Hard News by Russell Brown


Before Lust

The economy was not the only thing to be deregulated in the middle of the 1980s. It might also be said that we deregulated the hell out of desire.

There was, of course, Homosexual Law Reform in 1986, after which consensual homosexual acts were no longer a crime.

But at almost the same time, the High Court decided in Howley v Lawrence Publishing that in the Indecent Publications Act there was "a clear statutory intention to withhold the censorship weapon from material which falls short of being actually injurious .... [M]aterial is not to be banned or become the subject of successful prosecution unless there is 'discernible injury' ... a capacity for some actual harm."

A rapid and irreversible process of liberalisation was already underway. The year before, Chief Censor Arthur Everard had passed the first two films to show explicit sexual activity -- homosexual in one, heterosexual in the other.

That, along with a greenlight for the horror film I Spit On Your Grave, earned Everard a call from the 1986 Labour Party conference for his resignation. But any sort of solidarity between the two groups on Everard's case, the anti-porn feminists at Women Against Rape and our most storied moral lobbying group, the Society for the Promotion of Community Standards, had been wrecked when, unbelievably, the SPCS campaigned against Jim McClay's bill to criminalise spousal rape.

I was in London at the time. When Craig Taylor, the Chills' manager, came back from a tour home with the band, I asked him how things were.

"They have some pretty strong magazines at the dairy these days," he said.

We've seen the 1989 Ministerial Committee of Inquiry into Pornography lead to the 1993 Films, Videos, and Publications Classification Act 1993. In 2003, there was the Prostitution Reform Act -- and the subsequent striking failure of a referendum for a petition to reverse it. We've acknowledged the worth of loving same-sex relationships in the Civil Union Act and seem poised now to go the whole way with marriage equality.

There remain voices against it all, of course. We've heard a lot from Colin Craig lately, whether it be to do with the promiscuity of young New Zealand women or the non-normality of same-sex marriage. We had an actual moral panic in 2004 when Phil Goff proposed a sensible, humane adjustment to the age of consent law. ( ‘Sex at age 12 okay under law change’ read the Sunday Star Times' monstrous and false front-page headline.)

But even Craig isn't anything like Patricia Bartlett in the 1970s, let alone the fundamentalist censor-stalkers in the modern SPCS. He's a pretty rum sort of Christian conservative -- one who doesn't actually go to church, let alone quote the Bible -- and more like a figure from the SPCS's early days, when Sir Dove Myer Robinson was able to act as its patron, despite being a lifelong atheist.

So who and where are we now, with our liberalised attitudes to sexuality? Are we lust with our lives, or the Passionless People? Are we even as liberal as we think? As activities, personal nudity and sexual freedom were arguably more acceptable in the 1970s, before the laws changed and the viruses arrived.

Interestingly, the contemporary youth festival in which sex plays the strongest role is the one where where everyone is still under severe moral caution: Parachute, the blow-job capital of the country, where good-hearted souls discreetly distribute condoms and things are intense in tents. (At R&V it's more about sneaking into the VIP area and what's actually in those pink pills.)

Most of us now take the view that what goes on between consenting adults is no concern of ours. It is not a sin to lust. But do some of us also feel a bit wearied by the sexualised world of local celebrities, by the parade of smooth brown pecs and boobs in The GC? Have we seen the "pornification" of society?

There is actually some evidence for Colin Craig's beliefs about New Zealand women -- in that there is evidence that New Zealand women are about as sexually active as New Zealand men. And there is also evidence that countries where that is roughly the case are the countries where women are the safest. Societies where women are sexually confident are better societies for women.

But we don't exactly put it out there. There is relatively little sexual display in our culture. As has been that case more than once in New Zealand's history, our liberality with lust has been of a quite practical kind.

This is about there I'll look to kick off the discussion at the September 2012 LATE at the Museum at Auckland Museum. It's part of the Seven Deadly Sins series -- and you may already have guessed that our sin is Lust.

I'll be talking to Emma Hart, whose frank, funny, deeply-thought writings about sexuality on this site have been hugely important; David Farrier, who grew up as an evangelical Christian and came out this year as bisexual and in a relationship with a man; and Ema Lyon, the co-founder of Dvice, whose chain of stores and website changed the meaning of words "sex shop" in New Zealand.

Yes, I know, that's two bisexuals and a lesbian. We had two different heterosexual men lined up, but they both genuinely had to, erm, withdraw. I'll do my best to um, keep my end up, chaps. But that does tend to underline the fact that much of our conversation about sex has been sustained by LGBT people, and that our strongest debates have been about their rights.

There won't be just talk on Thursday night. The evening's live entertainment features a performance from Birds of Paradise – part-burlesque, part-romance, part-comedy – in the museum galleries, followed by a performance from the inaugural TheAudience winner, Watercolours (aka "Chelsea Jade Metcalf as she attempts to discover the sexiest way to cry").

There'll also be the Objects of Lust Trail, a mobile 'Lustful objects' talk with collection manager Siren Deluxe.

And excerpts from Shakespeare's The Tempest performed by Platform Thirteen -- and positively full of lust.

It'll all only cost you $20. You should come along on Thursday, from 6.30. Tickets can be bought here.

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