The editors of Honi Soit, Sydney University’s student paper, recently ran a front cover featuring photographs of 18 vulvas. Each of the vulvas belongs to a different Sydney University student, all of whom volunteered.
Shortly before publication, the editors were warned that, were they to print and distribute the paper, they would likely be guilty of publishing “indecent material”, an offence under NSW criminal law. They were ordered to censor the “indecent” images by printing a black bar over each photograph.
However, this proved an insufficient safeguard for decency. The humble black bar failed to obscure enough of each vulva. All 4,000 copies of the paper were quickly pulled from distribution and locked away until they could have their front covers guillotined off.
The editors report that some 200 papers were put to the guillotine before a compromise was reached with lawyers acting for the Students Representative Council. The paper was returned to circulation in sealed plastic packets and labelled with a R 18+ rating, the same restrictions that apply to the distribution of pornography. Mariana Podesta-Diverio, one of the editors of Honi Soit, here explains why they chose to publish:
The events surrounding last week’s Vagina Soit controversy serve as a reminder that sexism is rife in contemporary society; women’s bodies are still looked upon with contempt and scrutiny. Although the intent of the editors (the project was driven autonomously by the female editors) was to publish the vulvas without censoring them, the possible legal repercussions of publishing – God forbid – a body part belonging to half of the population forced us to put bars over the vulvas.
The project’s participants were accused of being everything from “bourgeois individualists” to “privileged little white fucker(s)”. Neither of these accusations is true.
Women’s oppression is often an intersectional issue – meaning that their oppression is compounded by racial and economic inequalities. The “privileged little white fucker(s)” line particularly stung me, as I am a Hispanic woman with working class roots and was one of the subjects on the cover.
The reaction to Honi Soit’s publication of censored vulvas elicited the usual diatribe of sexist reactions from conservatives (“You clowns just let the champ know when you’re doing a male genitalia cover”; “men’s bodies are stigmatised, too!”). Of course, the intent of the cover was not to depict genitalia in an attempt to sensationalise or sexualise the female body. In fact, that was the very point that we were trying to make – most of the time when we see vulvas, they’re either in a highly sexualised context or they are being scrutinised to fit into socially constructed ideals of beauty, which are omnipotent in a capitalist society where women’s unpaid labour is routinely exploited.
Hopefully Vagina Soit has at least made a dent in the sexist status quo of our society. The fight for the liberation of all oppressed social groups, however, is far from over.