Case study: Pornography

The Internet has radically changed the way society views pornography

One area where social and moral values have shifted in recent times is pornography. Like prostitution and sexual slavery, the demand for and production of pornography is as old as human civilisation itself. Pornographic artwork and figurines were created by the ancient Romans and have been uncovered at sites like Pompeii. The ancient Greeks depicted various forms of sexual activity on their urns and decanters. The famous Kama Sutra, which contains explicit advice and illustrations about sexual acts and positions, dates back to shortly after the birth of Christ. But while pornography itself is an ancient pursuit, laws against pornography are relatively new. In 1857 the parliament of Great Britain passed the Obscene Publications Act, outlawing the publication of various forms of “obscene” material. This legislation has been revised and updated several times

One instance where these obscenity laws were tested was in cases against the D. H. Lawrence novel, Lady Chatterley’s Lover. This book, written in 1928, tells the story of a young married woman who has a torrid sexual affair with a coarse and often foul-mouthed labourer. There are numerous explicit discussions about sexual acts and frequent usage of four-letter words that were considered unrepeatable in the mid-1900s. A revision of the Obscene Publications Act in 1959 saw Penguin Books prosecuted the following year for its publication of Lady Chatterley’s Lover. Calling a number of expert witnesses the defence argued that the book had literary merit and the jury returned a verdict of ‘not guilty’. It looked as though the new legislation reflected ‘old’ social values more than current ones. Lady Chatterley’s Lover was also banned in Australia, although copies were smuggled into the country and published underground.

The production, distribution and sale of hardcore pornography remain criminal offences in all six States of Australia. In Victoria, for example, the Classification (Publications, Films and Computer Games) Act (1995) provides penalties for those who deal in pornographic material. Section 15 of the Act allows for a fine in excess of $25,000 for an individual who sells a commercial quantity of X-rated films. Despite it being specifically outlawed in legislation, X-rated pornography is freely sold ‘over the counter’ in the sex shops of Sydney, Melbourne and other large cities. Prosecutions are uncommon and are usually only launched against those who import or sell hardcore pornography in large amounts. Ironically, the Australian Capital Territory has Australia’s most liberal laws relating to the commercial distribution of pornography. As of 2001, Canberra had 15 sex shops and 16 licensed brothels. Prior to the Internet age, Canberra stores selling X-rated videos and magazines were at the heart of a thriving mail-order business worth more than $50 million per annum.

The Internet has, of course, changed the playing field with regard to pornography. Erotic material is now widely available to anyone – including those not legally entitled to it, such as minors. This has created challenges for existing legislation pertaining to obscenity. Because the Internet has no ‘borders’, material created in one state or country can easily be transmitted or exported to another. This creates a problem with Internet jurisdictions: in other words, “where” is Internet material located or published and whose laws is it bound by. It has also flagged the redundancy of existing State legislation, as the sale of pornography in stores is gradually replaced by online sales. There is also the matter of whether the legislation still reflects community values and may be in need of liberalisation – and if it should remain as law if it is not going to be policed and enforced.

One of the few recent examples of Australian anti-porn laws being enforced occurred in mid-2009 when Victoria Police raided the offices of G-Media in Fitzroy. G-Media was the parent company and publisher of websites like Abby Winters and Beautiful Agony. These websites contained thousands of videos of women performing sexual acts, most of them filmed in Victoria. G-Media has been producing and publishing these pornographic videos since 2000, however, the law was only applied in 2009 following a media campaign and the submission to police of a dossier, compiled by a journalist from the Herald Sun. In January 2010 G-Media owner Garion Hall was charged with 54 counts of making objectionable films for gain. These charges were later dropped and replaced by charges against the company, forcing G-Media, Abby Winters and its other websites to relocate to the Netherlands.

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