Strange bedfellows: Inside the fight for new classification laws

Australia's adult industry has campaigned for years for changes to the nation's classification laws - standards so outdated even the Communications Department agrees they could be modernised.

Legal sexual acts, including bondage and spanking, are generally banned on-screen. As is any act involving fetishes or practices deemed by classifiers "offensive or revolting or abhorrent".

Zahra Stardust in Newtown, Sydney.

Photo: Christopher Pearce

Zahra Stardust, a UNSW PhD candidate and former Feminist Porn Heart Throb of the Year, said the nation's classification standards were backward - and badly harming the local adult industry.

"Classification and criminal laws in Australia reinforce a heteronormative and big business model for pornography, while reducing the ability of local, independent producers to produce pornography that challenges this model," she said.

"While pornography is frequently accused of being homogeneous and plastic, the regulatory framework restricts the kinds of practices that tangibly illustrate that the performers are human - that they ... bleed, ejaculate and urinate, and that their skin turns pink when smacked."

But the laws are not just restrictive; they're also incredibly complex. The Communications Department is ultimately responsible for classification of all content, overseeing two separate acts. Four agencies sit under the department, charged variously with looking after television, online content, films, publications and computer games, while another four agencies - two already accounted for elsewhere in the chain - are tasked with enforcing the laws.

Australia's porn producers argue the existing classification system affects more than the shrinking sector. The Eros Association, the peak adult industry body, has called on the government to shift its efforts from censoring adult content to ensuring children can't access it.

Many fed-up local producers have effectively circumvented local authorities' ability to act as regulators by hosting their X18+ content overseas. This can prevent agencies restricting access to content or, in worst case scenarios, issuing enforceable takedown notices for image-based abuse.

Julie Inman Grant, Australia's eSafety Commissioner, labelled the existing Broadcasting Services Act 1992 - which governs television and online content - "an effective mechanism" for the investigation of offensive and illegal online material.

"The Broadcasting Services Act is working as intended - to ensure that Australia does not become a safe harbour for prohibited content as defined by the National Classification Scheme," Ms Inman Grant said.

But child safety remains a common concern for the industry and those usually in opposition. Indeed, Eros and eChildhood - formerly Porn Harms Kids - recently met to discuss the issue.

An Australian Institute of Family Studies report released in December 2017 found 44 per cent of Australian children aged nine to 16 had encountered sexual images. Of those surveyed, 16 per cent had seen images of someone having sex and 17 per cent had seen genitals.

Children aged nine to 12 were particularly likely to be distressed or upset by pornography, according to the institute.

"Eros is in conversation with a variety of organisations to ensure the adult media industry is in keeping with community expectations," Eros general manager Rachel Payne said.

"Although some of these organisations are critical of our industry in some respects, we are all in agreement that the current laws applying to adult media content are not working for anyone."

Ms Payne said: "Eros supports the full legalisation of consensual, non-violent erotica in Australia with appropriate protections in place to ensure young people cannot access adult content."

The issue - and proposed responses - are highly contentious. A 2016 senate inquiry into the effect of pornography on children attracted 416 submissions, 151 letters and "a significant number" of short statements.

eChildhood has called for mandatory age verification filters on porn sites like those planned for the UK.

Countless families around the country have told the organisation's chairwoman, Liz Walker, the impact the accidental viewing of pornography had on their lives, she said.

“We don’t let tobacco industries or alcohol industries just sell their products without restriction because we recognise there’s harms to children and young people," Ms Walker said.

"The same sort of restriction laws should be applied here."

Mandatory age verification is widely condemned by the adult industry and met with caution from privacy experts. Many voices have called for more resources, stronger parental involvement and better sex education.

One suite of resources, the eSafety Commissioner's pornography advice web pages, have received more than 35,000 views in the past 18 months.

Parents were the "frontline of defence" in preventing children from watching porn, Ms Inman Grant said, encouraging them to speak with their children about what was and wasn't appropriate.

"Technological tools can be circumvented and can lead to parental complacency so the overriding message is that there is no substitute for active engagement and oversight in your children’s online lives," she said.

A report released on the back of the 2016 senate inquiry recommended the government task "an expert panel" to make recommendations to the government regarding possible policy measures on protecting children from pornography.

That document, prepared by the panel chaired by Ms Inman Grant, remains cabinet-in-confidence.

A Communications Department spokesman said only that the panel had "reinforced ... protecting children from exposure to pornography requires a multi-faceted approach" involving families as "the first line of defence" but also using education, technological and regulatory measures.

"The government’s aim is to make all these approaches work together to make a difference in the online lives of Australian children," he said.

It's government-speak, but it appears there may be movement. A 2012 Australian Law Reform Commission report recommended a new, simpler classification scheme guided by eight principles, including that Australians should be able to read, hear, see and participate in media of their choice and that children should be protected from material likely to harm or disturb them.

Almost all action taken in the report's wake has related to the classification of video games. But when asked this week about the report and that of the senate inquiry, the Communications spokesman said the government was now looking at how the National Classification Scheme could be "modernised", and had reached out to states, territories and industry stakeholders to figure out the next step forward.

An ACT Justice and Community Safety Directorate spokesman confirmed the territory government had been contacted by its federal counterparts. "The ACT supports an examination of the scheme," the spokesman said.

For its part, Eros is well and truly ready to move forward.

"Our classification laws are not keeping up with community standards," general manager Rachel Payne said.

"It's time they let adults be adults."

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