The daily business of censorship in Australia has long been to restrict readers’ access to ‘obscenity’. In the minds of the censoring authorities, an obscene work was defined as one that could corrupt readers’ morals and lead them astray. Books about sexual matters were believed to possess remarkable powers in this regard, especially if they included illustrations. Importers of such works risked having them seized at the border and to publish them in Australia was punishable under state obscenity laws.
The banning of James Joyce’s Ulysses in 1929 signalled the onset of a long campaign to insulate Australia from moral ‘pollution’. The Customs service began applying what became known as the householder test: to be allowed into Australia, a book had to be acceptable to the ‘average householder … as reading matter for his family’. This rule was applied to books of all kinds: pulp fiction, sex manuals, anthropological treatises, medical textbooks and literary novels. Even poetry was occasionally caught in the net. By 1936, some 5000 publications were on the prohibited list.
The chill of censorship was widely felt, especially by local writers whose works were published in London and had to pass Customs to reach Australia. Authors became their own censors, knowing that all their publications would come under suspicion once their names appeared on the prohibited list. Booksellers were wary of ordering titles by authors and publishers who had had works banned, because merely having their names on an invoice would attract Customs’ attention. Publishers deleted contentious passages to get works through the customs net. In the book trade, such expurgated books became known as ‘Australian editions’.
This regime of fear could not be maintained indefinitely and during the 1960s it descended into crisis. Customs officials struggled to hold back a rising tide of imported books on sexual themes, hoping against all evidence that moral ‘pollution’ could be stopped at the national borders. Their efforts were neutralised by dissenting publishers, who released prohibited titles in Australia to sidestep Customs control. And, as public discussion of sexuality became more liberal, the ‘average householder’ was exposed as the repressive chimera he had always been.