Harmless fun?

Topless women advertising an age-restricted pornography exposition while riding on motorbikes down Queen St in Auckland does not, according to Judge Nicola Mathers, meet the legal threshold of offensiveness.

The judge seemed to be applying some common sense to the law, for although she noted some people would be deeply offended by the parade, and would consider it tactless and distasteful, she also observed that 80,000 people "voted with their feet" last year by attending the parade.

That suggested to her they approved of it and considered it harmless fun.

She might also have observed that about 1.1 million of Greater Auckland's population had consistently chosen each year to stay away from the parade.

The judge had to consider a claim by the Auckland District Council for an injunction to stop the parade, on the grounds that it breached a new bylaw enabling the council to ban parades it considered offensive.

The organiser had apparently not troubled himself to apply for a suitable permit, no doubt anticipating it would be refused.

But the case was flimsily based from the start, since, as the police themselves pointed out, the enforcement of council bylaws is not a matter for them these days, nor is it an offence under the Summary Offences Act in 2008 for a woman to go topless in public, and Judge Mathers said herself it was at least arguable that the bylaw breached the Bill of Rights.

Certainly, one would think the police, especially in Auckland, have better things to do on a Wednesday than holding back the slavering multitudes, but the liberal citizenry will most likely appreciate the judge's precedent which seems to ensure the pornography industry has equal rights with the rest of us to make an exhibition of itself.

Many women, and not a few men, may have been somewhat puzzled by the nation's contradictory approach to the display of the female breast in public.

After all, while it is lawful, indeed now apparently a constitutional duty, to display such useful appendages in the street, when it comes to breast-feeding babies in public places - despite the best efforts of the La Leche League - there is usually an outcry from the easily offended.

And was what amounted to an advertisement for a commercial exhibition of adult erotica really to be considered in the same breath as the right of all women to celebrate their bodies?

If the parade was, as it seemed to be, advertising human sexuality, then Judge Mather's benchmark may be considered by a majority to be no less than appropriate for the times.

On the other hand, the question has been asked: what sort of message does such a parade give teenage and younger boys, not to mention grown men?

The word "puerile" springs to mind as suitable to describe the most probable male response to any such display of female body parts, rather than - say - to a parade displaying shared female opinions of women's creativity, intelligence and beauty.

After all, the tide of misogynist voyeurism seems to rise higher every year in this country, from "harmless fun" parades such as Auckland's to the fake validity of television "reality" programmes, to computer games, Internet filth and pornographic films.

It cannot only be a coincidence that the (mostly male) tolerance benchmarks for what the community at large considers offensive are rising with this tide.

Thus, All Black Jerry Collins can urinate without sanction in public before millions watching test match preliminaries, where once within living memory an All Black shocked a radio audience to its core with merely an honest and mild oath; language once considered deeply repellent and unlawful is the common currency not just of the masculine world but of the schoolyard; repugnant behaviour which turns the law on its head is a daily occurrence in social settings, and all too often the subject of uncritical display on the nightly television news where all may see it repeated.

A decade ago, one of our finest jurists, Sir Michael Hardie-Boys, delivered another kind of benchmark whose core message remains just as valid today.

He suggested some basic strategies to halt our headlong drift into a state where compassion is absent, virtue non-existent, truth invisible, and the authority of reason forgotten.

We need to teach again the basic rules of life, he warned, "so that the influences of upbringing, or home, school and social environment, are wholesome and positive, directing us from early childhood on, towards, and not away from, those essential attitudes of personal, family and social responsibility."

The banality of the Auckland street parade and its shabby endorsement represents an aspect of human nature where curiosity is able to be detached from reality, where onlookers can simultaneously be involved and uninvolved, their moral reasoning suspended.

It is true that it is within each individual's power to avoid such events, ignore "reality" television, not buy obscene computer games or view pornographic films.

That, however, is hardly the core issue, which is nothing to do with how we portray each other, or judge each other, but how we view ourselves.


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