Canberra's racy past: New exhibition tells the story of how 'Pornberra' became the throbbing heart of Australia's sex industry

Exhibition remembers 15-year period when erotica was one of the city's biggest exports

Click to follow
The Independent Online

To outsiders, Canberra seems a soulless, grey city populated by politicians and bureaucrats. But to those in the know, the Australian capital was – until relatively recently – “Pornberra”, the throbbing heart of the nation’s sex industry.

For about 15 years, the capital was one of only two places in Australia where it was legal to produce, sell and distribute sexually explicit videos, and until the internet killed things off in the early 2000s, business boomed. Some say X-rated movies were Canberra’s second largest export after timber products (pine, then porn.) 

This racy aspect of the city’s past is colourfully evoked in an exhibition at the Canberra Museum, which has assembled a wealth of “artefacts” including a 1940s barber’s chair which featured in one locally made porn film.

The federal government legalised X-rated material in 1984, but it was up to the states to decide whether it could be sold locally. Fred Nile, a Christian minister and self-appointed guardian of Australian morals, toured the country with Britain’s Mary Whitehouse, and the pair persuaded every state government to ban the films.

That left only the liberal-minded Australian Capital Territory, (ACT), comprising Canberra and its surrounds, and the Northern Territory (NT), both of which remained subject to federal law. The ACT thus became “a little haven for the porn industry”, recounts Robbie Swan, a long-time lobbyist for the adult entertainment business.

 

The industry was mainly confined to the industrial suburb of Fyshwick. With an adult population of just 180,000, Canberra had more than a dozen sex shops – cavernous supermarkets with names like Fantasy Lane – and a similar number of brothels. 

“The joke was that you came to Canberra and went to Fyshwick to buy your porn and your fireworks,” says Rowan Henderson, curator of “X-Rated – The Sex Industry in the ACT”.

Demand, naturally, rose whenever federal parliament was sitting. “There were always Commonwealth [government] cars pulling up outside the sex shops and brothels,” claims Mr Swan.

A member of the conservative National Party was once caught on a security camera shopping in Fantasy Lane with his wife. The same politician then voted to ban X-rated films in the ACT, prompting Mr Swan to issue a press release about the footage, without naming the man.

“After we put it out, another MP said: ‘It was me but it was only research.’ We said: ‘It wasn’t you, but we’ll put your name down as well.’” 

The biggest sex businesses in Fyshwick were mail-order companies. Films were sent out to subscribers all over the country – with ultra-conservative Queenslanders the biggest customers, according to Mr Swan.

A home-grown porn industry briefly sprang up, with films made at ACT locations evocative of the outback – inside barns, in paddocks, and on windswept hillsides. One featured a couple having sex on horseback. Another was shot under the wall of the Cotter Dam, Canberra’s main water supply.

One leading mail-order entrepreneur, John Lark, made about 25 films for a series called “Down Under”. “They were heavy on Australiana and probably aimed at the American market,” says Ms Henderson.

Moody photographs shot during those films appear in the exhibition, as do the videos themselves, complete with lurid sleeves. There are also anti-censorship and safe-sex posters, cartoons from the local newspaper, the Canberra Times, and a coin-operated booth in which sex-shop customers could view clips of erotic films.

web-canberra-sex-1-getty.jpg
Fiona Patten, Australian Sex Party leader and senate representative, tries to gain support

Mr Swan, who lobbied for the Adult Video Industry Association, later set up its successor, the Eros Foundation, with his partner, Fiona Patten, as chief executive. The couple ran Love Bus tours, transporting tourists and locals to Canberra sex shops, a strip club and a video duplicating plant.

More recently, they founded the Australian Sex Party, and earlier this year succeeded in getting Ms Patten elected to the Victorian state upper house.

The internet saw the mail-order businesses decline and close, along with many sex shops. “Pornography is really a dead industry in the ACT now,” says Ms Henderson.

For many Australians, though, Canberra will never lose its saucy image. “It was certainly a trailblazer,” sighs Mr Swan.

Comments