July 17th 2004

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COVER STORY: Indonesian elections ... and Australia

CANBERRA OBSERVED: Latham affair lifts election temperature

AGRICULTURE: Rural unrest spreads

QUARANTINE BREACH: Exotic disease outbreak threatens Qld citrus industry

INDUSTRY: Singapore recovers on back of manufacturing

FAMILY: Child care - in whose interests?

ARTS & MEDIA: 'The next program contains...'

FILM: AFA calls for ban on 'arthouse smut'

MIDDLE EAST: Can Iraq's interim government end the insurgency?

NUCLEAR WEAPONS: Terrorism marks the end of deterrence

UNITED STATES: Curtains on Camelot

STRAWS IN THE WIND: Skimming administrative fat / What about Uganda? / 17 years of war

Premier Beattie's ethanol 'mania' (letter)

Sugar Package (letter)

Mondragon (letter)

Journalists and Iraq (letter)

BOOKS: George Santayana, by Noël O'Sullivan

BOOKS: Tilting the Playing Field, by Jessica Gavora

OPINION: Time to act on North Korean tyranny

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& MEDIA: 'The next program contains...'

by Dr Geoffrey Partington

News Weekly, July 17, 2004
I don't know whether the same goes for Pay TV, since I never see it, but during the last ten years there has been a rapid and seemingly unending increase on all the Free-To-Air Channels of simulations of sexual intercourse.

These may be real rather than simulated, for all that I know, but this would be irrelevant to my concerns.

Until perhaps two years ago, the intercourse portrayed was usually between a male and a female, one each at a time, but increasingly lesbian and homosexual dalliances are represented and, after the London production of Sheep, there may be a huge animal kingdom yet to exploit.

Likewise with "swear" words. Between Eliza Doolittle's "Not bloody likely!" in Shaw's Pygmalion in 1913 and the Lady Chatterley's Lover controversy during the 1960s there was only a slight increase in "four-lettered Anglo-Saxon" words in print, on the stage or in films.


The volume has swollen recently and some critics welcome this.

For example, in separate reviews in April in The Australian, of Howard Barker's play Victory, then being performed by the Sydney Theatre Company, Jo Litson and Susan Mitchell both picked out for commendation Barker's use of the "c- word" nine times in the first scene.

Litson described Barker's language as "dangerously seductive, rich, fecund, muscular, poetic and especially obscene".

Susan Mitchell was thrilled that Victory was "so full of four-letter words and references to sex that the rapid-fire repetition of the C-word and variations of the knob word" made the Sydney audience "hilarious".

I am not sure to what extent we are influenced or desensitised by such exposure. However, I am sure that so-called experts are wrong who claim that seeing, saying or hearing a racist expression in the media has a powerful effect and should be banned, but that even frequent depictions of, say, sodomy, will have little, if any, effect, and should be unrestricted.

Liberal-democracies, "open societies", or whatever we call ourselves, should err on the side of freedom rather than restraint, but we cannot be completely oblivious to dangers of desensitisation and corruption.

Parents are surely justified if they want their children to progress from the blessed, but dangerous, state of innocence to the safer uplands of virtue. Attainment of virtue requires some knowledge of evil, if only to be able to reject it, but it is often difficult to differentiate between providing adequate knowledge and leading children into dangerous temptation.

I am not calling for bans on repetitive swearing and simulated sex in the media. My policy is to turn the television off as soon as the warning appears, as it currently does so very frequently, that the program contains explicit sexual activity and frequent profanities.

I also switch off if there is a warning of extreme violence, unless there is good cause not to do so in specific cases.

Some violence is an inevitable part of understanding an event, but much screen violence is gratuitous and merely vicious.

A peculiar feature of contemporary conflicts is that much Islamic opinion is fiercely anti-Western because of our alleged lack of modesty in the public representation of sexuality, especially of women's bodies.

Yet the main targets in the West of Islamic wrath have been leaders, such as George W. Bush and John Howard, who favour greater restraint rather than greater exposure. My policy might give Moslems in Australia a few more TV programs and films they felt able to watch.


Constant exposure of intimate acts trivialises human experience. Purporting to show historical or fictional characters engaged in sexual intercourse reveals little about their lives and thought.

Romeo and Juliet and other famed lovers are not of interest because they pioneered experiments in modes of copulation, but because their passions and sensitivities transcended the physical acts that give them expression.

In like manner, defecation and urination have a place in, say, specialist medical programs, but otherwise their depiction is mere voyeurism. At present many directors and actors think that energetic portrayal of the sexual act is an indicator of depth of affection or emotion. They could hardly be more wrong.

If a sizeable portion of the viewing public, when warned that they would face yet again a display of explicit sex and foul language, turned off their sets without further ado, this might well change things round.

This would not restrict voyeurs and those who delight in the "c-word" and those like it, on screen or stage, hours upon end. But writers and actors with scruples and sensibility might stand a better chance of better employment, and many of us might regain some of our lost respect for "the arts".

  • Dr Geoffrey Partington

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