Eighteen vulvas. All belong to women of Sydney University, and feature on the cover of Honi Soit, the university’s student newspaper. We were told to cover them with ugly black bars before publishing. Why, even after complying with this, were the issues taken off the stands?
We are tired of society giving us a myriad of things to feel about our own bodies. We are tired of having to attach anxiety to our vaginas. We are tired of vaginas being either artificially sexualised (porn) or stigmatised (censorship and airbrushing). We are tired of being pressured to be sexual, and then being shamed for being sexual.
The vaginas on the cover are not sexual. We are not always sexual. The vagina should and can be depicted in a non-sexual way – it’s just another body part. “Look at your hand, then look at your vagina,” said one participant in the project. “Can we really be so naïve to believe our vaginas the dirtiest, sexiest parts of our body?”
We refuse to manipulate our bodies to conform to your expectations of beauty. How often do you see an ungroomed vulva in an advertisement, a sex scene, or in a porno? Depictions of female genitalia in culture provide unrealistic images that most women are unable to live up to. “Beautiful vaginas are depicted as soft, hairless, and white. The reality is that my vagina is dark and hairy, and when it isn’t it is pinkish and prickly,” said one of the participants in the project. We believe that the fact that more than 1,200 Australian women a year get labioplasty is a symptom of a serious problem. How can society both refuse to look at our body part, call it offensive, and then demand it look a certain way?
We want to feel normal; we don’t want to feel fearful when we have a first sexual encounter with a partner who may judge us because of our vaginas. That fear was replicated during the photo shoot. “Just before getting the picture taken the little voice in my head was doing the whole ‘why didn’t you landscape?’ thing,” said one participant. This sentiment was shared by most people in the project – they felt a pressure to present our vaginas to the world in a way that the audience would be “comfortable” with. But this cover is intended to reassure other women. Take comfort from the fact that everyone’s vagina is different, and normal.
All the women on the cover have been unified through their experience, but so is every other person that is able to defeat any negative feelings they have towards their own or another vagina. As one participant put it: “When it comes down to it, my vagina is just another part of my body, which can be viewed in a number of different ways, but the majority of the time is completely neutral, just like my mouth or my hands. It is not something to be ashamed of; it is not my dirty secret.”
It’s telling that the women who participated in the creation of this cover found the experience to be liberating. It’s because we need liberation. Just before we went to print, we were told that our cover was illegal, possibly criminal. But why? According to the Student Representative Council’s legal advice, this publication might be “obscene” or “indecent”, likely to cause offence to a “reasonable adult”. But what is offensive or obscene about a body part that over half of the Australian population have? Why can’t we talk about it – why can’t we see it? Why is that penises are scrawled in graffiti all around the world, but we can’t bear to look at vulvas?
In 1993, the Honi Soit editors ran an uncensored photograph of a flaccid penis on the front cover, as a response to another university newspaper’s decision to do the same. Neither newspaper received any complaints. Our cover was not a comment on nudity generally, but instead an exercise in female empowerment.
Even after complying, the paper was pulled off stands yesterday. Why? Due to a printing error, 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.
Art exhibitions over the last few decades have attempted to break down the stigma attached to the vagina by bringing its realistic depiction into the public sphere, most recently in Redfern. But the audience must first choose to go to the exhibition. By distributing this cover about the university, we have given our audience no choice. Either accept vaginas as normal, non-threatening, and not disgusting, or explain why you can’t.
Censorship laws in Australia state that the publishing of “indecent articles” without classification is illegal. Indecent is supposed to be something that will “offend” a “reasonable person”. If deemed indecent, items must be classified before publication. Pornography is classified, and deemed suitable for publication in places that only adults can access. Our publication risked being classified as more extreme than that, available only from behind a counter, something that should be hidden away from view, something that should be shamed.
That in 2013, vulvas can still be considered something that should be shunned and hidden, or offensive, is absurd.
• Colin Vercoe, in Comments: What is so sad about all this is that back in 1973 (Yes 40 years ago!) I was briefly involved with Honi Soit and the exact same censorship issues were at play. It seems that in those 40 years we still haven’t come to terms with such a fundamentally basic feature of human anatomy. In that time computers the internet have fundamentally changed the way the world is processed, but it seems some things never change. I wonder if there will ever be an acceptance that humans are sexual mammals who display subtle differentiation between their respective sexual organs. Its a long slow haul out of the darkness of mass ignorance but I’m glad someone out there is making an effort to enlighten us. On ya Honi!