For the past decade the Australian government has been quietly and steadily implementing a profoundly anti-sex agenda. The Liberal and Labor parties share a fear of sexuality and a loathing of its diversity. They aim to enforce a vanilla hegemony on us all.
The public is aware of little of this agenda or the extent to which it attempts to marginalise, stigmatise and criminalise sexual behaviour, the representation of this in pornography, and communication about it between consenting adults (often using online social media).
The government’s proposed internet censorship aims to criminalise all communications (including image based porn and text or audio conversations in websites and online forums) about kink and fetish sexuality. It may consequently (intentionally or otherwise) criminalise all non-vanilla sexual behaviour, as a precursor to having sex is communicating about it with potential partners.
We as a society are profoundly uncomfortable about the extent and diversity of sexual behaviour. The vanilla hegemony perpetuates the idea that sexual behaviour is shameful, wrong, dirty and unnatural. It claims that sex is for reproduction, not recreation, and the further a sexual act deviates from facilitating reproduction the more depraved and immoral it is. Consequently, gay, anal, kink, fetishism, BDSM, role-play and other behaviours that are obviously not going to result in babies are all rejected.
One instrument of the vanilla hegemony is the government’s perpetuation of the moral hysteria about porn. As the mediated representation of sexual behaviour, porn is not by definition any more ‘objectionable’ than the sex it represents. It is simply ‘the portrayal of explicit sexual subject matter for the purposes of sexual excitement and erotic satisfaction.‘
Porn can only be considered objectionable if you view sex as objectionable. Given that most people are sexually active at some point during their lives, and sex is a common recreational activity, it is apparent that many people like it and do not see it, or representations of it, as objectionable or distasteful.
Porn is a form of fiction, of fantasy media or literature that many people enjoy consuming, in much the same way as we enjoy fantasies about travelling through the galaxy in Star Wars or fighting foreign spies in James Bond. Literate adults in post-industrial societies can tell the difference between fantasy and reality. The power of fantasy is that it is not our reality and we don’t expect it to be.
Australia has a history of censorship and repression of sexually explicit media, and there are several areas in which current government policy impacts on sexual freedom.
In 2006 the Liberals merged the Office of Film and Literature Classification (the Censorship Board) into the Attorney General’s office, thus reducing its independence and making it more obviously an instrument of government policy. This was done without public consultation. Classification (censorship) is now an overtly government activity.
In 2009 Labor redefined how de facto relationships are seen as economic relationships, and broadened the definition of de facto, meaning that Australian citizens will now find it harder to have sexual relationships without the government defining these as economic relationships and altering your financial and taxation status accordingly. This suggests that the government views sex as not for pleasure, but for determining your status in society.
The ISP level filtering proposed by the Liberals in 2007 before the federal election was enthusiastically maintained by Labor, which is pursuing a pervasive and intrusive examination of the sexual fantasies of its citizens. The Australian government is now proposing to harass and intimidate people entering Australia who possess pornography.
Fiona Patten from the Australian Sex Party published a press release on 19 May 2010 alerting us to the fact that the ‘Incoming Passenger Card’ travellers complete on entry into Australia asks them to declare whether they possess any ‘pornography’. Like the changes made to the OFLC, this change to customs procedures was made without public consultation. According to the Age newspaper, this question has been on the cards since September 2009.
Apart from it being a gross and unnecessary invasion of privacy, it is a meaningless question as ‘pornography’ has no legal definition in Australian law. Our classification regulations do not use the term. So what Customs are asking to see is not content deemed illegal or ‘refused classification’ but any sexually explicit content, from commercial porn to the photos you may take of yourself to include in your profile on adult dating sites.
From here on, things get weird and complicated. We already have the absurd situation in Australian law that, depending on the type of sexual act depicted, it may be legal to buy still images (such as in magazines) of it being performed, but not moving images (such as DVDs) of the very same act.
When applied to the internet, which can be used to transmit both still and moving images, this distinction becomes ridiculous. How can the representation of a single sex act be simultaneously legal and illegal due the medium it is transmitted through?
It is currently lawful to possess fetish or kink porn in Australia, such as by downloading it from websites hosted in the US. Downloading is not currently defined as ‘importing’. However, should you download exactly the same content from a US website while sitting in your London hotel room, then fly home to Australia, the law says something very different.
When you carry your laptop across the border, you have technically ‘imported’ the photos and videos on your harddrive. And possessing that material could be illegal if it is likely to be refused classification, such as if it contains representations of kink or fetish sex.
‘Pornography and other objectionable material‘ is listed as a restricted import on the Australian Customs website. This definition of pornography comes from the National Classification Code (209kb PDF), but there is a dangerous act of misepresentation in its use on the Customs site. The definition of pornography on the Customs site is not about porn in general, but porn that is refused classification, which is defined as content that contains ‘matters of sex… or revolting or abhorrent phenomena in such a way that they offend against the standards of morality, decency and propriety generally accepted by reasonable adults.’
So when Customs says porn is a restricted import, what it appears to mean is that refused classification content is restricted, but it conflates the definitions in such a way to make it difficult to know what it really intends. Hence the legal nonsense of the Incoming Passenger Card.
If the leading academics of sexuality and pornography in Australia are as ignorant and confused about definitions of sexual behaviour as they appear to be, what hope do naive politicians, closeted in their stacked branches, have of understanding it? None. This is the problem. Where is the research or other forms of evidence that supports their policies? There isn’t any. Policy relating to sexuality is primarily made on the basis of moribund ignorance and moral hysteria.
Our classification regime supposedly has a particular issue with ‘the portrayal of persons in a demeaning manner’. If this was taken seriously, why can I watch endless traumatic rape scenes in television shows like Law and Order? It’s apparently acceptable to watch realistic simulations of rape on television but not consensual BDSM on the internet. The idea that content depicting demeaning behaviour is censored is applied extremely selectively.
In the US, creators of consensual BDSM porn are being prosecuted. The law makes no allowance for the difference between fantasy and reality and insists that all fetish behaviour is akin to kidnapping and torture. Why then does it not arrest the actors in James Bond films for committing murder? The performers in porn are acting, just like other actors, however simplistic that sounds. The law is not being equally or objectively applied. It is being subjectively and selectively applied to suppress sexuality.
The connection between the fantasy representation of sexual behaviour in porn and real sexual behaviour between consenting adults is complex. People consume porn about acts they like engaging in in real ife as well as acts they have never done. They would like to make some fantasies a reality but others work best only as fantasies, so consuming representations of them is preferable to trying them in reality. The law recognises none of this complexity.
The government infantilises and victimises its citizens according to its anti-sex, anti-porn worldview. It cannot accept that individuals can actively desire and consent to behaviour that is based on fantasy and role-play, which includes consenting to being demeaned, either in the process of performing in the creation of porn or in real life. The agency of individual sexual subjects is refuted and undermined. People are not allowed to take responsibility for their own sexuality.
With its planned internet filtering, the Australian government wants to go further and ban all non-vanilla sex from the internet (at least as it can be seen by people within Australia). It claims that all the content it wants to ban is content that shows illegal or immoral behaviour (such as child abuse material or bestiality). But this is not true.
The majority of the content the government seeks to ban is simply unclassified, and it shows diverse sexual behaviour between consenting adults. Some of this content is likely to be refused classification should it be examined by the Classification Board, but until any content item is classified its status is unknown. Is porn innocent until proven guilty? Not according to Conroy. He wants to ban it before examining it.
Despite their inane protestations, this has nothing to do with the government attempting to prosecute the possession of child pornography (‘child abuse material’ is a more accurate term). It is obviously already illegal to sexually abuse children, and to create, distribute or possess child abuse material.
Making a big deal about creating separate offences of ‘possessing child abuse material while crossing an international border’ or ‘downloading child abuse material from the internet’ is duplicitous and bureaucratic. It may placate computer illiterate suburban parents, but it will achieve nothing.
As we have already determined, most adults don’t think porn (the fantasy representation of consenting adult sexual behaviour) is revolting, and in fact about 1 in 4 adults consume it (a figure in the 19 May press release). As Australian citizens, we have reasonable expectation that sexual behaviour between consenting adults, including the consumption of sexual media, is harmless and victimless, and that it is something that governments have no need to scrutinise.
As the Australian newspaper recently stated, ‘Sexual pleasure on the internet is a personal freedom that many adults will not give up lightly.‘ But the Australian government now demands to know the sexual fantasies of its citizens and visitors. Why do they want or need to know this?
Rudd and Conroy want to make Australia more like Dubai, where international tourists are told not to kiss in public, and where unmarried couples can be arrested for booking a hotel room together. How long will it be before international tourists coming to Australia are being searched and arrested for possessing pornography? What will that do to our tourism industry?
How many Australians returning home will have their laptops confiscated and held by Customs pending the classification of their content, possibly for months or years as the system becomes overwhelmed? How many people will be prosecuted for their private sexual preferences before we start protesting against this vile, inappropriate and unnecessary invasion of privacy?
How long before the Police, acting on information seen on the internet, raid a swingers’ party and arrest everyone like they do in Rudd’s favourite country China?