Leah Bryan loves sex. She calls herself a pleasure activist, and her fanzine, Biblio Eroticus - circulation 260, cover price $1.50 - is her celebration of women's sexuality. At 20, Bryan has decided that publishing women's erotic writing is more than just a hobby, it is her life.
But last year, just before Christmas, Bryan thought she was headed for jail. The Office of Film and Literature Classification had noticed Biblio Eroticus on the shelves of the naughty Brunswick Street bookstore Polyester, which had been raided by police, and that's when Bryan first felt the long arm of Australia's censorship laws.
Because it was unclassified, Bryan was forced to remove her fanzine from Polyester, and a few other women's sensuality shops, to avoid a possible $6000 fine. She will now pay $135 each issue to have Biblio Eroticus classified. The fanzine will be toned down, Bryan says, to avoid a category-two classification (to be sold only in licensed sex shops). Because of the sex descriptions, she says, it is likely to be given a category one, which requires a plastic wrapping. "It's sad to see women's desires hidden away and wrapped in plastic," Bryan says. "Women are embarrassed enough as it is to buy this sort of thing."
The banning of the French film Romance last week outraged film critics and reignited Australia's censorship debate. But people such as Bryan - Internet and sex-industry professionals, magazine editors and television censors - were not surprised. Australian censorship laws, they believe, have never been more prudish.
"There's been an incremental increase in restrictions on material," says David Lindsay, a media law academic from Melbourne University who has researched the Federal Government's attempts to censor the Internet. "People think these things are individual occurrences, but it's all connected, there's a strong moral conservative trend happening."
The Government's widely criticised Internet legislation, the Online Services Act, has been a large part of that recent trend, Lindsay says. The legislation makes X-rated sites illegal in Australia, and promotes the use of filtering software to protect children. Lindsay says this software will over-censor the Internet, because it is insufficiently precise to distinguish between "breast" on a breast cancer site, or breast on a pornographic site, for example.
The legislation has been active for three weeks, and, already, as many predicted, adult Internet sites have moved their business offshore. At the bottom of one site, Sweet Teens, a message reads: "This site was moved to a United States server on 20th Jan 1999. The move was to comply with an interim take-down notice issued by the Australian Broadcasting Authority to take down the site from (an) Australian-based server. All models are over the age of 18."
Internet users can still visit this site. The difference, says anti-censorship campaigners Electronic Frontiers Australia, is that the US server, not a local server, is getting paid.
Elsewhere in the sex industry, the phone-sex business is about to be hit with Federal Government legislation that requires users to register with Telstra for a pin number. Access to phone sex will only be from home phones, a scheme that has been tried overseas and failed. Optus has refused to be involved because it believes the market will dry up. Like the Internet legislation, protection for children - a key concern of independent Senator Brian Harradine - is the reason for the new restrictions, but already the phone-sex business is attempting to bypass the law, as some operators move to unrestricted overseas lines.
This week Australia's largest publisher of girlie magazines, Kerry Packer's Australian Consolidated Press, accused the Office of Film and Literature Classification, Australia's chief censors, of being draconian and inconsistent in its classification of adult material. The publisher of The Picture and People, Brad Boxall, told The Age his staff had to digitally alter images of women in the magazine to cover more flesh. Last year, editors of The Picture had to remove the word "shagged" from a cover about the film The Spy Who Shagged Me.
Boxall's concern - that the revised magazine classification guidelines introduced last September are much tougher - is shared by other publications such as Penthouse. "We've never had this amount of grief with the censors," says the magazine's editor, Libby Noble. "We stick absolutely to their insane guidelines. And they come back and say: `No, you're spanked', and every time they spank us it costs more money. I am sure there is some agenda to close down these magazines."
Australian Women's Forum, a glossy sex-and-lifestyle magazine for women, also has been hit by the new guidelines (approved by state and federal censorship ministers and developed under the guidance of the Australian Catholic University vice-chancellor, Professor Peter Sheehan). When the magazine was first classified last year, the OFLC labelled it category one (wrapped in plastic and not to be sold in Queensland). The reasons the office gave, says editor Helen Vnuk, was a section of readers' sexual fantasies and a section called Sex School, in which real-life couples try different sex positions.
Vnuk says the magazine now edits down the readers' fantasy letters - there can be no fetishes - and the Sex School illustrations are in cartoon form. "Our readers have complained about that," she says.
The magazine also toned down its depictions of nude men, says Vnuk. "We had this centrefold the OFLC said wasn't acceptable. It was a man lying on a bed, and they said that because he was on a bed it was sexualised nudity. If he was in a forest or something, it would have been OK, they said. We've had to put in a lot less full-frontals and we've had a lot of complaints from our readers. They get upset by it."
Vnuk believes that editing readers' fantasies presents a distorted view of what real women do in their sex lives. "What's left are not women's fantasies but the fantasies that the OFLC thinks women should be having."
Adult movie distributors have also scratched their heads at recent OFLC decisions. The Eros Foundation's Fiona Patten said she was stumped when a B-grade sci-fi sex film, Uranus Experiment, was refused classification. The film, which includes a gravity-free sex scene, features two female scientists who decide to steal a formula from a male colleague. One of the women attempts to distract the man by performing oral sex on him, but he is asleep. The OFLC refused classification partly because the scientist did not consent to the sex act.
In the self-censoring land of television, network classifiers apply stricter rules because of the accessible, in-your-loungeroom nature of TV. But SBS's classification manager, Douglas Stewart, believe the restrictions on free-to-air television are too tight. "It is really a disappointing situation, because in the UK and Europe adult material can be shown on free-to-air television. Australia is falling further and further behind those countries which we see as comparable Western democracies."
Since the banning of Romance, the OFLC board - a group designed to mirror "the community" - has been criticised as conservative. Reports yesterday suggested that more conservative censors were brought in after an initial vote favored the film's release. But Peter Harvey, acting for the OFLC's on-leave acting director, Simon Webb, says he believes there had been no initial vote. It was the OFLC's practice to get as many members as possible to look at controversial films, he says. Either way, the final vote was eight to nine. The eight members who voted for its release on an R-rating cited a general rule that gives the board ``discretion... to permit explicit depictions of sexual activity''.
The eight members noted that Romance's sexually explicit scenes were not normally accommodated in the R category, but ``community standards are changing... (the community) is generally tolerant of sexual content within an artistic context.''
The nine members who refused the film classification did so because Romance had two elements that pushed it past the X category - bondage and rape scenes, and sex that was not simulated. ``The board members aren't to blame,'' says a former OFLC member. ``It's the guidelines they are applying.''
So do the guidelines reflect community attitudes to sex on film? State Attorney-General Rob Hulls, who will represent Victorians on national censorship boards, says in this case they don't. He is surprised that Romance is available, uncut, in the United States and much of Europe, but not in Australia. ``I would be surprised if general community standards in Australia are that different,'' he says.
Daryl Williams, the federal Attorney-General and minister in charge of the OFLC, defends the guidelines. ``We don't talk about censorship, we talk about classification,'' he says. ``Newspaper readers need to know that these guidelines are not made for film critics.''
Williams thinks the guidelines - last reviewed and tightened in 1996, under the coalition Government - are in step with community attitudes. The OFLC regularly tests their classification decisions against those of public focus groups, he says.
But what are ``community attitudes'', and does anyone measure them? Williams believes that while Australia seems to have become more liberal, there is also a growing conservatism, hence the tightening of X-rated material.
Yet last year showed signs of greater public acceptance of coarse language. A Dubbo magistrate ruled that the word f--- was no longer offensive; Jeff Kennett used the beeped-out version in an advertisement; and when Channel 9 screened an episode of Sex and the City with the c-word, there was hardly a complaint.
David Lindsay believes this bout of censorship is part of an Australian trend. He says Australia has been a censorious nation since the '50s. ``It is a society in which people more readily accept the state censoring on their behalf.''
In the US, freedom of speech is enshrined in legislation, but Australia has failed to even debate its importance. ``And because we haven't properly had this debate, Australians have allowed the opportunity for censorship such as the Online Services Act. In the absence of a debate of, for example, balancing the rights of children and adults, politicians have seized the catchcry of censorship. It's easy politically - no politician wants to be seen defending the sex industry.''
Lindsay says censors and classifiers are working in a morally conservative environment that inevitably influences them. He believes Brian Harradine's demands on the Government have added to this conservatism.
Harradine says the Internet legislation has not gone far enough, and he is waiting to see if it has been successful. He is angry because next month the Senate is set to consider a Liberal Party proposal, expected to get cross-party support, to introduce a new film category called ``non-violent erotica''.
Meanwhile, in Fitzroy, the owner of Polyester bookstore, Paul Elliott, is planning his revenge: a T-shirt design competition to commemorate the police raid. The contest will raise funds to cover legal costs and replace lost stock. Like the lesbian love scene on the shop's window, the T-shirts will be anything be subtle.