The blurred line between art and pornography came into focus again this week, when an attempt to censor 18 individual images of vaginas failed to properly conceal the vulva, fueling the debate about body image, censorship and the normalisation of pornography.
The University of Sydney student newspaper, Honi Soit made headlines when thousands of printed copies had to be pulled from stands on campus because 18 individual images of vaginas appearing on the front cover, were considered too graphic for public display. As required by law, Honi Soit attempted to censor the images by placing black bars over the vulva. It was only after the newspapers were printed and placed on news stands, the editors say they became aware the black bars were transparent and concealed nothing.
When news of the printing error broke online, editors of Honi Soit and some of the 18 women who participated in the photo shoot, came forward to explain and defend their actions.
Commenting on The Guardian website, editors from Honi Soit 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. This cover is intended to reassure other women”.
I think the point the students were trying to make is that the images you see online and in men’s magazines, are airbrushed to remove the ‘imperfections’ of the vulva. Unlike previous generations, today’s young adults are exposed to a lot of pornographic images. Now there is an entire generation of young women experiencing “vagina anxiety” because their vulva doesn’t look like others they’ve seen.
The editors of Honi Soit also said: “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 is naive to think genitals are, as one of the participants put it, “just another body part”. And thank heavens for that! Would you really want your boyfriend or male partner to view your vagina as “just another body part”? I wouldn’t. The last thing I would want to see when I get naked is a ho-hum expression on his face. I would want him to be excited, to be sexually aroused. Isn’t that the point?
Images of male and female genitalia are viewed as sexual because they ARE sexual. Our primitive brains are hard-wired to ensure the survival of the species and if we’re honest, most of us find it incredibly difficult to place sex organs in any other context. You can’t separate genitals and sex. The very survival of the species depends on it and so too, does the porn industry.
“How often do you see an ungroomed vulva in an advertisement, a sex scene, or in a porno? Depictions of female genitalia in culture provide unrealistic images that most women are unable to live up to,” said the editors of Honi Soit. “How can society both refuse to look at our body part, call it offensive, and then demand it look a certain way?”
First of all, the only place you’re likely to see a vulva pictured in an advertisement is on the internet, where the porn industry is able to operate in a largely unregulated environment. Remove regulation and this is what you get.
Secondly, the porn industry does not represent ‘society’. The porn industry has always been, and probably always will be, at add odds with mainstream society and the community standards that under-pin our censorship laws. It seems to me the students real battle isn’t with society, but rather, with the porn industry. So here’s a tip. If you really are tired of feeling bad about your genitals, STOP CONSUMING PORN!
Some, including the Australian Greens, are using the issues raised by Honi Soit as an opportunity to call for a review of Australia’s censorship laws.
In a statement released to the media, the Greens said: “The fact that the Students Representative Council’s legal advice was that the publication could be ‘indecent’ or ‘obscene’ and likely to cause offence to a ‘reasonable adult’ highlights that Australian laws continue to threaten intellectual freedom. While Australian laws are used to suggest that there is something offensive about the body of a woman, actions like that taken by Honi Soit will be needed.”
The truth is that it’s not just women’s bodies that are censored. Graphic images of male genitals are also subject to censorship.
When we talk about censorship in western cultures, most of the time, what we’re really talking about is giving our citizens the freedom to create, distribute and consume graphic images of sex and violence. While it is true a picture is worth a thousand words, most of the time, these graphic images are saying too much.
While I can appreciate what the students were trying to do, the images published by Honi Soit are gratuitous. The students could have made their point just as well without the use of graphic images. Even in the digital age, words still have power.