Before I begin, it’s worth talking about the fact that I’m here at all. When you think of the typical Penthouse contributor, your first thought wouldn’t be the policy director of a centre-right think tank. But then again, publications like Penthouse have always been at the forefront of the war against oppressive taboos. And these days, militant puritanism is almost entirely the domain of the ‘woke’ left.
Fundamental rights like freedom of speech, association and conscience are not only being threatened, the chattering classes are increasingly hostile to them. Relatedly, we’re inundated with trigger warnings, safe spaces, deplatforming, Twitter pile-ons, advertising boycotts, endless hand-wringing about victimhood and ‘privilege’. The enlightened left has become the establishment – and a disturbingly authoritarian one at that. Right-wing politics is the new counterculture.
Besides, it’s not like Penthouse Australia is the first lifestyle publication to get ‘political’. Have you read GQ lately? Forget it. I picked up an edition a couple of years back, but I only made it as far as the editorial – a tired rant about ‘toxic masculinity’.
And GQ isn’t the only one. Once-great literary magazines like the Atlantic and New Yorker have become a magnet for paranoid anti-Trumpers. Teen Vogue has apparently shifted gears from helping young women navigate adolescence to bombarding them with all manner of depressing hobby horses, from the problem of ‘whiteness’ to the impending doom of global warming.
No, this is not the first magazine outside the news and current affairs genre to take an editorial line on hot-button issues, and it won’t be the last. For years, the left has insisted that opting out of politics isn’t an option, that simply not caring is, in itself, a sign of ‘privilege’. Well, be careful what you agitate for. Australians in their thousands – who until recently have wanted nothing more than to be left alone – are waking up. As the old adage goes, if you don’t take an interest in politics, politics can take an interest in you. The personal is political now. Game on.
While the goal posts have shifted over the years, Penthouse’s fundamental mission is the same. Its ethos today can be traced back to its beginnings as a publication in the UK in 1965. In the first American edition four years later, Penthouse founder Bob Guccione described the magazine as “a fighter, a leader and an innovator… A child of the permissive society – the first major periodical to be created out of this unique, sometimes incongruous but perennially dynamic era [of the 1960s]” and its underlying philosophy could be “summed up in four immaculate and meaningful words: ‘To each his own’”.
The enlightened left has become the establishment – and a disturbingly authoritarian one at that.
But despite the ongoing sexual revolution of the 1960s, men’s magazines were frequently the target of society’s prudish rump coming to terms with changing sexual norms. Obscenity laws were invoked, triggering a wave of court cases on exactly what was and wasn’t ‘obscene’, and how a ban on such material was compatible with the First Amendment – the provision of the US constitution that guarantees freedom of speech.
Such cases largely hinged around the nebulous idea of ‘community standards’, and in 1973 the US Supreme Court finally settled on the principle that ‘obscene materials’ could be prosecuted if “the work, taken as a whole, lacks serious literary, artistic, political or scientific value”.
Even then, the tide couldn’t be turned back. Time magazine observed in 1976 that “harassed law-enforcement officials usually have neither the will, the funds nor the community backing to wage an effective war on pornography, and juries will often not convict”. When it came to ‘community standards’, popular opinion was increasingly turning against censorship.
But while men’s magazines were at the vanguard of the fight for free speech, obscenity laws were used to suppress more than just your garden variety smut rag. James Joyce’s Ulysses was banned for 12 years because of its masturbation scene. It took 145 years for the obscenity ruling on John Cleland’s Fanny Hill to be lifted in 1966. And while they ultimately failed, high-profile obscenity cases were brought against books like DH Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover and Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer, despite the latter being described by George Orwell as “the greatest novel written in English”.
The tyranny of ‘community standards’, reinforced by the state, became the arbiter of what was and was not valid artistic expression. The legal wins by magazines like Penthouse were about more than just access to pornography, they were victories in the fight against government control over speech and thought.
Recently, 793 boxes were discovered deep underground the National Archives building in Sydney, containing thousands of previously-banned – and confiscated – books. This monstrous volume of contraband literature is a testament to Australia’s own shocking history of censorship, dubbed at one point the strictest regimes in the English-speaking world.
Australia’s censorship regime was driven largely by Customs, which had sweeping powers to confiscate ‘obscene and indecent’ publications. Naturally, magazines like Penthouse were routinely seized well into the 1960s. And with no Australian-equivalent to the First Amendment, around 15,000 books were at various times banned from entering Australia.
As in the US, books considered classics today were in the gun, like JD Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye and Ian Fleming’s James Bond novel The Spy Who Loved Me. Bizarrely, a comic book, published in the UK, based around the character Barry McKenzie, a “randy, boozy Australian rampaging through swinging London” was also prohibited from entering the country, despite it being written by Barry Humphries, an iconic Australian comedian.
As to what actually constituted ‘obscene’ material, Australia relied largely on the standard developed in English courts in the 1860s, which ruled that obscenity charges could be brought against literature that could “deprave and corrupt” the mind.
It is this definition that explains the mentality behind obscenity laws, the great fiction upon which the long tradition of censorship in the western world is based: That people are too weak-willed to decide for themselves, and that the human mind is so fragile that it can be “depraved and corrupted” by images, words, art – even ideas.
By the time Penthouse Australia was launched in 1979, society was growing out of the notion that such depravity and corruption could be caused by the discussion or depiction of sex. But in the 40 years since, the idea that grown adults should be shielded from dangerous content has not gone away. It’s just that the offending material has changed.
By the 1980s, the nature of outrage culture was shifting. Whereas historically, censorship was driven by old-fashioned – and largely religious – hang-ups around sex, the new moral panic came from the political left. This marked a split within the feminist movement: On one side, feminism that had embraced the ‘free love’ ethic of the 1960s and championed the liberation of women from sexual repression. On the other, the dissenting view that the sexual revolution had been ‘on men’s terms’, and that had resulted not in greater freedom for women, but continued oppression.
The legal wins by magazines like Penthouse were about more than just access to pornography, they were victories in the fight against government control over speech and thought.
For whatever reason, Penthouse was a constant target of feminist outrage. One particularly memorable episode was the National Rampage Against Penthouse, a campaign of what the organisers called “guerrilla theatre, consumer boycotts and corporate confrontation”. Writing a decade or so later, one of the campaign’s organisers recalls burning effigies of Penthouse founder Bob Guccione and an incident in which protesters stormed an adult bookstore to “rip up copies of Penthouse until we were literally knee-deep in pornography”.
The group behind the Rampage Against Penthouse insisted that they were “pro-sex, pro-nudity and pro-sexuality”, but took exception to the material in Penthouse, which by the 1980s was becoming more explicitly sexual in nature. Such material, they believed, posed a “clear and present danger” through the “dissemination of femicidal images”.
Admittedly, some of the material in question could be charitably described as ‘niche’ in nature, and was probably not for the faint-hearted. But opposition to it still relied on the fallacy of the fragility of the human mind, that words and images could, in themselves, ‘corrupt’ and ‘deprave’ the reader – The myth that the very existence of confronting imagery would drive men to commit heinous, unspeakable acts simply because they happened to pick up a magazine.
It was the kind of mindset that marked a turning point in the political left, which would eventually become unrecognisable from the counterculture movement of the 1960s. While the old left had fought against sexual repression, large sections of the new left would come to basically embrace it. While the old left was deeply individualistic, the new left would eventually become mired in the kind of tribalism that spawned endless discussions of victimhood and ‘privilege’. And while the old left fought vehemently for free speech and championed universities as “communities of controversy”, the new left would fight equally hard to shut down dissenting views and chase controversial ideas off campus.
In August this year, Labor frontbencher Kristina Keneally got to her feet in the Senate to tee off on the then-upcoming CPAC Australia conference. In particular, Keneally took issue with speaker Raheem Kassam, a British right-wing activist notoriously critical of Islam, and demanded that the immigration minister cancel his visa on ‘character grounds’.
‘This is why we have this section in the Migration Act,’ Keneally wailed. ‘To ensure that people who are going to come to this country and incite discord and possibly violent reaction in the community are able to be barred.’
In the end, the Morrison government held its nerve, Kassam spoke at CPAC and no such ‘violent reaction’ occurred. But Keneally was right in one respect: There was ample precedent, and the Coalition has form in blackballing speakers for similar reasons, including Proud Boys founder Gavin McInnes, weirdo conspiracy theorist David Icke and provocateur Milo Yiannopolous.
There is plenty not to like about all of those figures, but the question is not whether we like them or not, the question is whether their very presence in the country is inherently dangerous. The answer, of course, is no. In fact, the only ‘violence’ and ‘discord’ that occurred last time Yiannopolous set foot in Australia was entirely caused by the feral left in their violent attempts to disrupt what was otherwise a successful tour, organised by Penthouse.
Nevertheless, calls to blackball international speakers continue, for the same reason that Penthouse was banned in the 1950s and ripped up by radical feminists in the 1980s – Because of the fear of the ‘obscene’, that it will ‘deprave’ and ‘corrupt’ us. Throughout the last century, Customs seized obscene books. Nowadays, the Minister for Home Affairs bans obscene speakers.
And as far as modern day outrage culture goes, speaker bans are just the beginning. There is nowhere near enough room in this article to catalogue every example, but here are a few that have bubbled up just in the time I’ve spent writing this piece: Yet another campaign to boot Alan Jones off the airwaves; a ban on ‘ring girls’ at a boxing match in Bendigo – putting several young women out of a job – in response to claims of sexism; a long rant in the New Yorker about how impressionist artist Pierre-August Renoir’s nude paintings reflect the patriarchal ‘male gaze’.
From hang-ups about nudity and sex to hysteria about so-called ‘hate speech’, the definition of ‘obscenity’ changes, but the propensity of moralistic know-it-alls to tell us what we can and can’t read, listen to, watch, say – even to think – persists. Religiously-motivated catch-cries like ‘wicked’ have been replaced by woke weasel words like ‘problematic’. Fears for ‘public morality’ have given way to equally vague concerns about ‘structural oppression’.
Publications like this one still matter, not because I agree with one hundred per cent of its content, but because there is value in pushing boundaries for the sake of it, to break the constraints on speech and thought and publication, and to preserve the free exchange of ideas that accelerates mankind’s never ending search for beauty and truth.
So, keep swinging, Penthouse. Here’s to another 40 years.
Gideon Rozner is Director of Policy at the Institute of Public Affairs