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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.

PT1M49S http://www.dailylife.com.au/action/externalEmbeddedPlayer?id=d-2sdb8 620 349

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 4000 copies off the stands and guillotine the cover.

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

Hannah Ryan.

Hannah Ryan. Photo: Supplied

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.