Censorship — August 21, 2013 at 11:30 pm

Vulva Cover Censored: Apparently “Demeaning To Women”

honisoitI’ve often blogged about the insanity of Australia’s censorship system and the various ways it discriminates against women and their sexuality. Now a group of feminist students from the University of Sydney have made the point again and in fine style.

Honi Soit is the student newspaper of the uni. The editors decided to use the cover to make a point about women’s bodies and thus photographed the vulvas of 18 students in all their glory. Their statement of purpose said:

We are tired of society giving us a myriad of things to feel about our own bodies. We are tired of having to attach anxiety to our vaginas. We are tired of vaginas being either artificially sexualised (see: porn) or stigmatised (see: censorship and airbrushing). We are tired of being pressured to be sexual, and then being shamed for being sexual.

The vaginas on the cover are not sexual. We are not always sexual. The vagina should and can be depicted in a non-sexual way – it’s just another body part. “Look at your hand, then look at your vagina,” said one participant in the project. “Can we really be so naïve to believe our vaginas the dirtiest, sexiest parts of our body?”

The lawyers for the Student Representative Council then declared that the cover must be censored to avoid possible criminal charges under Australia’s Classification Act. The editors agreed: this helped to make their point.

Just before we went to print, we were told that our cover was illegal, possibly criminal. But why? According to the SRC’s legal advice, this publication might be “obscene” or “indecent”, likely to cause offence to a “reasonable adult”. But what is offensive or obscene about a body part that over half of the Australian population have?

There are black bars over our labia. Trust us, they’re not usually there… This is ridiculous. Censorship laws in Australia state that the publishing of ‘indecent articles’ is illegal. Indecent is supposed to be something that will ‘offend’ a ‘reasonable person’. That in 2013, the vulva can still be considered something that will offend a reasonable person is absurd

Then things went a little pear shaped when the black bars used to censor the images were found to be see through. The publication has been withdrawn from the shelves.

The University of Sydney vice-chancellor Dr Michael Spence defended the paper’s editorial freedom but criticised the cover.

“Personally my view is the cover is demeaning to women but I do realise I’m not the target audience for Honi Soit.”

Interesting that a political statement made by women about women’s bodies is believed to be “demeaning to women”.

It’s worth reading the comment from one of those photographed here.

Honi Soit editor Hannah Ryan has written about the incident here.

I suspect that if our cover had featured male genitals instead of female, nobody would have described it, as one male student did, as “pornographic”, a “lewd and repulsive act” that was “inappropriately graphic”. Nobody would have claimed the genitals were disgusting or ugly. And if they were flaccid, I doubt anyone would have minded at all.

Censorship is frustrating because it gets in the way of us confronting this larger problem.

Despite the logistical difficulties, Honi Soit has achieved its aim magnificently. They’ve made a statement about censorship and society’s discomfort with women’s bodies in a huge way, helped along by national media coverage. It’s almost unnecessary for me to write anything further, beyond congratulating them on making their point.

What I do want to say is that I find it ridiculous that we’re still having this conversation in 2013. I’ve written about this issue a couple of times:

“Excessive genital detail”: photoshopped vulvas in men’s mags

Too much genital detail

Both of those posts make mention of the fact that this exact situation occurred in 2001 when Australian Women’s Forum wanted to run an article on the censorship of women’s genitals – and were censored in the process.

AWFcensoredIt was nonsensical then and it’s even more absurd now. Why do we have such a bizarre censorship system in place? Why does society get terribly upset about inner labia, but only when its in print? How can we justify this system and still say that we believe in freedom of speech – when it’s obviously repressing political expression?

We have an election coming up in a couple of weeks. The only way this bullshit is going to change is if Fiona Patten from the Sex Party gets into the senate. Every other politician is too frightened of the loud Christian lobbies to stand up and change the system – even though many of them know it’s broken and have said so privately. But the “moral majority” nonsense still holds sway, even in 2013.

Sigh.

By the way, I do wish that Honi Soit had used the term “vulva” instead of vagina. It’s an old gripe of mine. Read my lips: It’s VULVA, not vagina. I know “vagina” is common usage but it is inaccurate and contributes to ongoing sexual misunderstanding.

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One Comment

  1. Claiming to speak on behalf of someone else is even more demeaning. If you think that something is demeaning, state your case and look away. But if vulvas are obscene, then every woman in the country must turn themselves in.

    Personally, I would hope that every student would self-publish their own pictures of their own genitals. They can’t throw everyone in prison.