‘Refused Classification’ – a classification black hole

What does “Refused Classification” mean? If you’ve listened to Senator Stephen Conroy, you could be forgiven for thinking that it only includes child sex abuse, rape and bestiality. And it does include such material but it is far broader than that. “Refused Classification” is a classification black hole that is unique to Australia.

In most countries, there is illegal material and there is legal material. It is the job of law enforcement to deal with the former, and the classification system’s job to inform on the impact of the latter. With Refused Classification, Australia has a category that is not illegal, but the government would prefer that we thought it was. The reality is that the Classification Board only ever looks at legally produced material. Rape and child abuse is abhorrent throughout the civilised world; people who document such clearly illegal material do not submit it for rating.

The point of classification is to allow adults to make informed decisions about what material they wish to be exposed to. Indeed, the first principle of the Classification Code is that “adults should be able to read, hear and see what they want”.

Senator Conroy is apparently unfamiliar with the system. This is perhaps understandable, it isn’t his portfolio. However, that isn’t an excuse to mislead the public. In a recent media release the Senator said:

In Australia, the National Classication Board (NCB) determines the National Classification Schemes Guidelines, at arms length from Government, which defines Refused Classification content. The NCB reviews those Guidelines periodically to ensure they reflect community standards.

It was pointed out to him that this was factually incorrect, and the media release was changed (but that didn’t stop him making similar claims, weeks later, on the ABC’s Hungry Beast).

The reality is, the government writes the code and guidelines. The definition of Refused Classification is laid out in the National Classification Code.

Guidelines are provided for publications and films and computer games. Over the last two decades, the government has moved to increasingly tighten censorship, pushing more and more material into the Refused Classification category. And, while it is true that the Classification Board is independent in making its decisions, the government took direct control over even this process as part of its draconian anti-terrorism legislation.

Government ministers have also been known to intervene if the Classification Board rates in a manner they do not approve of. Such was the case with The Peaceful Pill Handbook, which was first classified as a Restricted Class 1 publication in 2006 before then Attorney-General, Phillip Ruddock, appealed. Similar stories exist for films. The movie Salo was originally banned, before being granted an R18 rating. However, Senator Julian McGauran objected, and in 1998 the film was once again Refused Classification. These are but two of numerous examples.

The classification system can also be described as an instrument to suppress women and sexual minorities. While mainstream male-gaze pornography, albeit often with heavy edits, is granted an X18+ rating, much pornography focusing on female pleasure is considered fetish and thus banned. A double standard seems indeed to apply in distinguishing between male and female bodily fluids.

Australian Women’s Forum attempted to publish an article in 2001 about unnecessary genital cosmetic surgery, but the publication was banned because Australians cannot see images of the labia, such as in before and after pictures. It came out in the media reporting of this that to appease the board, many publishers routinely alter images to make women’s genitals appear less realistic. The Board recently admitted that breast size is one of the context points it uses to determine if an adult, with FBI certified identification, “appears” to be under 18. Taken together, it is easy to see why pornography in Australia can give rise to a warped perception of what is normal among female bodies.

Other pornography aimed at sexual minorities is Refused Classification because the consensual acts they portray are considered sexual fetish or fantasy. This is disappointing in our society, where we aren’t supposed to discriminate based on gender or sexual identity. It also means there is a peculiar situation where it is legal to engage in acts but documenting them is banned.

The Classification Board itself is not representative of the wider community. Appointments to the board, particularly the Review Board, have become politicised. The Labor Party heavily criticised the Howard government for the close ties many of its appointees had to the Liberal Party. Additionally, a recent court decision means material need only be offensive to a vocal minority to be banned. The upshot of all this, is that the Board is far more conservative than the community.

It is long past time that these aberrations were abolished. In a free society, government has no business banning confronting material. None of it should ever be forced on the unwilling, but adults who wish to explore are not endangering themselves or others. Australia is not demonstratively better for banning this sort of material than countries that do not ban it. There is no evidence that banning this material is protecting the public interest. The government’s maintenance of a Refused Classification system is essentially saying that we’re a mentally feeble lot here in Australia, and need constant government hand-holding.

Originally posted Online Opinion on 2010-03-11

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