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Otago University's attempt to silence a women's health issue was wrong - period.

Universities should be championing free speech - not silencing a vital women's health issue. Photo / Getty Images

Critic's controversial and crude cover wasn't going to win any design awards - but did it really warrant seizure by Otago University?

It must have been the mid-1990s. I was 15 or 16, and I asked Dad to stop at the local dairy on the way to school so I could pick up some tampons. Dad, to his credit – a veteran of five sisters and three daughters – didn’t blink. “And grab a copy of the Herald while you’re in there, will you love?”

The girls of my high school were regulars at the shop. No doubt we lowered the tone, slouching down Auckland’s most blue-ribbon street in our brown tartan dresses to buy contraband unavailable at the tuck-shop. I rushed in – we’d have been running late, inevitably – throwing the newspaper and the box of Tampax on the counter. The proprietor averted his eyes, folding the Herald over the box of tampons as he pushed them both over towards me. Saving his shame, or my own, I wasn’t sure.

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That wordless gesture spoke volumes. Menstruation, and its associated apparatus, were something to be mildly embarrassed about, best hidden, or at the very least not mentioned in polite company. I thought it was prudish but sort of amusing, and I continued on to school.

But for girls less privileged than I was, the stigma surrounding menstruation is more serious, directly affecting their social and educational opportunities. It’s an issue that was highlighted by the now Duchess of Sussex, then known as Meghan Markle, in an article published in TIME magazine in 2017, “Periods Affect Potential”.  Beyond India, said Ms Markle, in communities all over the globe, “young girls’ potential is being squandered because we are too shy to talk about the most natural thing in the world”. (And where menstruation does get talked about, it’s usually as an excuse to criticize women for being crazy. After being grilled by Fox News’ Megyn Kelly, then-presidential candidate Donald Trump harrumphed that her questions were ridiculous. “You could see there was blood coming out of her eyes … blood coming out of her wherever”, he said, in an uncharacteristic display of delicacy regarding female genitalia.)

And let’s not kid ourselves that menstrual hygiene management issues only affect women in developing countries. “Period poverty” is a very real issue for women in New Zealand, with reports of women shoplifting tampons and skipping school due to lack of access to sanitary products. With a box of tampons costing about $6, and the average woman having 480 periods over her lifetime, menstruation is an expensive, involuntary habit. Last year, Pharmac rejected a request to fund all women’s sanitary items on the grounds that sanitary products are not medicines. 

Silencing a Critic

My experience at that Remuera dairy was twenty years ago, but not much has changed if Otago University’s recent confiscation of Critic, the university’s student magazine, is anything to go by.   Critic’s “Menstruation Issue” was distributed on Sunday evening, with a cover image that depicting a cartoon of what the magazine described as a “deliberately gender-neutral person menstruating”.

By 7pm on Monday evening, copies of the magazine had disappeared in large quantities from distribution bins across campus. Critic says about 2000 copies were missing.  By Tuesday evening, the University had issued a press release taking responsibility for seizing about 500 copies of the magazine. It said that Campus Watch (a security group administered by the Proctor’s office) had been instructed to remove every issue of the magazine from its distribution points and throw it in a skip, because the cover was “objectionable”, and children might see it. (God forbid that children might see an image depicting a bodily function which is a necessary precursor to their very existence, and that half of them will eventually experience.)

The University statement continued, saying that it was aware that both staff and members of the public had expressed an opinion that the cover was “degrading to women”.

The Critic issue included – among other period-related articles – a guest editorial by chief reporter Esme Hall (“Talking about Periods is a Very Good Thing”), a Critic investigation into where students could find free sanitary products, a piece detailing insufficient numbers of sanitary bins in University bathrooms, and a feature article called “Sexing It Up During Shark Week”. The offending issue can be read here.

The cover image isn’t going to win any glossy magazine awards – it’s certainly a bit crude, in both its content and its execution. And a how-to guide on how to sex it up during “shark week” is possibly not what the good burghers of the Edinburgh of the South want to read over their morning porridge.  But does that warrant censorship?

What's "objectionable" anyway?

“Objectionable” has a meaning under the Films, Videos and Publications Classification Act 1993. A publication can be restricted or banned if it "describes, depicts, expresses, or otherwise deals with" matters such as sex, horror, crime, cruelty or violence and if its unrestricted availability would be harmful to society.  A publication is “objectionable” – and thus automatically banned – if it promotes or supports, or tends to promote or support, the sexual exploitation of children, sexual violence or coercion, torture or extreme violence, bestiality, sexual conduct involving the body of a dead person, or the use of urine or excrement in association with degrading or sexual conduct.  

The list isn’t exhaustive of course – trying to fully capture the limits of human depravity would be a futile exercise. But, to dust off the old legal interpretative principle of ejusdem generis (things of the same kind), a crudely rendered cartoon of someone giving a thumbs up while menstruating doesn’t meet the definition for “objectionable” material. And whether it is or isn’t is for the Classification Board to decide, not for a roving squad of local campus pearl-clutchers.

As for degrading to women, I can’t speak for all of us, but I don’t consider an image of person menstruating degrading. What I do object to, though, is unilateral action by a university to silence the discussion of an issue that affects women’s health, finances and educational opportunities.

As a public agency, the University is subject to the New Zealand Bill of Rights Act 1990, which protects the right to freedom of expression, and requires those agencies to, wherever possible, act in a way that is consistent with that right.  It’s ironic that an august institution like Otago University, with a law school ranked in the world’s top 100, needs this explained.

Call me old-fashioned, but in my day the remit of student media was to publish material that was controversial, crude and sometimes a bit offensive.  Are universities now more in the business of stifling freedom of expression than championing it?

Otago University has since distanced itself from the decision to bin the magazine, saying "No directions were given to Campus Watch from the university on this matter. This was a mistake and never intended as censorship.” Quite how else the seizure of the magazine could have been intended is not clear.

What is clear is that censorship, intended or not, rarely creates the desired effect. As of Wednesday morning, readers were accessing the Menstruation issue in unprecedented numbers. Perhaps wrapping up tampons in the news works after all.