18 women not fit for print

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Why we put vaginas on the cover

An editor of Sydney University's student publication explains the reasons for putting female genitalia on the cover and why the issue had to be scrapped.

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Eighteen women are crammed into Sydney University's Women's Room. They wait anxiously for the photographer to arrive. Most don't know each other, but they are about to be united in an unusual way. They start to talk, light-heartedly at first, but increasingly earnestly, about their vaginas.

"I have no idea what mine looks like – I haven't got the mirror out in years," confesses one.

"I don't want to feel ashamed," says another.

Nicholson Museum, Main Quadrangle, Sydney University.

Nicholson Museum, Main Quadrangle, Sydney University. Photo: Oliver Strewe

Someone makes an easy joke about how annoying periods are, everyone chuckles, and the camaraderie grows. By the time the photographer arrives, they're ready for their close-ups.

The vulvae of these 18 women now sit proudly on the cover of this week's edition of Honi Soit, Sydney Uni's weekly student newspaper. Or rather they did until lawyers for the Students Representative Council advised the SRC president (who bears ultimate liability for what Honi publishes) to take all 4,000 copies off the stands and guillotine the cover.

The reason? The black bars which we were made to use to hide the "offensive" parts and avoid prosecution came back from the printers ever so slightly transparent.

The idea was born soon after we were elected as the 2013 Honi editors. Honi has a proud history of radicalism. Because of its student audience and the fact that it is published by a student-run organisation, it is uniquely placed to run interesting, edgy material. We wanted to use this opportunity to do something positive for women. We weren't aware it could be a criminal conspiracy.

The photography and design certainly didn't feel criminal. The women involved only felt a little freer. Afterwards, most admitted they had self-consciously worried about their pubic hair and the size of their labia. A few confessed that they had done a little extra "landscaping" in preparation. Women who knew that they should feel comfortable the way they were naturally, but somehow couldn't walked away a little more relaxed.

Indeed the cover’s purpose was to help women relax. By presenting 18 incredibly different vulvae, we hoped to demonstrate to our (young) women audience that their own vaginas were normal, that they needn't worry that they were ugly. We also wanted to say that women need not always be sexual, to be on display for men. These were not the bare, tucked-in vulvae of pornography, but the full gamut of ordinary women.

Covering those images and then seizing all printed copies from the public eye because of a fear that the images were criminally "indecent" perversely reinforced everything we were fighting. Acted out in this way, the law told women that their bodies were offensive and that they had to hide.

It's disappointing that the law operates to prevent students at a liberal university from seeing pictures of genitals, but this isn't just about censorship.

A number of people have pointed out that we would have encountered similar problems had we tried to publish a cover full of penises. Our society does have difficulty looking at genitalia, both male and female, and a #penissoit would have probably proved that just as well as #vaginasoit (although Honi did print a penis on the cover in a 1993 edition, with no legal consequences).

However, the fear that our cover was indecent was inflamed by the fact that it displayed female genitals.

Vaginas are hidden, only ever seen in a sexual light. Due to plain anatomy, women rarely see their own bodies. To do so they must go to the effort of locating a mirror and actively looking. And because they're hidden, pornography has a monopoly on creating cultural norms of what an attractive vagina might look like, leading to worrying trends of hairlessness and labiaplasty.

And the penis? Dick jokes are common. Penis graffiti is everywhere. Men are free to adopt their penis as an emblem of their masculinity (see Robin Thicke’s Blurred Lines video clip, which proclaims that “ROBIN THICKE HAS A BIG DICK”).

I suspect that if our cover had featured male genitals instead of female, nobody would have described it, as one male student did, as "pornographic", a "lewd and repulsive act" that was "inappropriately graphic". Nobody would have claimed the genitals were disgusting or ugly. And if they were flaccid, I doubt anyone would have minded at all.

Censorship is frustrating because it gets in the way of us confronting this larger problem.

The intention of our cover was not to cause a stir. We did not aim to outrage people or make headlines. Our aim was, in fact, the opposite. A vulva should be no shocking thing. No one needed to bat an eyelid.

13 comments

  • What a load of bollocks. There was an art-work featured on the ABC by a sculptor who produced an exhibition of casts of cunts. It's this open display of women's vulvae that will reduce the anxiety many women feel in comparison to a supposed ideal (usually from pornography). These are real women. How dare they censor what we all lurks "down there".

    Commenter
    shamtexter
    Date and time
    August 22, 2013, 9:12AM
    • *SIGH* No one is trying to censor what "lurks down there". All they are saying is the image is not appropriate on a magazine cover - especially if you saw the original with no black bars.

      Sydney Uni is a wonderful "melting pot" and there are many WOMEN students, lecturers and tutors with different cultural and ethnic sensitivities that would have been highly confronted by that cover. (Not to mention how many women would feel if one was "in their face" being read on a train or a bus).

      Honi Soit should be applauded for the important article, and of course the photos should have been included; but inside the magazine, with the article.

      Commenter
      Mario G.
      Location
      Sydney
      Date and time
      August 22, 2013, 1:13PM
  • Can't really see the connection between dick jokes being common and the assumption that no-one would have complained if there were 18 penises (penii?) on the cover, bit of a stretch even for a "proudly female biased website".

    Commenter
    Mort
    Location
    Mentone
    Date and time
    August 22, 2013, 9:25AM
    • It's disingenuous (or maybe just badly-worded) for Hannah to say "The intention of our cover was not to cause a stir" because surely they want people to pick up the magazine. The editor of ANY magazine wants to create enough of a stir that people read their product.

      I really admire what they were trying to do, as there is definitely a double standard about female genitalia. I'm not even questioning the way they chose to do it, because they've certainly made a point that's got many people talking.

      But saying that you didn't "aim to outrage or get headlines" makes me question what exactly you were expecting?

      Commenter
      Miaoww
      Date and time
      August 22, 2013, 9:26AM
      • "I suspect that if our cover had featured male genitals instead of female, nobody would have described it,"

        But you have no evidence of that...you've written an entire article based on a premise with no basis other than a suspicion. So I'll rebut. It would be exactly the same if not worse, I suspect.

        Commenter
        Tim the Toolman
        Date and time
        August 22, 2013, 10:03AM
        • How about the arts faculty students make a replica "Wall of Vulvas & Penises"

          Commenter
          oort
          Date and time
          August 22, 2013, 10:14AM
          • Look, I've always respected Honi Soit's right to be edgy and controversial, and the article is an extremely important one. (I think they were one of the first sources (?) where, decades ago, they exposed the horror of FGM)

            Should the images have gone on the cover? No. The campus is home to a range of ethnic and religious sensitivities and they should have been respected.

            Of course it would have been met with equal disdain if it featured penises instead of vulvas - that excuse is irrelevant.

            Commenter
            Mario G.
            Location
            Sydney
            Date and time
            August 22, 2013, 10:33AM
            • Regarding the need to respect the various religious and ethnic groups on campus who find vulvas offensive, what about the fact that many women who don't belong to those religions or ethnic groups feel offended that their vulvas are supposedly something that should never be seen and they should be ashamed of?

              Why do those religious and ethnic groups get preferential treatment over other groups?

              Commenter
              Mellah
              Date and time
              August 22, 2013, 1:52PM
          • That cover looks fairly tame to me, assuming the photo accurately reflects the 'modesty bars' that were used.

            Having said that, though, I am not entirely sure what the message is supposed to be here. The author of this article makes some grandiose comments about fear and the sexualisation of, well, sexual organs. But, ultimately, does photographing women's genitals and putting the pictures on a magazine cover really do anything to reduce the shame and anxiety women supposedly have about their vaginas? How?

            It looks as much like a self-indulgent stunt as a serious attempt to critique social attitudes. But I guess that is the case with a lot of student rags.

            Commenter
            AdamC
            Date and time
            August 22, 2013, 10:40AM
            • I agree the editor was probably trying to make a name for herself in doing this, but I don't think it was a pointless exercise. Many women have little idea what normal non-pornographic vulvas look like and a cover like this would have at least given them some idea.

              Commenter
              Mellah
              Date and time
              August 22, 2013, 1:56PM

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