Snatched: Sex and Censorship in Australia

Helen Vnuk

Random House 2003
A book review by Danny Yee © 2004
Over the last few decades, censorship of films and publications in Australia has steadily tightened, not through changes to censorship laws but through changes in the guidelines and interpretations of the national Office of Film and Literature Classification (OFLC). In Snatched, Helen Vnuk describes some of the effects of this, in a series of chapters that could stand as independent essays but work well as a book.

She pays most attention to censorship of magazines — she has worked as editor of Australian Women's Forum — and adult videos, but also touches on films, music, books, and the Net. One omission is a full explanation of how the OFLC system works, though enough is explained in passing for the reader with no background knowledge of Australian censorship. There's also nothing at all about the sorry situation with computer game censorship, where any game deemed unsuitable for minors is also banned for adults.

The arbitrariness of censorship is clear from the treatment of sex magazines. They are forced to airbrush women's inner labia, giving a completely unnatural view of vaginas. They suffer stronger restrictions than other publications: they couldn't use the word "shagged" on front covers even when The Spy Who Shagged Me was screening in cinemas, while stories that are perfectly legal in women's romance novels are banned in sex magazines because of their juxtaposition of sex and violence. And what was once a ban on underage sex, with sixteen and seventeen year old models appearing in magazines, has become a total ban on even incidental appearances of minors or adults who look too young.

The adult video industry has seen the non-violent X category demonised by a few politicians and lobbyists and the guidelines tightened, most notably through a ban on "fetishes". Meanwhile, unclassified videos that break all the rules are openly sold in adult shops in Sydney. Vnuk also looks at four women for whom the adult film industry has been a positive career option. And she considers claims about the evils of pornography and its low quality: while some of it is exploitative, misogynistic, poorly produced, full of unhealthy values, and so forth, that's true of other media as well.

Vnuk touches on net censorship, looking at how it has affected women's sex sites, and on Mapplethorpe's Pictures, cartoons, and music lyrics. She concludes with the film Baise Moi, criticising those who only protest censorship when "art" is involved, and with some suggestions as to how the censorship system could be reformed.

Snatched is an entertaining and informative account of some of the problems with censorship in Australia. Vnuk is particularly concerned to counter feminist arguments for censorship, so it is especially recommended for those unsure about the relationship between freedom of expression and the empowerment of women.

June 2004

Related reviews:
- Peter Coleman - Obscenity, Blasphemy, Sedition: The Rise and Fall of Literary Censorship in Australia
- books about Australia + Australian history
- books about civil liberties
- books about sex
%T Snatched
%S Sex and Censorship in Australia
%A Vnuk, Helen
%I Random House
%D 2003
%O paperback
%G ISBN 1740510887
%P 254pp