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…

5 thoughts on “What is sex vilification?

  1. This is really over the top. The price of living in a free society is having to put up with a lot of stuff that we personally deplore. Someone tell ms Goward to get over it.

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  2. Perhaps we could extend their ban to people, and lock away people like Paris Hilton (and the majority of 18 year olds that go clubbing every weekend) for being degrading to themselves.

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  3. It isn’t news that the liberal party have officially run out of ideas and are now recycling the Menzies years in close detail. We have equivalents of “Pig Iron Bob” in the AWB scandal, banning the Communists (chairman mao is alive and well and teaching your child!) and now the revival of censorship.

    We can look forward to early closing hours for pubs, forced foster care of aboriginal children and the death penalty, quickly followed by a non-partisan revival of the white australia policy (ably assisted by Beazley). Forget about being concerned about reds under the bed, for Ming the Merciless has been revived.

    Happily, this allows us to predict the future. The labor party will split along religious lines (thankyou Mr Rudd), the faltering adventure in Iraq will split the Liberal party, and we’ll get a demagogue Labor party prime minister that will set fire to the whole place so we can start again. That’ll be Keating with a triple bypass.

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  4. I’m not defending Goward here, but I’m trying to tie this in with a number of recent controversies on matters sexual in the public space.

    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 intended role of many of those images is to sell product: if you think this woman is sexy, perhaps you should go out and buy the product to which she is juxtaposed in the image. Anything else which may happen as a result of the image is beyond that intended role, but no less real or worthy of attention on the part of those with an input into government policy.

    There are certain moralistic/religious traditions which inspire people to redefine the feelings you described out of self-preservation. Lust is a sin, therefore if you are experiencing lust then you are sinful. Someone else has done something that make you sinful: there you were, innocently going about your business, when you were made to feel sinful. It must be that other party’s fault, as any admission of sin is an exercise in self-abnegation. Having thus projected, what sort of woman would allow herself to be photographed in that way, she must be a (despicable person, not at all like the virtuous women you know)! All women who parade themselves similarly must also be worthy of contempt.

    This line of logic may seem tendentious, but it is no less real for that. The consequences of it are felt daily by numerous people and therefore it becomes a valid matter of public policy. Valid, yes, but not easy.

    One reason why legislation on matters sexual is difficult is the notion that what looks like the same act can be one of love or of violence, depending entirely on the context of the situation and the individual characteristics of of those involved. There’s nothing more legally tricky than context.

    The other factor that makes it difficult is the notion of the particular against the general. One image, two images, many images will not motivate someone to commit a sexual crime. However, there may be a critical mass that sends certain people over the edge; try going after a member of a critical mass in a court of law and see how far you get.

    However, as I’ve said elsewhere: relax, nothing will come of it. Goward comes out with this sort of thing on slow news days and then goes back to writing dull-but-worthy reports on childcare access or women in senior management.

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  5. i agree with pru goward…its for the benefit o all the woman not only in the us but all over the world

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