By Pat Sheil
Sex, Drugs and the Electoral Roll
Allen & Unwin, $32.99
“I am an advocate for free speech, but not of a free audience.” So declared Fiona Patten, former sex worker, anti-censorship lobbyist, and founder of the Australian Sex Party during the heated debate on restricting the ability of so-called “right to life” activists to protest outside abortion clinics in the Victorian parliament in 2015.
Thirty years earlier she’d made her way to a clinic with her mother to have an unplanned and unwanted pregnancy terminated, to be greeted at the entrance by howling protesters who had hurled red paint over the walls and front steps. Now, as a newly elected member of the Victorian Legislative Council, she was pushing through a law forcing anyone engaged in these protests to remain 150 metres from any such establishment.
Patten’s succinct summing up of her own position – that it was fine to express an opinion, but not to inflict it on people who have no choice about having it screamed at them – neatly encapsulates a world view that has driven her to fight for all manner of libertarian causes with tenacity, good grace and surgically satirical humour.
Sex, Drugs and the Electoral Roll is more than a history of one woman’s central role in Australia’s endless battle between wowserism and common sense, but it is this superheated stoush that forms the superstructure of her ripping yarn.
From her peripatetic childhood as the daughter of a naval officer, attending schools in Canberra, Sydney, London and Washington by the time she was 14, Patten was not particularly unusual for a girl coming of age in the late ’70s, though her hedonistic curiosity was apparent from the outset.
“I can remember thinking that prohibition of marijuana made about as much sense as trying to prohibit sex, and I was going to have me a share of both,” she recalls.
Patten’s early career was as varied as her education. After flirtations with university and TAFE, she decided that she had found her vocation in fashion design, and set up a presciently named outlet for her work in Canberra, Body Politic.
Though the venture eventually collapsed, the popularity of her clothes with the women working in the local brothels brought her into contact with sex workers, and eventually, for a year or two, sex work. But her main interest was advocacy, initially for the workers and soon for the entire adult industry, including video distributors, magazines, sex shops, and navigating the labyrinthine legislation that governed this very messy business in the various states and territories.
In 1992, with her partner, Robbie Swan, she set up the Eros Foundation, which soon became the country’s adult-industry lobby group. Given that porn was fighting a two-front war against the unlikely allies of hardcore feminism and the religious right, it was an industry desperately in need of some political leverage.
Now that the internet can deliver just about anything, and satisfy the most peculiar tastes of just about anyone, the fights over what was and was not acceptable under the multiple censorship regimes in Australia in the 1990s seem absurd. As indeed they were.
Patten’s book details hilarious bun fights with state and federal censors, some of which verge on the surreal. In 1994 Western Australia banned an edition of Kerry Packer’s The Picture magazine for images of a stuffed beaver (the ones that build dams) in bondage gear, on the grounds of “bestiality”.
The hypocrisy of it all was staggering. It was quite OK to distribute a movie showing a girl being tied to a chair and having her head blown off with a shotgun, but not one of her enjoying consensual sex with her boyfriend. That would be offensive.
After founding the Sex Party in 2009 Patten railed against hypocrisy more generally. She can take a good deal of credit for fanning the flames of outrage that eventually led to the royal commission into child sex abuse in institutions.
Sex, Drugs and the Electoral Roll will shock many readers, but not by virtue of lurid tales of wild orgiastic behaviour. No, the really creepy characters are the fruit-loop evangelists railing against smut while molesting children, the sexual shenanigans of MPs who sail under the flag of family values, the cowardice of those in positions of real power who baulk at much-needed reform for fear of being seen as “soft on crime”.
Whatever your views on pornography, prostitution, euthanasia and drug-law reform, one cannot fail to be impressed by the honesty and integrity Patten brings to the battlefield, and the wry yet self-deprecating tone that percolates through her remarkable memoir.
Pat Sheil is a Sydney journalist and author. He edited The Herald’s Column 8 from 2004 to 2016.