Hong Kong Essay: Mammillaphobia, or Fear of Nipples

Do you think this Flickr picture is indecent? The Television and Entertainment Licensing Authority (TELA) and the Obscene Articles Tribunal (OAT) of Hong Kong argue that it is, and are ready to prosecute Oiwan Lam over it. Oiwan Lam is a Hong Kong woman who posted a link to the photo in question on a Hong Kong web site. TELA received one complaint about the link from an unknown prude, and the two agencies collaborated to bring indecency charges against Oiwan Lam. Oiwan’s purpose in linking to the photograph was to protest against the archaic laws that the Obscene Articles Tribunal and TELA unilaterally decided apply to Internet links in an earlier case.

Oiwan certainly proved her point. The indecency charge she now faces in court (probably in September) carries a maximum penalty of HK$ 400,000 (US$ 51,160) and one year in prison.

This is an astonishing penalty for linking to an artistic, non-pornographic photograph. Why are some people so apprehensive of female nipples? In Hong Kong, like many other places, you are allowed to show any part and quantity of female breasts but not the nipple. Why? What’s wrong with nipples? Women’s nipples nourish our young and entertain adults, they are completely harmless and not that different from the male variety, yet the sight of them is reviled by a strait-laced portion of every crowd. I am not aware of a formal term for unreasonable fear of nipples, so I have coined one provisionally: mammillaphobia (from Latin for “nipple” and Greek for “fear”). Mammillaphobia is alive and well in Hong Kong, as it is elsewhere (good analysis of the “wardrobe malfunction” American hysteria here).

Let’s put this ridiculous Oiwan Lam issue in some perspective.

The offending photo was freely available to anyone via the photo-sharing site Flickr. The image is not vulgar or indecent (unless of course you suffer morbidly from fear of nipples). Oiwan posted a link to the Flick-hosted picture on the InMediaHK web site (she did not post the actual photo, only a link to it). Shortly after, TELA received one complaint about the picture link and sprang into action, eventually referring the case to OAT.

We need to remember two things: Obscene Articles Tribunal members are neither elected nor accountable, and both the Tribunal and its de facto master TELA are running pretty low on credibility. In 1995 these morally flaccid organs declared that imagery of Michelangelo’s David is indecent. The legal case escalated to the High Court, where it was thankfully dismissed – indeed, the judge rebuked the duo for wasting time and money on a ridiculous pursuit. Unfortunately it still cost publisher Eastern Express HK$ 80,056 (US$ 10,290) to challenge TELA and OAT’s puritanical decree. The world will be laughing about the David incident for decades to come. Well done, TELA and OAT! In the free and developed world this sort of thing is supposed to be the domain of religious fundamentalists, not Asia’s World City!

Aside from being overly puritanical in its approach, the Hong Kong anti-obscenity agenda (protecting us from female nipples) is simply not adequately formulated for the Internet: recently a Hong Kong man was prosecuted and fined for posting hyperlinks on an adult discussion forum that linked to erotic photographs hosted overseas. This is the case that propmted Oiwan’s protest. If we apply this interpretation of outdated laws, we are forced to conclude that search engines that link to nude materials (i.e., all search engines) are guilty of distribution of indecent materials!

Another noteworthy recent ruling involved two issues of the Chinese University Student Press (a student magazine of the Chinese University of Hong Kong) that contained sex questionnaires dealing with incest and bestiality. OAT, once again prompted by TELA, classified them as indecent, then proceeded to file charges against select others who reported, discussed, or lampooned the issue. As we learn from the EastSouthWestNorth blog:

First, two issues of the Chinese University Student Press were classified as Category II: Indecent by the Hong Kong Obscene Articles Tribunal. Next, Ming Pao attempted to discuss the issue and found its discussion also classified as Category II: Indecent (The Ming Pao Category II Indecent Material). Now Ming Pao is not by no means the only discussant on this issue. So why didn’t the Television and Entertainment Licensing Authority go after the others?

The main reason is that the Television and Entertainment Licensing Authority is reactive instead of proactive. If they don’t receive any complaints, they will not take action. This meant that if you are mad as hell about the selective prosecution, then your recourse is to denounce as many other offenders as possible in order to show the hypocrisy to the general public.

Such a system relies not on fair and equitable justice, but on the whim of prudish busybodies (note to prudish busybodies: if you don’t like nudity, don’t look at it). The busybodies simply need to complain to TELA in order to set in motion indecency charges. This is a system that promotes a culture of obsessive informants, and is precisely what free and modern societies such as Hong Kong should NOT be striving towards. Furthermore, it is a system that is highly vulnerable to abuse: all it takes is for someone to organize a small number of people to submit complaints to TELA and even world-famous works of art can be labelled obscene.

Most recently, TELA embarrassed itself (what is it with these guys?) by telling an exhibitor at the Hong Kong Book Fair to stop exhibiting a book on Greek mythology. Why, you ask? The book’s cover showed the painting Psyche et l’Amour by the 18th century master Francois Gerard, a work that resides at the Louvre. See this Hong Kong Standard article for more on this incident.

It should be noted that the Oiwan Lam matter has been reported far and wide, bringing Hong Kong precisely the kind of publicity it doesn’t need, what with the shadow cast by Mainland China’s Internet censorship. We note that BoingBoing has several entries on the Oiwan Lam case. The UCLA’s AsiaMedia exposed the matter with an excellent article and will no doubt have more to say. There is Free Oiwan Lam, a site dedicated to her freedom and that also gathers analyses of this situation, encourages discussion, and helps to communicate the stunning lack of openness and transparency at TELA and OAT, not to mention the silliness of applying antiquated laws to a new medium like the Internet. The BBC Five Live hosted Oiwan Lam herself on one of their shows. University of Hong Kong professor Rebecca McKinnon has written extensively and lucidly on the subject, and we regard her blog as an extremely useful central resource. Technorati has a plethora of entries in English as well as Chinese. There are many, many more. Use a search engine (before TELA shuts them down for distribution of indecent materials) and you might be surprised at the level of coverage.

While the world laughs at Hong Kong, let us make an appeal for a bit more common sense to be deployed in this fair city. Let us stop being automatically terrified of nipples or other parts of the human body, particularly in artistic context. Let us treat the Internet as a new medium and realize that we cannot shoe-horn outdated laws to apply to new media, because they will fit extremely poorly in the new digital framework. Let us proclaim to the prudes: if you don’t like, don’t look. And, above all, let us reform and modernize TELA and OAT before we are forced to endure further silliness. Organs that are supposed to safeguard the public good (not oppress it) should be informed, open, and transparent, and neither TELA nor OAT appears to be anything of the sort.

Help Oiwan Lam with her legal fees by clicking here.


Bonus! Mammillaphobia screening test

Do you have mammillaphobia? Grab a mirror and view this link, which is Willem Drost’s beautiful oil on canvas tribute to Bathsheba, wife of the afore-mentioned David.

The focus of this painting – and it is a masterful use of lighting – is Bathsheba’s chest. Note the exposed and well formed left breast rendered with masterful strokes and anatomical accuracy. Check mirror for foam around your mouth area. If there is none, congratulations, you are free of morbid nipple fear!

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