaging through people’s suitcases for banned books, and in 1964 Gough Whitlam, then deputy leader of the Labor Party, had his copy of Another Country seized.
But a considerable tide was turning, and only a year later this false facade of decorum cracked — long after it had in America and Europe — allowing erotic novels Sons and Lovers and Lolita into the country. Over in the old motherland, something far bigger was afoot as Bob Guccione radicalised popular smut with the launch of Penthouse magazine in London.
According to Guccione, “We followed the philosophy of voyeurism.” Here, the luscious met the lascivious in the first modern printed magazine to clearly display all of a woman, thereby changing the entire emphasis of the genre: the model was now looking at her admirers, engaging in a relationship with them, no longer the faraway siren. Porn was coming out of the shadows and receiving a public airing — as America’s Justice Potter Stewart had infamously declared of hardcore pornography, “I know it when I see it.”
The relationship between sex and power has always attracted the censorious hand.
Photography, Susan Sontag argues, has democratised experiences and lingers to eternity. It has altered and expanded what we feel we have the right to observe and allows us to feel as though we have gained knowledge and power — even if only symbolically. Penthouse and its compatriots were roaringly popular, and women’s magazines started featuring centrefolds too, although more in the spirit of cheek. With her signature perspicacity, Joan Didion saw the women’s movement breaking against the age of liberation, writing, “Of course something other than an objection to being ‘discriminated against’ was at work here, something other than an aversion to being ‘stereotyped’ in one’s sex role. Increasingly it seemed that the aversion was to adult sexual life itself: how much cleaner to stay forever children.”
The radical wing of women’s lib fermented in academia, led by anti-pornography viragos Andrea Dworkin and Catharine MacKinnon. It was once joked of Dworkin that she “may be the only person alive who believes that the letters in Penthouse Forum are real”, but her aim was to alter politics through popular culture, targeting magazines and films, even leading protests against the advertising campaign for the Rolling Stones album Black and Blue. They faced opposition from the emergent ‘pro-sex feminists’, who labelled them authoritarian puritans, but for a time they were, as censors tend to be, the loudest voices in the room. (In a wonderful twist, Dworkin had some of her work confiscated by Canadian customs authorities for obscenity.)
Australia, meanwhile, was finally growing up in the 1970s, liberating our culture under Gough Whitlam. The government shifted its moral purview from censorship to classification, abandoning the legal test established in 1868 of the “tendency to deprave and corrupt” to one of “community standards”, whereby courts asked whether something would cause offence to the “modesty of the average man”.
Soon after, in the United States, the Reagan administration desperately tried to reclaim the country from the counter-culture that culminated in the 1973 Supreme Court decision in Roe v Wade to legalise abortion. In 1984, President Reagan appointed his slack-jowled Attorney General Edwin Meese to study the effect of pornography on society, applying the pseudoscience of Jerry Falwell and other charlatan evangelists that the administration was indebted to for election support. Meese’s commission sent a letter to 7-Eleven and similar retailers, who accounted for 95 per cent of racy magazine sales, a threat sufficient to prompt the magazines to be withdrawn from sale. The affair came to a close several years later, when Meese agreed in a private court session that “he has read both [Playboy and Penthouse] magazines and does not consider them to be obscene”.
The Howard government, which took many of its cues from Reagan’s, tried to cultivate a moral majority movement of its own, targeting video games and fetish porn such as women with small breasts acting as minors. Yet even without the heavy hand of government, other groups around the western world continued to follow Meese’s lead and targeted the distributors of magazines as a way of censoring the magazines themselves.
While feminism today has largely shifted to be a movement of inclusiveness and ‘sex positivity’, there remain many who can’t let go of policing taste. In 2015, anti-sexism group Collective Shout pushed their moral hygiene on the lads mag trade, declaring it guilty of misogyny as much for its gallows humour as its models, and pressured Coles to stop selling such titles, which effectively put them out of business. The editor of Zoo Weekly dedicated his final issue to “the shouty killjoys who’ve spent years telling us — and you — that we’re horrible people because we like beautiful women and taking the piss out of just about anything.” Coalescing around political groups such as Free the Nipple and Go Topless, and the online sisterhood celebration Herself, the depiction of political and artistic tits is seen as acceptable but working-class tits are not.
Penthouse founder Bob Guccione was famous for pushing the boundaries of censorship.
As with Reagan’s moralisers and Dworkin’s activists decades earlier, many progressives have found themselves in an uncomfortable affinity with conservative politicians. Australia’s two territories were the only places to legally sell smut outside of magazines and these worlds collided in 2007, when the federal government’s Northern Territory intervention banned booze and porn in many remote communities. Any indigenous person in possession of multiple items of the good stuff faced fines and jail time, while “neighbours 20 metres away are not subject to this legislation”, noted local academic Catherine Koerner. As predicted, the intervention went on to create more problems than it solved.
While porn was being criminalised for blackfellas in the outback and their computers were having filters installed, one old, white man was having no such problems. Reverend Fred Nile, Christian Democratic Party Senator in NSW and morals obsessive, was accessing porn on his parliamentary computers for “research purposes” (some 200,000 times), blaming an unnamed staffer for logging in under his name. Nile isn’t merely a Freudian nightmare but part of an emerging political consensus that seeks to control our online lives. As with books last century, we are already subject to some of the most restrictive internet laws in the western world, although for now they are largely unenforced.
Jeff Sparrow, author of Money Shot, a history of Australian porn and censorship, also argues that outside the conventional vestiges of power the dark claws of capitalism have been steadily sinking into the sexual, turning our private pleasure into a commodity. Progressives line up with groups like Eros, the association of sellers of smut, to say we can express and enjoy sex any way we choose, while conservative groups like the Australian Christian Lobby emphasise that your sexuality is precious, a possession, and should be valued and saved for the right person.
All porn is a reflection on us as a society. It is everything around us. Cheap, plentiful, commodified, violent, exploitative, degrading, humiliating, creative, fun, banal, exciting; it is something to do and it is something that we do, and have done so back to the times of our Palaeolithic ancestors. That people try to cure us of bad porn without fixing the darkest impulses of the world that creates porn, means that censorship will always be an instrument of power, a master not a servant. As writer David Foster Wallace put it, “censorship always serves the status quo.”
In the midst of attempts to censor our words and images, it’s rarely considered that we live in a world filled with the pornography of violence; where committees examine Penthouse for longer than the case to invade a foreign country. As authoritarianism seeps through the brittle fabric of the world, it feels like everything we thought we knew is rapidly changing but the urge to repress remains concentrated with those who have power.
As the battle for autonomy of our souls tumbles through its latest iteration of censors, the idea of free expression has become as vacuous as it is loaded, a noble premise hijacked by a cruel, destructive political age. Just as “free speech” were the words shouted by Jeremy Christian at his trial earlier this year, for stabbing two people to death in Portland, US, when they came to the aid of two young Muslim women Christian was harassing.
Australians have long been importers of the worst ideas of other countries, but the instinct for dominance remains inflected with an innate, homegrown depravity. So as we shudder at the turn the world has taken, as we see violence in the streets and decline all around us, and in a time when we silence others in order to have our voices heard, the inclination to censor feels more potent than simply an attack on our desires. But as we’ve seen with the campaign against marriage equality, politics will continue to infect our sex lives — it always does.