A photographic exhibition of women’s vulvae at the Sydney Fringe’s Fringe Arts Forum was last week forced to censor its work over concerns it could offend the public.
The 101 Vagina Book Exhibition – aiming to break taboos around body image and challenge the belief there are ideals women should conform to – was told to cover parts of its images if it wanted to continue exhibiting at the Italian Forum.
“The gallery management said they wanted the venue to be family friendly,” said author of 101 Vagina, Philip Werner. “I think that’s a whole other discussion whether or not it’s an issue for children to see images of the naked body, which are obviously not pornographic.
“Several parents came in with their children to the exhibition in Redfern – one woman said how happy she was to bring her three-year-old daughter along so that she can start to get a positive message about her body.”
Last month, University of Sydney newspaper Honi Soit published a front cover featuring 18 vulvae in efforts to emphasise the female body in a manner not usually seen in the press and display to students what a vulva looks like before digital alteration.
However, hundreds of copies were eventually trashed over fears it would breach Section 578C of the NSW Crimes Act.
Honi Soit Editor Mariana Podesta-Diverio said: “We were driven by the fact that we wanted to present the female body in a way outside of the dichotomy in which it can’t exist, which is either hyper sexualised in pornography or otherwise stigmatised somehow.”
The issue of vagina censorship has been debated for a number of years following claims that un-sexualised images of women’s genitalia must be censored while a man’s can be shown unedited under the ‘Unrestricted’ classification of the National Classification Code.
Under the Unrestricted classification, a publication needs to ensure that “realistic depictions of sexualised nudity should not be high in impact” and that “realistic depictions may contain discreet genital detail but there should be no genital emphasis”.
“When there is nudity in magazines, they can’t show any protruding labia because somehow that’s considered to be more pornographic or explicit than when it’s not shown,” said Mr Werner.
“So they’re editing all these normal vaginas – now there is an image out there that ‘innies’ are more common and more beautiful and more normal – even though that is not true,” he said.
A magazine or newspaper seeking to publish an unedited vulva must first obtain classification from the Australian Classification Board (ACB) at a starting cost of around $400.
If the board deems an image unsuitable for Unrestricted classification, it may be classified ‘Category 1 Restricted’ or ‘Category 2 Restricted’, which would make it unsuitable for minors and require it to be distributed in a sealed wrapper.
The ACB highlighted the fact that it does not request publishers to edit their images.
Ms Lesley O’Brien, Director of the Classification Board said: “The board classifies the material that is submitted to it – it does not request edits, changes or modifications, or direct a publisher to alter images. It is up to a publisher to determine if they wish to digitally alter any images.”
It has been argued that the issue of vagina censorship has been heightened in recent years due to the fact that more women are choosing to shave.
“The shaving of pubic hair has become so common,” said Mr Werner. “In the past you couldn’t really see much – you wouldn’t really see whether the labia was protruding or not. Whereas nowadays, because everyone’s shaving, the genitalia are much more exposed.”
Ms Podesta-Diverio highlighted the connection between edited hairless vulvae and increases in concerns over body image.
“I think there’s a direct correlation between the presentation of hairless vulva and labia in pornography and people thinking that their vulvas aren’t normal,” she said.