Women's forum debates censorship

November 2, 1994

By Jennifer Thompson

SYDNEY — An October 26 forum here, called by the recently formed National Women's Media Centre, heard from speakers representing a spectrum of opinion on whether banning or restricting pornography contributes to the struggle for women's liberation.

While a number of women called for increased restrictions on pornographic material, most — including a majority of the speakers — regarded censorship as not effective in fighting violence against women and in fact doing more damage than good.

Fiona Patten, representing the Eros Foundation, an organisation supporting the rights of sex workers, spoke about the already high level of regulation of sexually explicit material in Australia and the operation of the classification and censorship system.

Describing the classification system employed by the national Office of Film and Literature Classification, she outlined the categories for films ranging from G (general viewing) to X (sexually explicit). Violence is excluded only in the case of category X films. The Office of Film and Literature Classification obtained a result of 67% support for the regulated availability of X-rated material, in a recent survey. The level of regulation in Western Australia, Tasmania and Queensland is even higher, with magazines such as Wicked Women, a lesbian-produced, lesbian sex magazine banned in Queensland.

Dr Marlene Goldsmith, NSW Liberal MLC, spoke about pornography and her bill, currently before the NSW parliament, which would prevent the public display of magazine covers judged as degrading and demeaning to women and children.

Goldsmith defended her bill using feminist language and texts such as those by Susan Faludi, Marilyn French and Susan Brownmiller, to explain that her object was to restrict images portraying the social objectification and dehumanisation of women, to protect children from negative stereotypes of women. It was pointed out in discussion that it might be more effective to begin with margarine advertisements.

Goldsmith, who chairs the state parliament's standing committee on social issues, quoted from a number of studies that had monitored the relationship between availability of pornography and reported violence against women, showing a direct correlation. Goldsmith also lamented that there was no legislation outlawing vilification of women, as there is for racial and homosexual vilification.

Janet Ramsey, board member of the National Women's Media Centre and vice-chair of the standing committee on social issues, said that women had to break out of the traditional debate between censorship and freedom of speech. While women have used both, they are not "our" constructs, and censorship is effective only for those who control it.

Ramsey said the research on a correlation between pornography and anti-woman violence was "highly unsatisfactory and contradictory", with different studies coming to completely opposing conclusions. On anti-vilification legislation, experience had shown that it was almost impossible to obtain a conviction because the law was very general in order to preserve some freedom of speech.

Research had led Ramsey to conclude that women are as disturbed by general images of women as by pornography, and not necessarily concerned by sexual explicitness except in the context of violence. The Industry Standards Council should review advertising in the context of women's input, she said, with the real issue being empowerment of women.

Kimberly O'Sullivan, editor of Wicked Women magazine, also spoke, describing herself as pro-pornography, anti-censorship and pro-sexual revolution. She spoke about the polarisation of the women's liberation movement around the question of sexuality and pornography, with one end of the spectrum seeing women's sexuality as a source of repression, and at the other end the position she held of women's sexuality as central to their liberation.

There had been a narrowing of the movement's concerns over the '80s, she said, concentrating on pornography and ignoring the root causes of women's oppression, which were economic, social and political.

O'Sullivan argued that women can't trust the state to decide what is "obscene", especially when all women needed pornography to develop and explore their sexuality, and lesbians especially, for whom there is limited sexual material available in a heterosexist world.

She referred to the "model censorship legislation" drafted by US feminists, which was adopted in the Canadian province of Ontario and had its initial use in a raid on Toronto's only gay and lesbian bookshop and culminated in the banning of a lesbian sex magazine. She finished stating that women's desire is a vital measure of our freedom and a vital part of our empowerment.

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