May 31, 2008
The Canberra Times
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‘Slut power’ and cover-girl views bust-up the sexist offence

If the young woman’s intention was to shock and silence me, she succeeded. Only for a moment mind you. But it was a jaw-dropping moment. I had just delivered a speech at a Sydney weekend conference titled “Let’s Talk About Sex”, run by the Australian Reproductive Health Alliance. My theme was a call to arms against the increasingly overt use of sexism in media advertising and popular culture, particularly music videos.

As I sat down, an attractive 22 year old woman stood up and said, “Look, I just want to say I’m a slut, and I’m proud of it”. There was a pause. I raised my eyebrows. Suddenly the audience broke into a thunderous applause.

What followed was a pretty fierce debate about the word “slut” and sexual power. I was fascinated to learn that many of the young women viewed aggressive sexual behavior as a form of “female empowerment”. Unlike me, they didn’t feel offended or degraded by the kind of soft porn imagery in much of our daily media. Far from criticize it, they were more inclined to celebrate it. My arguments about the objectification of women, and disempowerment caused by the reduction of female sexuality to the sum or our body parts, just didn’t wash with this hip, young crowd. I was effectively shouted down.

It was my first experience of sitting on the other side of a gapping generational divide. And I’ve got to tell you, it was a pretty lonely place. But it was certainly instructive and has been the source of much reflection. Do I just need to loosen up and “get with the program”? Or, is it simply that a younger generation now views the overt sexualisation of women – and men – in a very different way than those of us who grew up in the shadow of second-wave feminism?

This week I’ve had to grapple with this uncomfortable issue yet again, thanks to the latest edition of the ANU Law Students’ Society quarterly publication “Peppercorn”.

“So why the hell are there boobs on the cover?” Well, it’s a good question, but I’m not the one asking it. Chelsea Mullavey, a co-editor of the magazine, is posing the question and supplying the answer: “It’s meant to be provocative, and we’re being ironic”.

This edition of the magazine is devoted to women and the law, and includes some poignant and disturbing articles on honour killings and the human trade in sex slaves. They’re issues that Chelsea says she and her co-editor feel “really passionate about” and have included in the magazine because they’re “powerful and important”. But how do you get students to read the stuff? Well, the editors decided the most obvious way was to do it with sex. And it worked. The magazine was snapped up in no time, all 674 copies.

It was Chelsea’s idea to put breasts on the cover, and co-editor Ben Pynt took the photo. (And no, it’s not Chelsea’s bosom, and yes, the model was over 13 and she “just loved the whole experience”)

There is no doubt the cover is provocative. With a voluptuous cleavage bursting out of a lacy bra, and blouse buttons snapped open to reveal all, the image is bodice-ripping stuff. If the title Peppercorn wasn’t scribbled over that heaving breast, it could well be a close-up snap for Playboy or Ralph magazine, or smutts-are-us. But it’s not. This is the undergraduate student magazine for one of Australia’s most highly regarded law schools.

It’s perhaps with that honorable reputation in mind that some staff at the ANU Law Faculty have voiced their strong objection to it. Within an hour of the magazine being handed out, a terse email was sent to the student editors from a female lecturer complaining that the magazine’s cover was “offensive” and “sexist”.

Since then an email war has raged, with other lecturers denouncing the students for what they see as little more than a “degrading” stunt. One incensed lecturer named both the editors responsible for the cover photo in an email she sent out to 109 university staff members. This, of course, has now got Mullavey and Pynt worried about their academic futures.

As is always the case when sex is used to sell, the central message in the student magazine has been overshadowed by the controversy about the cover. And that’s disappointed the Peppercorn editors. But uncomfortable and unnerving as this may be for them, the controversy has perhaps unearthed a bigger issue about that gnawing, gapping generational divide.

The fact that it’s not the students, but the lecturers who have been offended by the “sexist” cover speaks volumes about a very different generational response to what constitutes sexism.

Pynt can’t really see what all the fuss is about: “We never saw the photo of breasts in an objectifying way”. He says that although they have deliberately “exaggerated” the image, that level of breast exposure is “what we see most of the time around town”. He doesn’t find it confronting or degrading. And nor does Mullavey, who insists the image is “empowering”. While she says she doesn’t go out with her breasts quite that exposed, she reckons plenty of her friends do. And none of them think anything of it.

So therein lies the rub. If the students aren’t offended by sexually overt and provocative imagery of women, do the ANU’s lecturers have the right to tell them that they should be?

If one woman’s notion of oppression is in fact another woman’s expression of liberation, perhaps the story of feminism still has legs.

Virginia Haussegger is a Canberra journalist and director of the 50/50 by 2030 Foundation at the University of Canberra.

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