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The winter 2018 issue of Index on Censorship magazine explores taboos surrounding birth, marriage and death. What are we afraid to talk about?
With: Liwaa Yazji, Karoline Kan, Jieun Baek
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Throughout history and across the world, talking about sex has been banned in various forms. Films with racy sex scenes in have been censored, books that talk a little too openly about the birds and the bees have been taken out of print, and even Betty Boop has been the subject of a censor.
But the latest ban on sex comes from an unusual place, as the Malaysian Government plan to ban an Islamic sex manual, amid fears it may cause religious confusion.
The book, which was written by the leader of controversial Islamic society the Obedient Wives Club, is entitled “Islamic Sex, fighting Jews to return Islamic sex to the world”, outlines the “physical and spiritual way” in which women should approach sex.
The Obedient Wives Club says it intends to “curb social ills like prostitution, domestic violence, human trafficking and abandoned babies”, all of which they attribute to unfulfilled sexual needs, hence the reason for the book.
Though it was intended only to be read by its 800 club members, Malaysian Authorities have cracked down, and people found in possession of the book could be fined up to 5,000 ringgit (£995), whilst anyone who makes copies for sale could be imprisoned for three years and fined 20,000 ringgit.
The government’s Islamic Affairs Department is said to have studied the manual and recommended a ban on the grounds that it may confuse Malaysian Muslims about what constitutes acceptable religious teaching.
Last week, Malaysia also placed a blanket ban on sexuality rights festival Seksualiti Merdeka (sexuality independence). The annual festival aims to promote human rights and acceptance of the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender community through workshops, talks and film screenings. It aims to enable Malaysians “to be free from discrimination, harassment and violence for their sexual orientations and their gender identities”, but a police ban was imposed amid fears the festival could create “disharmony, enmity and disturb public order”.
Police allegedly received 154 reports which opposed the festival, prompting Deputy Inspector-General of Police Datuk Khalid Abu Bakar to say that the public clearly wanted the police to act firmly against the organisers. Bakar added “whatever we want to do, we must take into account cultural and religious sensitivities and the multi-ethnic communities in the country.”
Not talking about sex isn’t just restricted to Malaysia — it’s a global taboo. In 1992, Madonna’s book “Sex” , which was designed to look like a condom packet, and filled with pop star’s self professed fantasies, was subject to massive controversy.
The book was banned in Japan, due to its risqué photographs, whilst in France a Catholic group called The Future Of Culture tried to get all copies of the book destroyed for corrupting the French youth with pornography. Other organisations across the globe tried to boycott the book, and many book stores refused to sell it.
But despite the controversy, Sex sold 1.5 million copies whilst it was still in print. In August 2011,” was declared the most sought after out-of-print book in the US.
Even before the controversy of Madonna, or the Obedient Wives Club, literature that was deemed as erotic was subject to widespread bans. “The Life and adventures of Miss Fanny Hill,” by John Cleland (reprinted as “Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure”) was one of the very first pieces of “prose pornography”, published in 1748 and is deemed one of the most prosecuted and banned books in history. Written in the form of letters from the 15 year-old Fanny Hill to an unknown woman, defending her lifestyle as a prostitute, the book caused outrage and was banned for obscenity.
And sex censorship hit the headlines again this week, as a provocative perfume advert campaign from Marc Jacobs featuring Dakota Fanning was banned by the British Advertising Standards Authority for “sexualising children.” Fanning, who is 17, looks much younger in the Lolita style ad campaign which featured in London Evening Standard’s ES Magazine and Sunday Times Style magazine. Wearing a short skirt, Fanning holds the perfume bottle between her thighs in a way that was perceived to be “sexually provocative” by the ASA, with the strapline “Oh, Lola!”, the name of the perfume.
But it’s interesting to consider where the line is drawn — did the sexual exploits of Fanny Hill cross the line into obscenity? Was Madonna’s sex book too blue to be read by the public? Does the Obedient Wives Club give a confusing message to young Muslims? Does a young-looking Dakota Fanning need to be censored? And when will the age old taboo of talking openly about sex become old fashioned?
Classified ad site Craigslist has closed its “Adult Services” section, after a campaign by 17 states to have it removed. Attorneys general from Montana to Virginia wrote a letter to Craigslist chief executive Jim Buckmaster last month, urging him to shut down the erotic ads section. The link has now been blacked out and replaced with the word “censored”. The decision only affects the US version of the site. Craigslist has previously cited in its defence the federal Communications Decency Act, which protects websites from liability for content posted by users. The company has not yet commented on the recent removal.
The Malaysian Home Ministry website has just published new censorship guidelines for films this week. Restrictions around profanity and displays of intimacy between adults have been relaxed, if they are “appropriate” to the context of the film. However the Board still remains firm on nudity, sex and negative depictions of Muslims, unless the filmmaker is wishing to “depict a person’s transformation from being evil to good”.