Students, sex and censorship

March 25, 1992

By Tracy Sorensen

Over 20 years ago, the irreverent magazine Oz — produced by a group of young Australians living in Britain — advertised for school students to edit issue number 26. The hopefuls turned up at Richard Neville's London flat to toss around their ideas.

According to contributor Peter Popham, these were mainly "whinges about how tough it was being a schoolboy". But there were also some rude bits, like the sexual proclivities of Rupert the Bear. When the magazine hit the streets, the establishment was outraged, and so began the longest obscenity trial in British history.

The problem, wrote Popham in the Independent on Sunday, was not the content of the magazine so much as the three words which appeared on the cover: "School Kids Issue". "The Crown contended that this meant the issue was deliberately aimed at schoolchildren — and was intended to corrupt them." Neville and two other editors were sentenced to a total of 36 months in prison and "given very drastic haircuts".

The case is now sufficiently mythologised to be the stuff of a recent television mini series. Richard Neville occasionally appears on daytime chat shows to reminisce about his finest two and a half hours — an impassioned defence of libertarianism before an unsympathetic jury.

All in the past? It seems not. The furore surrounding the NSW Family Planning Association's Making Sense of Sex project, particularly its Fact and Fantasy File school diary, shows that some in positions of power are just as keen as ever to protect the "moral purity" of high school students. This time, interestingly, the establishment is represented by Labor politicians.

On March 11, the Australian solicitor general rang Resistance organiser Jorge Jorquera in Melbourne to tell him that the government would seek a restraining order against the radical national youth group for distributing duplicated copies of the diary.

A representative of Brian Howe's Department of Health, Housing and Community Services told Jorquera in a letter on March 12 that the department was "concerned that the contents of the Diary are not appropriate reading for all young people". Resistance was not to "sell, distribute or otherwise make available" the diary.

But according to Resistance spokesperson Zanny Begg, the response to the duplicated copies, distributed from stalls outside high schools, had already shown how far out of step governments are on this issue. Students and staff had been overwhelmingly positive about the initiative.

Before the government told Resistance to stop and hand in any remaining duplicated copies, stalls had been set up at Fort Street High and Sydney Girls High in Sydney, and Marion High in Adelaide, among others around the country.

"The diaries sold out every time, with the stalls totally crowded by people wanting a copy, wanting to sign the petition" against the government's withdrawal of funding from the diary, Begg told Green Left. One of the few negative responses included a warning from the ACT education minister that any copies of the diary found on students would be confiscated.

Media coverage of the distribution included a segment on Channel 7's Real Life and news items on most other television stations, radio and print media. Channel 9's Today show will interview Begg on March 27. While some of the coverage is sensationalised, says Begg, most journalists have been openly sympathetic.

Sydney's Sunday Telegraph, on the other hand, took a ban-em-and-burn-em line from the start. Throughout the furore, Telegraph editors have gleefully reminded readers that it was the double page spread of letters from outraged readers against the Fact and Fantasy File which originally helped kill off the FPA's project.

When Resistance announced that it would not be cowed by the government's attempts to censor sex information for high school students and would produce its own sex information booklet, the March 15 Telegraph ran a special editor's note:

"Ms Zanny Begg vows her new publication will be more explicit than the fantasy diary. This newspaper had that grotty little booklet banned. Rest assured, Ms Begg, we will be watching for your group's sex guide and if it contains what you claim, The Sunday Telegraph will not stop until it is also banned."

Begg told Green Left that the new booklet would be explicit, because "if you are going to talk about sexuality you have to get straight to the point". She said that a survey in the April edition of Dolly magazine had found that a third of year 10 students did not know how sexually transmitted diseases were spread. But 60.8% of respondents to the survey had had sexual intercourse.

Pretending that teenagers were not sexually active, and banning information on how to make the experience safe and healthy, was counterproductive and exhibited "reactionary moralism", said Begg.

"Information is always better, and safer, than ignorance."

The Resistance guide to sexuality will contain information on abortion and contraception, eating disorders, women and image, a safe sex calendar and information about youth services and contact points around the country. According to Begg, it would contain all the information covered by the Fact and Fantasy File, plus some.

The booklet will also contain articles from Student Initiatives in Community Health, a group which has also borne the brunt of Brian Howe's displeasure (the group lost its federal government funding over a satirical piece in the last issue of its magazine Catalyst).

The booklet will be launched outside high schools around the country on March 27. A public meeting in Sydney on March 31, "Sex, drugs and the Pope: young people fight for free speech", with speakers from Resistance, SICH and workers from the Family Planning Association's sex information hot line, will start at 6.30 p.m. at the Resistance Centre, 23 Abercrombie Street, Chippendale.

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