With the Visa application of controversial rap star Eminem dominating recent news, the topic of censorship and freedom of expression has been on the tips of everybody’s lips of late. Crikey sent its very own under-the-covers sleuth, Neal Woolrich, along to Sexpo 2001 in Sin City to get the adult industry’s views on this most contentious of topics.

The “health and lifestyle” focus gives the event something of an air of respectability and helps portray the adult industry in a better light than the seedy rub-and-tug shop image that the vocal wowser groups perpetually denounce. While there are plenty of “health and lifestyle” displays at Sexpo that are not concerned with the sideways samba, let us not be under any illusions – it’s the “sex” in “Sexpo” that keeps the turnstiles clicking over.

Despite the lip service paid to health and lifestyle issues, as soon as you enter the arena and are confronted with dozens of inflatable dolls hanging from the rafters, you know that the national pastime is what this event is all about. The first stand upon entering Sexpo is to promote “Bombshells”, a troop who calls themselves “strippers for all occasions”. Perfect for your next Bah Mitzvah, funeral, or Country Women’s Association tupperware party, no doubt.

The range of sex- and lifestyle-related novelty products on display was a testament to the power of the market economy. The imagination and creativity of the people who dream up these treasures is staggering. There were novelty bongs in the form of Bart Simpson, aliens, wizards and mini Jack Daniels bottles, edible jelly penises, “Peter butter”, tee shirts with imitation logos such as Vaginamite, Juicy Root, and Hard Cock Cafe51 and “sexy golf tees” in the shape a curvaceous pair of legs – “for real swingers”.

On stage, the swelling crowd (no pun intended – oh, bugger it, of course the pun was intended) was entertained by Penthouse Pet Brie Maddox. While Brie was doing her thing on the stage, two guys dressed up in oversized rubber suits were mingling with the masses. One of the suits was known as “Peni-saurus”, a seven-foot outfit which looked like, well, a seven foot trouser python. It certainly leaves the green Crikey foam suit for dead. The other suit was a caricature of Sexpo’s favourite swinging Senator, Brian Harradine. At one stage the Senator went a double-handed “gravy stroke” on Peni-saurus – thankfully for those nearby, Peni-saurus didn’t make what those in the industry call the “money shot”.

Brie tried to get some noise from the crowd, but unfortunately a strip show at midday in front of a sober audience in a well lit venue just doesn’t encourage audience participation as much as your Kings Cross club filled with inebriated Buck’s night yobbos. Certain elements of the crowd were visibly disappointed when Brie finished her strip without having even shown the “shaven haven”! Brie then started throwing copies of Penthouse out to the crowd, tastefully described as a “Jew jump” by the obligatory Cockney MC.

As far as the demographics of the crowd itself, it was probably a shade more respectable than your typical strip-club crowd (from what this hack has been told). The number of females in attendance was somewhat surprising, although Sexpo does boast that some 40% of its crowds are female. Certainly there was the odd “not quite right” specimen there, along with plenty of mullets, biker types (both genuine bikies and those aspiring to a Village People bikie look), lecherous old geezers, and one studious hack dutifully taking notes and making observations of proceedings purely for academic purposes.

There were body piercings available, “pussy and willy waxing” for those who wanted to keep it trim downstairs and at the Penthouse stand, patrons could buy an autographed magazine or have a Polaroid taken with a Pet called “Venice” for $10 a pop. There was no shortage of punters willing to part with their hard-earned. At the “Lick My Gelato” stand, the sounds of a woman in the throes of passion emanated from the speakers at considerable volume. What sex has to do with Gelato is beyond this correspondent, but it was certainly a departure from the chimes of “Greensleeves” from the Mr Whippy van.

The only political party with any presence was the Democrats. Plenty of glossy brochures were on offer featuring Natasha prominently but the young lad at the stand seemed more interested in checking out the male stripper – not that there’s anything wrong with that – than selling the sex-friendly virtues of the Dems.

Censorship

But the real interest for the thinking pornography aficionado – and the only reason why this humble correspondent agreed to cover the event for Crikey – is in getting the Government out of the bedroom. The Sexpo website has a petition where outraged readers can send an email to express their objection to the fetters being imposed on their freedom:

Some members of the National Party, lead by Senator Harradine, are trying to stop adult Australians from buying adult erotic videos under the nationally accepted title ‘Non Violent Erotica’

WE NEED YOUR HELP Otherwise a small group of politicians will once again remove another freedom. This is nothing short of a backdoor method of banning erotic videos!

All you need to do is send the following email message. This will only take 30 seconds of your time to help stop this stupidity!

While some members of the National Party might object to NVE, Brian Harradine certainly is not one of them! And what a delicious twist that the porn industry should complain about being stifled by “backdoor methods”!

But the real political momentum in liberating Australia’s censorship laws is being generated by the adult industry’s peak lobby group, the Eros Foundation. Eros claims that more than two-million Australians support the adult industry, generating billions of dollars through mail-order videos and websites.

John Davey, CEO of Eros, gave his take on the background of the industry to Crikey:

“The adult industry for a long time has been a victim of right wing campaigners. The industry really took its proper commercial format in the 80s when videos arrived. Lionel Bowen made an announcement that they were going to be banned. Fred Nile went around the country with Mary Whitehouse at the time. They found, because it was a completely unregulated market, some dodgy materials and child porn. Four Corners did an expose and within 18 months all states and territories had banned X-rated videos, except in the ACT where there was a minority Government and the party that had the balance of power refused to agree to it. What they did in the ACT was impose a 40% tax on it, that tax was then challenged in the High Court by the industry and they won. We then inherited the classification system that we have now. This is why the only lawful place you can buy X-rated videos is in the ACT, or by mail order from the ACT. That notwithstanding, 95% of all X-rated videos are sold illegally in Australia and consumption is going up because consumers are feeling more comfortable and women are feeling more comfortable about going into adult stores and buying this stuff.”

Being a law-abiding citizen, your humble correspondent naturally cleared out his extensive video library when he found out that it was all purchased illegally at the Oxford Street “Tool Shed”.

One of Eros’ main objectives is to remove the inconsistencies in Australia’s censorship laws. “We need sensible law reform in the area of classification”, Davey noted. “In fact, we don’t have a national classification system about anything except videos. So you might see something that’s an X-rated image in a magazine and buy it in NSW but the moving version of it is illegal. There’s no logic to that, especially when the magazine is much more public than the video tape, 05The logic has gone out of it and that is because the classification system we have inherited is by and large the result of political compromise, debates and High Court decisions, so there has been no logical, coherent decision. It’s about to fall into disrepair and for the traders it is at breaking point.”

Davey was clear to point out that Eros’ aims are to promote the “respectable” side of the industry and remove any perception that the adult industry is about child pornography and victimisation. “There are two levels of illegality. The retail counter is illegal except in the ACT, so the same tape that you can buy through mail order, you can’t buy over the counter – we don’t think there’s much logic in that. The other stuff which we think is rightly illegal is the stuff which I describe as “victim-involving”; certainly child pornography and anything which would involve any illegal activity. And I think the benchmark which should be used for the legislation is if it is lawful for you to do in the bedroom, 05it should be lawful for you to watch it. Unfortunately we disagree with the Office of Film and Literature Classification on this – they think the categories should take into account community standards. To have a workable system you have to have some bearing with the average Australian sex-life – or even the not-so-average Australian sex life!”

“The traders here and the Eros foundation are not into the illegal stuff. Number one, there’s not much of a market for the illegal stuff which involves victims. Number two, they’ve got families and they personally don’t feel comfortable with that stuff. Number three, there is enough market demand for mainstream erotica to make quite a lot of money.”

While Eros on the one hand points to the OFLC as being out of touch with community standards, the OFLC’s role is to apply the standards imposed by Parliament and therefore their function is limited by the guidelines that are set by the Parliament.

Davey expanded on the changing nature of the pressure being applied by adult industries to lobby the law-makers: “If I could generalise the last ten years of the adult industry, it’s been a defensive posture. Most of the people in the industry are business people whose interest in politics is limited to the fact that politics interferes with their business. Senator Alston might make an announcement that the Government will outlaw online adult erotica, so the industry is back in a position where they have to defend their businesses.”

“The strategy can be that we’ll sit here like sitting ducks, or we can be more pro-active in the political process. So one of the things that we initiated was the voter registration process where we’re trying to get critical mass across all of the marginal seats – and critical mass is basically, in my estimation, four times the people it will take to change the seat. We’re using essentially the adult industry’s outlets, shops or mail order outlets, sending information telling people that we will survey the candidates at the next election. The Eros Board will make a determination and that will be the preference allocation. They’ll be taking into consideration individual candidates’ views, they’ll be taking into consideration the positions of the parties involved, and the activities of the parties in the last 12 months. So those sorts of things will be quantified and handed to the Board to make their decision. We will hopefully be involved in negotiations with the political parties and depending on the outcomes we can achieve for the industry will determine whether we hand out how-to-vote cards or not. We’ll support those candidates who are supportive of the industry and those who aren’t will be down the bottom of the card.”

The practical problem that Eros must overcome in its lobbying is that, while the adult industry may have numerous supporters, few would publicly propel the cause. “One of the reasons this industry exists is because of the tenacity to ensure that people’s privacy is protected – in fact that’s one of the core values of the Eros Foundation”, Davey said. “It’s taken a long time where we can guarantee that. We make it very clear when we write to the consumers that we’re doing this to protect people’s privacy and if you don’t want us to write to you again, please tell us. Anyone who fills one of these cards doesn’t get junk mail from us. If they give us their email address, they’ll get our how-to-vote card via email. We’ve got an integrity system so that we don’t have people signing up multiple times for the how-to-vote card. For an industry that’s fighting for its survival we believe we have a huge support base in the Australian community. But people who enjoy erotica and enjoy sex do it on a personal basis, not a political basis. The challenge for us is to try and get people activated around the issues because I have no doubt that there are politicians out there who would, if they could, close us down. And that’s what we’re fighting for.”

Another problem facing the adult industry is that law reform in the industry is often promised as a means of obtaining political leverage in other areas, such as Senator Alston’s promise of a pornography clamp-down in return for Senator Harradine’s vote on the sale of Telstra. Davey notes that “one of the reasons they’ve been able to do that is because they’ve demonised the industry. In an Australian democracy, there should be a very clear principle of live and let live.”

With the Coalition Government likely to need to battle tooth and nail to retain key marginal seats, Eros is perhaps best placed in recent history to obtain support from the conservative side of politics. Davey notes that “the Labor Party has essentially been very supportive of the industry but every now and then we have a debate in the Senate and Labor is not quite there.”

The challenge for Eros will be whether it can mobilise its significant constituency in the forthcoming election and for the first time put the liberalisation of censorship onto the mainstream political agenda. With John Howard doing back-flips on all manner of policy areas recently to shore up his precarious political position, we wonder if he will be willing to accommodate the adult industry at this year’s Federal election. The old adage of “politics makes for strange bedfellows” might never ring truer than if Honest John and Eros hop into the sack together!

Peter Fray

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