What is sex vilification?

Pru Goward, the (thankfully) retiring Sex Discrimination Commissioner, has suggested that something she calls ‘sex vilification’ be outlawed. She

believes Australia needs sex vilification legislation to curb the proliferation of degrading and offensive images of women in the media and on television. “The one thing that unites a broad spectrum of women, from the very conservative to the very radical, is that they all hate sexual vilification, whether it is in advertising, TV or in magazines and newspapers. “And they all want something done about it,” she said.

But I am not sure that these ‘degrading’ images ‘ constitute anything like the racial vilification to which she compares them. The Victorian legislation on the subject states:

(1) A person must not, on the ground of the race of another person or class of persons, engage in conduct that incites hatred against, serious contempt for, or revulsion or severe ridicule of, that other person or class of persons.

But do any images of women incite hatred, contempt, revulsion or severe ridicule of women in general (a ‘class of persons’)? I think that’s unlikely. There are so many different images of women, from real life as well as the media, that at most we might form an image of ‘that other person’ – but even then, we probably would not, because we know that she is just being paid to do whatever ‘degrading’ thing she is depicted as doing. And if it is degrading of ‘that other person’, who do we charge, given that the ‘degraded’ person was in all probability willingly involved? Shouldn’t she, rather than Ms Goward, be the judge of whether she has been degraded or not?

And what about men? ‘As a man’ (to paraphrase the feminists) it would never occur to me that depicting ‘degrading’ scenes of other men was degrading to men generally. Perhaps Mark Latham’s ‘metrosexual knobs and toss bags’ are more sensitive, though I doubt it. Or maybe Latham would face Ms Goward’s vilification tribunal for his remarks?

The idea of sex vilification becomes even less plausible when we look at the examples given in The Age’s editorial:

while it is illegal to refuse to employ a woman purely on the grounds she is “a dumb blonde”, it is perfectly legal to display a billboard with a blonde bursting out of a bikini (or, for that matter, a a man bulging out of a loincloth: vilification goes both ways).

But images like this are not designed to incite hatred, contempt, revulsion or severe ridicule. They are designed to incite lust, or perhaps simple appreciation of physical beauty. The Age‘s views are closer to the Taliban’s notion that men cannot control their sexual desires and women must therefore be covered from head-to-toe than those of a once ‘progressive’ newspaper.

Goward’s claim turns more on the fact that she personally – and other women she claims to speak for – finds some images of other women offensive. But even the overkill racial and religious vilification law doesn’t give us a right not be to offended. That falls into a different area of the law – old-fashioned censorship. And John Howard is accused of wanting to take us back to the 1950s…