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Posted by on Feb 23, 2013 in Aesthetics, Culture, In the news, Law | 3 comments

No gay sex, please – the excesses of film censorship

The Australian film censors have banned a movie entitled I Want Your Love, which apparently involves 36 hours in the life of a young gay man in the process of leaving San Francisco after ten years. From the description, this seems to be a psychologically realistic depiction of the emotional experience of an individual torn between conflicting desires. For what it may be worth, it doesn’t sound as if it meets ordinary standards for “pornography” in Western countries in the twenty-first century. I say “for what it may be worth” because it’s not at all obvious that that should even be the issue.

The problem for the censors, as far as I can work out, is that it contains explicit sex between gay men and – perhaps “worse” – its filming involved actual, rather than simulated, sex.

Getting an accurate understanding of this is going to be difficult in Australia, as we are not legally able to see the film, even at a film convention. However, this does not seem to be a case where, for example, there is glorification of rape or pedophilia or any sort of violence. People who favour censorship of quite specific kinds of pornographic movies should take note. Once the urge to censor erotic material exists at all, much of the material that is likely to be censored may be harmless or even artistically valuable. This is not to deny that it is possible to draft laws that are very narrowly tailored to deal with a particular social mischief – but if we’re going to do so, we had better be very clear about exactly what narrow categories we are trying to ban, and exactly why.

In this case, it seems almost inconceivable that, for example, the availability of this film would instil more callous attitudes to gay men, thus indirectly raising the level of violence against them. An argument like that might make sense if the movie were one celebrating gay bashing, for example, or even if it depicted gay sex in some demeaning way that might encourage ideas that gay men are disgusting or less than human. There would still be strong arguments about not going upstream and banning such movies (as opposed to going downstream and banning violence), but at least the argument would make some kind of sense. However, I am at a loss to see what rational argument could be put against public screening of I Want Your Love, if the descriptions are at all accurate.

As always, I am not totally against all censorship as a matter of principle applying to all conceivable circumstances. But censorship inevitably suppresses someone’s free expression, and if the justification is prevention of downstream harm there is always the question as to why less obtrusive means cannot be used. This can include prohibiting the actions that directly cause the harm (murder, rape, battery, etc., are already prohibited, of course), but it can also include many other things that the state can do with its enormous resources.

Through educational campaigns and the like, the state has great power to shape community attitudes. Indeed, the state has so much power to shape community attitudes that it is just as well we have freedom of speech to dissent and subvert the state’s messages. This may be unfortunate, in a way, when state officials and agencies are putting out good messages, as they often are, but they don’t always do this. We need the freedom to maintain pockets of dissent, even if some dissenting messages are ugly and wrong, or even nasty and cruel.

In all, I am not such an absolutist as to oppose all censorship at all times. But censorship is never something to take lightly. We should enter into it, if we do at all, only with very great care, backed up by compelling empirical data as to why it is needed in narrow classes of cases. When we see the abuses of censorship, we have every reason to call them out.

  • Ms. Naughty

    It’s precisely because it has non-violent, pleasureable sex that this film has been banned. If it had featured rape or sex in a negative setting it would have been fine – Baise Moi, Anatomy of Hell, Romance, Destricted… these were fine. The censors consider nasty depictions of sex to be “art”. But any actual sex, with *pleasure*… ban it. Ask Tony Comstock… his erotic documentaries were banned from festivals a few years ago, even as Destricted played across town.

    It’s 2013. The Classification Board is an anachronism. It is mind boggling that they should still have this kind of power – especially when now the average person can torrent this film and watch it for free in the comfort of their own loungerooms. The ALRC report made a bunch of decent recommendations about censorship reform and the report has subsequently disappeared from the agenda. No hope in sight, especially if Tony Abbot gets in. It’s depressing, truly it is.

  • RussellBlackford

    Yes, I’ve had some dealings with Tony Comstock and given him what little bit of support I could. This is not much, admittedly. But anyway, as far as I can see you are right that this sort of material (which is at least harmless, and in my opinion has positive value) seems to come in for especially bad treatment. It’s all kind of back to front, but that’s what we face.
    Sorry to analyse this in such a dry way- but someone has to do that job, I suppose. 🙂

  • I’m pretty sure Baise Moi was banned. It may be available now but upon initial release it was banned in at least a dozen countries, including Australia.
    The main reason was the “actual” vaginal penetration along with the close ups.
    I think it managed to get the pass in Germany by classing it as pornography.