Banned Books in Australia A Special Collections-Art in the Library Exhibition

Violence + Sex: A Taboo Combination – Censored

David Bennett

Bret Easton Ellis’s American Psycho was the subject of a publisher’s self-censorship (a.k.a. pre-emptive censorship) and community censorship in the US and elsewhere, but (naturally) of state censorship in Australia. In May 1991, the Australian Office of Film and Literature Classification (OFLC) assigned the novel a Category 1 Restricted classification — the first time a mainstream literary work had been given an R rating — meaning it could only be sold in sealed packages to over-18-year-olds. The chief censor, John Dickie, said the OFLC could not justify banning the book altogether since ‘as a satire on yuppies it has a lot going for it’, though he personally found it ‘distasteful’. Despite the OFLC’s classification, American Psycho was — and remains — banned from sale in Queensland, as are all other books given an R rating.

Describing the novel as ‘just another “How-To-Kill-Women” manual for that ever-growing special interest group: the good ol’, All-Amerikan misogynists’, Tara Baxter, an anti-porn activist, was jailed for 24 hours for insisting on reading out lurid passages of the book in a Santa Cruz bookshop where it was being sold. In 1992, Helen Zahavi published her female serial-killer novel, Dirty Weekend, whose heroine moves quickly from an experience of sexual harassment to a career of serial-killing revenge against men in general, choosing her victims almost at random in what she calls her campaign of ‘waste disposal’. Zahavi described Dirty Weekend as her attempt to turn the tables, for once, against male writers like the authors of Silence of the Lambs and American Psycho, by portraying a woman ‘who’d rather be the butcher than the lamb’, who ‘rips the lid from the female id’, and relishes ‘pure’, ‘sweet’ vengeance for the sheer pleasure of it.

Andrea Dworkin, the leading American radical-feminist anti-pornography campaigner, had published her own serial-rape-cum-serial-killer novel, Mercy, in 1990, depicting a victim of repeated rape, called Andrea, embarking on a campaign of revenge against pornographers and rapists, driven by the conviction that ‘it is very important for women to kill men’. Dirty Weekend carried a quotation from Dworkin on its back cover, announcing, ‘The game’s over, boys — literary terrorism and the fun on the streets’ — indicating that Dirty Weekend was to be seen as part of a feminist backlash against books like Silence of the Lambs and American Psycho, which themselves had been interpreted as part of a 1980s male backlash against feminism.

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