Now You See It, Now You Don't


Last week, thousands of copies of the University of Sydney’s student newspaper Honi Soit were taken off the shelves to be guillotined because the cover was deemed by lawyers to be in violation of obscenity laws.

The crime? The cover featured 18 close-up images of the vulvas of University of Sydney students. The vulvas were supposed to be censored by printed black bars obscuring the "offending" parts (specifically, the labia majora/minora), but the ink failed to do its work. The impertinent body parts escaped their demure coverings to, it must be supposed, molest the unsuspecting eyes of innocent passers-by. Under the NSW Crimes Act 578C, it is an offence to publish unclassified material deemed "indecent". Honi Soit committed the grave offence of being offensive.

This event perhaps demonstrates the tenacious talent of the cunt – still the dirtiest word in the English language – to retain its power to shock (see Australian feminist Germaine Greer), horrify and solicit. I keep returning to the inadequacy of the censorial ink and the impertinence of the image that stubbornly makes itself seen as a visual allegory for the ambivalent positioning of the female genitals in Western culture. I’m referring here to the paradoxical status of the female genitals as unbearably public (from endless debates about G-spots and "the problem" of orgasm, to pubic hair maintenance), yet burdened by a privacy that wishes them to be tucked away, hidden from sight (expressed in genital shame as the fear that the other may find one’s genitals disgusting).

Since Freud, at least, the female genitals have been understood as both invisible and far too visible; they signify both the invisible depths of mystery (is there really a G-spot?) and the visible horror of castration (that’s where a penis should be!). Placed within the cultural politics of vision, the vagina is a quandary – to show or not to show is a decision that’s always laden with gendered baggage.

For instance, a second-wave feminist approach to porn may reveal that in mainstream heterosexual porn, visual representation of the female genitals is dependent upon the model of the castrated vagina as the place where a penis should be – literally. In the genre of porn directed toward a hegemonic version of hetero male fantasy, the vagina is nothing (or absent) without the presence of the phallus to bring the woman to orgasm.

On the other hand, obscenity law that bans pornographic images of the female body also elides female desire by the refusal to represent it at all. It also reduces opportunity for female pornographers to create porn by women, for women, in order to explore new and different ways of visually representing female sexuality. In this case, not showing is just as fraught as showing. Porn wars within feminism aside, I think legal controversies such as that sparked by the Honi Soit cover force us to see that the aims of porn and the aims of feminism can and do intersect with regard to challenging state censorship in the name of sexual autonomy.

Political scientist Kate Gleeson reminds us that Germaine Greer helped form the pornographic magazine Suck in 1969. Greer describes how she posed for the magazine, in spectacularly gymnastic style:

"I lay naked in his studio, with my feet pointing away from the camera, lifted my hips and rolled my legs over. There I was: anus, vagina and face".

Suck was established in Amsterdam due to its relaxed obscenity laws, unlike the UK. According to Mark Jones, Greer said at the time, "Our cause is sexual liberation. Our tactic the defiance of censorship." It was in this spirit that Greer invited readers to "send us a photograph of your own cunt, with your name labelled on".

Yet this is not the only historical precedent for the current kerfuffle over the Honi Soit cover. In 2001, Australian Women’s Forum magazine (now no longer in circulation) intended to provide pictorial representation of before-and-after shots of cosmetically altered vulvas as part of an editorial on genital cosmetic surgery. The Office of Film and Literature Classification forced the magazine to blank out the photos with the rationale that they displayed "too much genital detail" and that the images were "not suitable for six or seven-year-olds to see at newsagents".

This is the same rationale used by the Australian Classification Board to airbrush away the genitals of centrefold models in soft porn publications such as Picture, Playboy and Penthouse. Under Australian law, soft porn publications are only able to be classified as "unrestricted" – and therefore able to be sold to people under the age of 18 – if they are not deemed too explicit. As journalist Kirsten Drysdale has pointed out, "as far as the Classification Board is concerned, the labia minora are too rude for soft porn".

The Honi Soit cover can be seen as a contemporary continuation or revitalisation of the antics of earlier sexual revolutionaries like Germaine Greer. As the editor of Honi Soit explains, "The cover was meant to be an empowering message to women that they don’t need to be ashamed of their bodies". Honi Soit’s Facebook page also cites the purported rise in labiaplasty surgery as a worrying indicator of female genital shame in the contemporary context.

This now-you-see-it-now-you-don’t politics of obscenity is a coming to visibility, not just of the relationship between feminism and porn, but also of the conditions of censorship itself. With internet accessibility, the media environment is changing, making censorship seem so much more dependent upon viewing context and location. On the net, it’s possible to view any number of before-and-after pictures of cosmetically altered vulvas on the websites of cosmetic surgeons advertising their clinical expertise; yet the cover of a magazine aiming to challenge the sameness of hairless, post-surgical, post-airbrushed vulvas through attempting to show vulval diversity is removed from public view.

This perhaps tells us something rather concerning about what is suitable for the public to know, and what isn't – especially when it comes to the commercial interests of cosmetic surgeons who promote "labial hypertrophy" as a serious, yet solvable, female health problem.

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