The recent “Camilla” incident streamed from the Big Brother house several weeks ago renewed controversy about the show’s suitability for free-to-air TV.

Of course for some, the issue was decided long ago. Victorian Family Council Secretary Bill Muelenberg, Family First Senator Senator Steven Fielding and Queensland Nationals MP Paul Neville have long condemned the show as sleazy and dangerously sexually licentious. In the wake of the weekend’s “incident”, this conga line was joined by the leaders of both major parties. The Opposition Leader lamented the show’s treatment of young women, while the Prime Minister asked Channel Ten to take the “stupid program” off air.

Are calls for media self-censorship evidence of feminist inroads into the sensibilities of the nation’s leaders, the relentless crusade of Christian moralists to control what the rest of us see, hear and read, or just plain commonsense? Was the two minutes that shook the world in the collective bedroom of the Big Brother household evidence of the depravity of today’s male youth, or just how far – in the sexual politics stakes – they’ve come?

Deciding requires us to disentangle the varied business and moral mandates in play. From a commercial point of view, it’s arguable that Channel 10 had little choice but to follow the advice of media studies academic Catherine Lumby and evict the men from the house for being on the wrong side of what Lumby described as the line dividing “sexual behaviour and sexual assault”. The recent axing of Big Brother Adults after pressure from Coalition MPs proved the not inconsiderable sway of the Christian right in this country, and appeasing them by turfing the men out and inviting the Queensland police to investigate made good business sense.

The network’s response, however, says little about whether the behaviour of the two men merited condemnation on moral grounds. Lumby said the men were guilty of sexual assault, while Communications Minister Helen Coonan charged them with objectifying women. But in all the frenetic tut-tutting that surrounded the case, few have considered whether the young men’s response to Camilla’s objection to their unquestionably inappropriate behaviour shows a solid understanding of the key feminist principle that whatever she wears and wherever she goes, when a woman says “no”, she means “no”.

The footage confirms Big Brother’s deliberate construction of sexually charged situations that the young people of the house are expected to smoothly and consistently negotiate before a national audience. In the moments leading up the incident, Camilla – wearing underwear and a cleavage-revealing skivvy – slides into John and Ash’s bed. A moment later, John’s arm is pressing her to the bed, while Ash appears to whip out his genitals and rub them in her face. This part of the story we know.

What has received less attention is what comes next. Camilla vocally objects to what is happening to her and the lads withdraw, immediately and fully.

There is no question that John and Ash’s forceful act of restraint and sexual domination of

Camilla should not – without her express and prior permission – have taken place. For this, they owed her a sincere and profound apology. However, it seems an act of deliberate blindness to ignore the alacrity with which the men responded to her insistence that they back off. Surveys continue to show a disturbing number of men continue to believe women really mean “yes” when they say “no”. John and Ash, however, don’t appear to be among them.

Maintaining consent as the key arbiter of what constitutes assault or otherwise deviant behaviour is critical to preserving the liberation of female desire and sexuality for which second-generation feminists strove. Women can fancy a threesome, dig S& M or fantasise about gerbils. As long as they are competent, and freely give their consent, neither the label “victim” or “slut” should apply.

The opposing point of view – endorsed by an uneasy colation of radical anti-porn feminist and Christian crusaders – is that some (mostly male) sexual behaviour is intrinsically aggressive or otherwise sinful, and needs to be curtailed, for the sake of women and/or civilisation as a whole.

We can laugh at the arrogance and narrow-mindedness of such views, but the barbarians are at the gate. Maintaining individual control over what we watch, the privacy of our bedroom and how we define and express our desires and capacities as men and women requires that we consistently affirm, in art as well as in life, the important of consent in defining what we do – and is done to us — as right or wrong.

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