Ban on Fetish Sex Depictions in Film Should End, Australia Government Report Recommends

Australia should remove its strict censorship of legal sex fetishes and some acts of violence in film, a government-commissioned report has recommended.

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The country has a national system of films and games classification that has been little changed since 1995 – the pre-internet, smartphone and streaming era – as well as differing systems in each of the country’s states.

The federal government this week released a report compiled by Neville Stevens in 2020, but not published for more than two years.

Federal communications minister Michelle Rowland said this week that the government would recommend to the states that video games with simulated gambling should attract at least R18+ and that certain types of video games should attract an M classification. (Australia has a problem of gambling addiction, especially related to poker machines or “pokies”.) She has not commented on the report’s other recommendations.

Australia has famously given outright bans (“refused classification” or “RC”) to films that include both sex and violence, even if the violence is not related to the sex. Several well-known art films have been banned due to this definition, including: Larry Clark’s “Ken Park,” Greg Araki’s “Mysterious Skin,” John Waters’ Pink Flamingos” and Bruce LaBruce’s “LA Zombie.” Australia also banned “Pirates,” a 2005 parody of “Pirates of the Caribbean,” on the same grounds.

Australia currently also considers as pornographic and refuses classification to films that include use of “school uniforms or other indicators of youth” and many forms of fetish activity. These it defines as involving: “[A]n object, an action, or a non-sexual part of the body which gives sexual gratification.  Mild fetishes include stylized domination and rubberwear.  Stronger fetishes include bondage and discipline.”

Fetish activities including “body piercing, application of substances such as candle wax, ‘golden showers’, bondage, spanking or fisting” are currently considered as pornographic and would result in the film being refused classification.

The Stevens report says: “For X 18+ films, I recommend that the absolute prohibitions on fetishes, which are not illegal, and violence (where it is unrelated to sex) should be removed.”

It also recommends the reduction of the scope of classification of sexually explicit films to only those films which are professionally-produced, directed at an Australian audience and distributed for commercial purposes. That might mean many amateur forms of pornography would no longer need to be classified.

“Departmental research into attitudes towards refused classification content shows that the community is unconcerned about depictions of most fetishes, as long as there is consent, and no serious harm is inflicted,” the review said. “Similarly, depictions of violence that are not directly linked to sexual activity do not appear to be of particular concern.”

Stevens said his proposed amendments “would reflect the evolution of classification from its historical origins in censorship and concerns for public morals to a more objective, harms-based system focused on informing consumers (particularly parents) and protecting children.”

“Adults should be able to read, hear, see and play what they want, with limited exception; minors should be protected from content likely to harm or disturb them; and everyone should be protected from exposure to content of serious concern to the wellbeing of the community,” Stevens said.

Commenting on the report, the Sydney Criminal Lawyers law firm said: “If adopted, these reforms will not stop the censorious state-based prohibitions on the sale of pornography, but they will mean that less material will be deemed “RC” under classification guides will be legally accessible to Australians if behind a restricted access system. Any reform to Australia’s classification guidelines will require cooperation and agreement from each state and territory and is likely to be a gradual process.”

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