Racey Reading – did you bring enough to share?

Birds do it. Bees do it. Even educated fleas do it.

But Australian Customs are reserving the right to search you if you read about it on the plane. The first question on Australian custom’s Incoming Passenger Cards has been changed recently and those of us with a taste for the racier literature may be in for an unpleasant surprise. Where once the form asked if incoming passengers if they were carrying “objectionable materials” it has now been amended to “carrying pornography”. And those answering “yes” will have their material examined by customs officials, who will presumedly make note both of well-thumbed pages and cracks in the spine where books have been worn to death.

A Customs and Border Protection spokesperson said the change was made late last year because the term “pornography” was more recognisable to travellers than the term “objectionable material”. If you are carrying depictions of the sex act, Customs want to know about it. The change of the reference to pornography was intended to make travellers aware that some forms of pornography were illegal to bring into Australia.

Think this has nothing to do with you? Think again. Many mainstream books and publications contain pornography, without necessarily containing “objectionable material”. Objectionable material, according to the Classification (Publications, Films and Computer Games) (Enforcement) Act 1995 “depicts, expresses or otherwise deals with matters of sex, drug misuse or addiction, crime, cruelty, violence or revolting or abhorrent phenomena in such a way that it offends against the standards of morality, decency and propriety generally accepted by reasonable adults”.

But the problem is, there does not appear to be an easy definition of pornography in the Classification, and most people would assume the word – as it is commmonly used – refers to graphic depictions of the sex act.

And pornography is everywhere in literature these days, by that definition. It may have been scandalous when Lady Chatterly’s Lover was tried for obscenity in 1959 but in modern writing, graphic sexual scenes are common. Chick lit is a frequent offender here, with many books from the genre from writers such as Marion Keyes containing scenes that – while appropriate to the plot and certainly not overlaboured – are reasonably graphic about sexual relations. Jodi Picoult’s soul searching novels leave no area barred and you’ll find some rude words in the phenomenally popular Eat, Pray, Love too.  A few of the giants of Fantasy and Sci-Fi – Terry Goodkind and Anthony Piers, for example – have a taste for the lewd in literature, and even non-fiction such as auto-biographies often include some very real real-life scenes.

Shirts. Real men don't need them, apparently.

And with the euphemistically named Romance being one of the top selling genres world-wide, it’s worthwhile remembering the average bodice-ripper contains more than a few scenes of bodice rippng. The more “chaste kiss” approach espoused by writers such as Barbara Cartland (a truly prolific writer who averaged a book every two weeks and still – over a career that spanned 664 novels – managed to avoid actually mentioning, you know, “it”, even once) has been replaced by more explicit texts. It’s a booming market, and its audience is 90% women; in the USA in 2008 75 million Americans read at least one romance novel that year.

So Australian Customs could be dealing with more American ladies than peddlers of filthy smut. Not to mention that people carrying what they think is serious literature – such as Bret Easton Ellis’s “American Psycho” or pretty much anything by Norman Mailer. Some books literally surprise you with a sudden sex scene. Are we meant to skip ahead to catch the danger scenes, or just hand books over to Customs and tell them to call us when they are done? Or will we be able to get near them with the many American ladies waving their historical romances and teens handing over their Anita Blake – Vampire Hunters? We’re already thoroughly vetted on the way on to the plane, do we now have to wait on our way off now if our in-flight reading contained a little raunchy?

I’m not sure what the solution to this one is. But I am pretty sure that it’s not insisting that passengers share their pornography on landing. Because, if that happens, I’m going to be reduced to reading books I know don’t contain any smut whatsoever, and if that means I may, once again, have to break out Lord of the Rings.

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Sadhbh Warren

Sadhbh Warren is a freelance writer and proud booklover. Her name is pronounced Sive - like five – an Irish name, easier to say than spell! She lives in Sydney, writing travel and humour articles, and is always on the lookout for a great new book.