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All over the world, taboos are preventing discussion and debate. This is most problematic when that debate might make people aware of a problem and give them an opportunity to fix it.
Taboos change from country to country, but everywhere they create ignorance and, often, fear.
That’s why, for the latest issue of Index on Censorship magazine, we explored worldwide taboos in all their guises. As part of this, we commissioned a selection of cartoonists from around the globe to draw taboos from their homelands – from nazism, atheism and death to domestic violence and necrophilia.
One cartoonist, the Paris-based T0ad, tackled nudity. He said: “In this cartoon, I tackle the taboo around nudity as only sexual. Googling ‘nude’, for instance, shows a set of images that have sexual connotations. Here, pornography is the sacred veil covering the plain (non-sexual) body.”
We caught up with T0ad afterward to discuss his life as a cartoonist, drawing Donald Trump and his biggest concerns in French politics.
In 2013, by way of abundant caution, Harper Collins India decided to pixellate a total of nine panels, including all the close-ups of penises in David Brown’s graphic novel “Paying for It.” While the content, in which Brown narrated his encounters with sex-workers, was left untouched, the publishers were wary of India’s laws against obscenity which make the depiction of nudity almost verboten. This is because a sheet of prudery covers any sexual expression and also governs the legal regulation of sexual speech.
Hence, many welcomed the Indian Supreme Court’s February 2014 ruling that merely because a picture showed nudity, it wouldn’t be caught within the obscenity net- “a picture can be deemed obscene only if it is lascivious, appeals to prurient interests and tends to deprave and corrupt those likely to read, see or hear it,” and having a redeeming social value would save it from being censored.
The decision came in an appeal filed in 1993. Sports World, a magazine published from Calcutta, had reproduced the photo on the cover of German magazine Stern. In that photograph, Boris Becker had posed nude with his then fiancée Barbara Feltus; it was his way of protesting against the racist abuse the couple were being subjected to. A solicitous lawyer dragged Sports World to court, alleging that the morals of society and young, impressionable minds were in jeopardy. He cited Section 292 of the Indian Penal Code which prohibits and penalises any form of expression tending towards prurience and encouraging depravity in the readers or viewers. The court rejected the contention, holding that the Hicklin’s Test for determining obscenity has become obsolete, besides imposing unreasonable fetters on the freedom of expression. This test, formulated by the House of Lords in 1868 in Regina v. Hicklin stipulated that ‘‘The test of obscenity is whether the tendency of the matter charged as obscenity is to deprave and corrupt those whose minds are open to such immoral influences and into whose hands a publication of this sort may fall.’’
Instead, the United States Supreme Court’s ruling in Roth – wherein “contemporary community standards” were held to be a far more reasonable arbiter, was directed to be adopted. The court also affirmatively cited the decision in Butler which, while upholding the test in Roth, added that anything which showed undue exploitation of sex or degrading treatment of women would remain prohibited.
While the Hicklin’s Test being jettisoned is a cause of relief, the judgement by no means can be held as finally freeing Indian law from the shackles of “comstockery.” George Bernard Shaw had coined this term in 1905 while raging against Anthony Comstock who had taken it upon himself to rid American society of vice. For Comstock, lust and sexual desire were abhorrent, and as he candidly proclaimed anything which even remotely arouses any sexual desire was to be dealt with in the most stringent manner. No wonder he had called Shaw an “Irish smut-peddler” in retaliation.
Gymnophobia, or the fear of nudity, isn’t something new to India’s Supreme Court. Also, it has always been female nudity and the fear of sexual desire which have governed the Court’s opinions. Its image-blaming position has repeatedly been used to reinforce the assumption that sexually explicit images trigger urges in men for which they cannot be held responsible. Depictions of nudity WERE condoned only if they achieved some “laudable social purpose” such as encouraging family planning or making people aware of caste-based atrocities. As Martha Nussbaum points out, collapsing the “disgust” for the nude female body with male sexual arousal and regarding sex as something furtive and impure results in the revulsion being projected on to the female body, thereby making the legal definition of obscenity collude with misogyny.
The present decision is no different. Because Feltus’ breasts were covered by Becker’s arm, and also because Feltus’ father was the photographer, it was held that only the most depraved mind would be aroused and titillated by the magazine cover. Most troubling of all is the overt reliance on contemporary community standards. True, that Indian society has evolved since 1993, but as Brenda Cossman details the scene in Canada in Butler’s aftermath, community standards became a rubric for majoritarian sexual hegemony, resulting in persecution and censorship by prudish vigilantes. And of course, it goes without saying that the search for “redeeming social value” usually ends at puritans’ doorsteps.
Comstockery’s tattered banner, emblazoned with “Morals, not art!” flies aflutter in India.
This article was posted on 22 April 2014 at indexoncensorship.org
A woman in Timbuktu says she was lashed by Islamist militants for talking to a man who wasn’t her husband. Salaka Djicke was caught talking to her lover on 31 December last year and was then sentenced to 95 lashings by a Islamic tribunal on 3 January. Djicke fell in love with the married man after he accidentally called when dialling a wrong number more than a year ago, and their relationship quickly blossomed. When Islamic extremists occupied Northern Mali in April 2012, Shariah law was quickly implemented, forbidding women from communicating with men. Her punishment was captured on film by local residents. The man — who Dijcke didn’t name in fear of rebel fighters returning — remains in Mali’s capital after fleeing the night they were discovered. Prior to France’s intervention in Northern Mali earlier this year, Islamist militants introduced strict Shariah law, issuing punishments such as flogging and stoning for perpetrators.
On 6 February, a radio station owner was murdered in Paraguay. Marcelino Vázquez was shot by unknown assailants as he left work at Sin Fronteras 98.5 FM in the city of Pedro Juan Caballero. He was on his way from the radio station to a local night club he also owned, but was stopped by two men on a motorcycle and shot several times. While Sin Fronteras is predominately music-focused, it features a regular news show covering a variety of issues. A parliamentary coup in June 2012 and the subsequent removal of President Fernando Lugo has had a negative impact on freedom of information and expression in Paraguay.
Lawyers for three members of Russian punk band Pussy Riot are appealing their convictions at the European Court of Human Rights. Representatives for Maria Alekhina, Yekaterina Samutsevich and Natalia Tolokonnikova are in Strasbourg today (7 February), after they filed a complaint on 6 February against their two year prison sentences. They said the convictions violated four articles of the European Convention on Human Rights: the right to free speech, fair trial, liberty and security and the prohibition of torture.The trio was first sentenced following their “punk-prayer” performed at Moscow’s main cathedral in February 2012 protesting Vladimir Putin’s return to power.
A radio journalist was shot on his way to work in Peru on 6 February. At the time of the attack, Juan Carlos Yaya Salcedo was driving to the Radio Max station where he worked, in the town of Imperial. He was shot in the leg by an unknown assailant and is expected to make a full recovery and return to work soon. Yaya, who hosts radio show Sin Escape (Without Escape), has never faced threats in the past but police said the attack was likely the result of his journalistic work, as the perpetrators didn’t attempt to steal anything. Yaya said the attack could have resulted from his reporting on the poor construction of a community building in the nearby town of Nuevo Imperial.
Residents of a town in Japan have complained about the erection of replica statues of Michelangelo’s David, requesting that he wear underpants. Okuizumo citizens told town officials that the 16-foot renaissance sculpture’s exposed penis could frighten their children, as some of the replicas, funded by a local business man, were installed in a local park where children often play. Most of the town’s 15,000 residents approved the Renaissance art tributes, and no plans have been made to clothe the statue. Japan has stringent laws regarding nudity. While watching and distributing porn is legal in the country, the country’s authorities request that genitalia be pixelated.
Have you seen Prince Harry’s crown jewels!!??!! The royal family’s finest asset!
The jokes write themselves, don’t they? Feel free to add your own in the comments.
But the nude Las Vegas party adventures of the third in line to the British throne — or, more accurately, the pictures of the nude Las Vegas party adventures of the third in line to the British throne — throw up some serious questions.
No British newspaper has published the nude pictures taken inside a private hotel suite, though most published other pictures, taken outside, of the young prince (cue newspaper-speak) “cavorting” with other “revellers”, including Olympic swimmer Ryan Lochte.
The Sun, bizarrely, got staff, including an intern, to pose in replica shots.
Newspapers were informed by the PCC that St James’s Palace had issued a semi-threatening legal letter from law firm Harbottle and Lewis, claiming that publication of the photographs would be in contravention of article 3 of the PCC code (which covers privacy), and that the palace “reserved its rights” should publication go ahead.
There’s been debate since about whether or not publication of the pictures would be in the public interest. On the one hand, Harry was on private time, and not in a public place, when the nude photos were taken. What has the world come to when young, healthy soldier on leave can’t get naked and play billiards without his pictures being published everywhere!
But then, Harry is, by very definition, through the weirdness of monarchy, a public figure. The pictures are certainly of interest to the public, if not in the public interest. And public knowledge of them doesn’t seem to have dented the prince’s ever-rising popularity. The general reaction has been along the lines of “of course he’s hanging out naked in a Vegas hotel suite! He’s Prince Harry and that’s what he does, the little scamp.”
Being honest, I’m not sure where I stand on this. But here’s what I find interesting. I have absolutely no doubt that in a pre-Leveson world, these pictures would have been published by the majority of newspapers. Are they now being sensible and respectful, or timid and fearful of the Lord Justice’s wrath?
What’s more, when the pictures are all over the web (the Daily Mail has helpfully produced a list of sites where you can view the royal birthday suit), how meaningful are Harbottle and Lewis’s letter, the PCC’s warning*notification, and the various editors’ decisions not to run the pictures?
One final thought: in a time when Facebook stores over 4 per cent of all photographs ever taken, does any 27-year-old actually expect privacy at a party?
Update: Jonathan Collett of the Press Complaints Commission has been in touch about the reference to “the PCC’s warning” in this post. He says:
It’s not the case that we have issued a warning. The Palace have themselves confirmed that they contacted the PCC and used our pre-publication services to pass on their concerns about the potential publication of the photographs to Editors. They used the same system that is available to members of the public, which the PCC has developed to allow people at the heart of a news story to make editors aware of their concerns before publication. The decision on whether to proceed with publication rests with Editors, who clearly will be mindful of the Editors’ Code of Practice. The PCC has not received a formal complaint about the photographs and the Commission has not made any ruling on the issue.
It certainly wasn’t my intention to suggest that the Commission itself had “issued a warning”, merely that it had warned in the “alerted” sense, that Harbottle & Lewis had sent the letter. But that could have been made clearer, and we’re happy to publish Mr Collett’s explanation.
Padraig Reidy is Index on Censorship’s news editor