‘Pornography’—the explicit representation of sexually arousing episodes—has no fixed, legal definition in Australia. Prior to the 1970s it was primarily understood to refer to print material, both written and photographic, although a Film Censorship Board was established by the Commonwealth in 1917, restricting the release of cinematic films deemed to contain obscene or politically seditious content. Displays of homosexuality, advice on contraception, Weird Science comics, and pulp crime fiction were all considered potentially obscene or pornographic, and could be seized and inspected by Customs or Postal authorities. In 1933, the Australian government established a Book (later Literature) Censorship Board, responsible for inspecting books which might have ‘a tendency to deprave and corrupt’ Australians. From 1954 the Queensland Literature Board of Review was active, notably banning Australian Consolidated Press’s popular magazine Weekend in 1956–57. Across Australia, texts policed on grounds of obscenity ranged from comic books to Playboy, however the censorship of literary texts such as Lady Chatterley’s Lover and Portnoy’s Complaint provoked the most public debate.
Protests (and test-cases) led by anti-censorship campaigners and libertarians gradually gained the support of sympathetic politicians, such as Senator Don Chipp. In 1969, Chipp, Minister for Customs and Excise in the Gorton Coalition government, greatly reduced restrictions on publications, introduced the R18+ category for cinema, and famously ‘un-banned’ Henry Miller’s The Tropic of Cancer. By the early 1970s, all states (except Queensland) had introduced regulatory systems that allowed some circulation of sexually explicit material. In the mid-1980s, the federal government introduced clearly defined film and video classification categories, partly in response to debates raised during an Australian visit by British morals campaigner, Mary Whitehouse.
The current classification rules apply to films, DVDs and computer games. Initially, R and X categories applied only to films and DVDs. However, the R18 category was extended to games in 2012. While both R and X categories can be considered pornographic, they differ in terms of content. R-rated films and DVDs may depict simulated sex, and high level violence and sexual violence, while X-rated films feature actual sex but must not include ‘violence, sexual violence, and sexualised violence or coercion’. X-rated material also excludes ‘demeaning’ language or activities, even where they are represented as consensual. The X category is applied to films and DVDs, with print and online publications classified according to separate guidelines. X-rated material can be openly sold in Australian federal territories (the Australian Capital Territory and the Northern Territory), but is not legal for sale in the states.
Pornographic magazines (such as Playboy) are classified as Category One (equivalent to R-rated) and sold in sealed packaging to over-18s in most states, while Category Two (equivalent to X-rated) cannot legally be sold in Queensland. This Category Two material is more explicit, may depict sexual activity in detail, and most states and territories restrict it for sale in sex shops only. Western Australia also requires retailers selling Category Two publications to register with the WA Censorship Office.
Online material is regulated by the Australian Communications and Media Authority. While much porn, including home-made porn, has not been classified by the Australian Classification Board (formerly the Office of Film and Literature Classification), where it has been classified, two prohibitions apply: firstly, content which is classified R 18+ and not subject to a restricted access system that protects children; and secondly, any online content (originating from a website hosted in Australia) that is classified as Refused Classification (RC) or X 18+. This includes real depictions of actual sexual activity, child pornography, depictions of bestiality, material containing excessive violence or sexual violence, detailed instruction in crime, violence or drug use, and material that advocates carrying out a terrorist act. Classifications are based on criteria outlined in the Classification (Publications, Films and Computer Games) Act 1995, the Guidelines for the Classification of Films and Computer Games (2005) and the National Classification Code.
Online material that would be classified R 18+ and X 18+ can be legally viewed on domains hosted outside of Australia. In 2009, the Minister for Communications, Senator Stephen Conroy, announced the Rudd Labor government’s intention to impose a mandatory internet filtering system on all Australian internet service providers. Following controversy regarding the contents of the ‘blacklisted’ RC category, the proposal did not gain sufficient support to be approved as legislation.
In the late 1990s, the Eros Foundation, lobbyist for the adult entertainment industry, proposed that the X category be abolished, and replaced with a new category, Non-Violent Erotica (NVE). In the initial stages of negotiations with the Howard Coalition government (whose election campaigning had included a promise to abolish the X category), it was agreed that certain ‘offensive’ material would be expunged from the X category in order to ensure it was truly ‘non-violent’. The new category would then be made more widely available across the states. While the proposal was initially supported by all political parties, National Party MPs revoked their support following extensive lobbying, and a film screening by Tasmanian Senator Brian Harradine, who opposed the application of the term ‘erotica’ to sexually explicit films. The NVE category did not eventuate.
All sexual activity in R- and X-rated films must involve ‘consenting adults’, which means participants must be over the age of 18. Although the age of consent in Australia is 16, any sexual images of people under 18 are legally prohibited as ‘child pornography’ and are refused classification. This includes amateur images produced by young people themselves, including phone ‘sexting’. Those under 18 prosecuted for sexting may currently be listed on the Sex Offender Register alongside adult perpetrators of child sexual assault. This legal anomaly in Australia has provoked a number of concerned people and organisations to call for law reform, and also prompted an inquiry by the Victorian Coalition government in 2011.
Due to intensive regulation of the production and distribution of sexually explicit material in Australia, very few long-form pornographic films are produced here. Additionally, since the mid-1990s, it has been illegal for Australian websites (with a com.au domain) to host material that would attract an R, X or RC classification. Even with these restrictions, Australians produce and distribute a wide range of sexually suggestive and sexually explicit materials, from ‘soft-core’ men’s magazines to highly explicit ‘amateur’ (or semi-professional) pornographic photosets and digital films.
The regulation of pornography in Australia has relied heavily on the ‘old media’ boundaries, particular that of geography. Although X-rated material has only been legally available by mail-order outside of the Northern Territory and the Australian Capital Territory, it is frequently sold under the counter in ‘restricted premises’ or sex shops. The presence of signage, surveillance by shop assistants, and the cost of purchasing pornography have been considered sufficient to deter under-age shoppers.
Since the mid-1990s, there has been increasing concern that online and mobile and portable media have removed the physical boundaries designed to prevent children and young people from accessing pornography. This concern is twofold: that some young people may accidentally stumble on material they find frightening or disturbing, while others will deliberately seek out such explicit texts and images. These concerns draw on notions of media effects that exposure to pornography may contribute to sexist and misogynistic attitudes, and encourage callous and violent sexual behaviour, particularly in young men.
In 2001, Alan McKee, Kath Albury and Catharine Lumby undertook a four-year, Australian Research Council-funded study, ‘Understanding Pornography in Australia’. They argue that the media effects model is problematic, and that many viewers of pornography report positive benefits in relationships, including a better understanding of sex and improved communication with their partner. These researchers also found that consumers of all ages (including those aged over 60) reported first viewing pornography prior to the age of 16. Published in 2008 as The Porn Report, this is Australia’s largest study of pornography. It includes a content analysis of 50 top-selling X-rated DVDs, an audience study of porn consumers, and findings from a qualitative study of Australian amateur and cottage industry producers and distributors of pornography. The study also discusses children’s safety in online environments.
In early 2011, the federal Labor Attorney-General, Robert McClelland, directed the Australian Law Reform Commission (ALRC) to undertake an inquiry into the National Classification Scheme. The ALRC’s 2011 discussion paper recommended that all material that would be likely to receive an X-rating should continue to be classified (including print publications, which are currently classified as Category One or Category Two rather than R or X), but left open the question of whether the material should be classified by the Classification Board, or by a panel of industry representatives. Critics argued that this recommendation didn’t appropriately address the question of distribution, as it disregards the disparity between state laws (which ban the sale of X-rated material), and federal laws that permit it. The ALRC’s Final Report, tabled in March 2012, recommended that the board remain in place, but that a Classification of Media Content Act should allow for an element of industry self-regulation, under an ‘authorised classification system’, yet to be determined.
REFs: K. Albury, ‘Pornography’, in G. Hawkes and J.
Scott (eds), Perspectives in Human Sexuality (2005); ALRC, Classification—Content Regulation and Convergent Media Summary Report (2012); N. Moore,
The Censor’s Library (2012); B. Sullivan, The Politics of Sex (1997).