CANADA

Backtracking on pornography

THERESA TEDESCO September 5 1988
CANADA

Backtracking on pornography

THERESA TEDESCO September 5 1988

Backtracking on pornography

CANADA

In 1962, during the dawn of the sexual revolution, a storm over obscenity reached the Supreme Court of Canada. The issue: whether D. H. Lawrence’s 1928 novel Lady Chatterley’s Lover was obscene. In the book, Lawrence portrays Connie Chatterley as having a number of casual sexual liaisons. The British author describes numerous lovemaking scenes in graphic detail. Critics demanded that the novel be banned on the grounds that it was pornographic. But the book’s defenders argued for unrestricted distribution because of what they called its literary brilliance. In the end, the court ruled by a 5-to-4 margin that Lady Chatterley’s Lover was not obscene. But 26 years later, obscenity remains a contentious issue. Successive amendments to the Criminal Code have defined it in various ways. And the current antipornography legislation before Parliament, Bill C-54, has done little to defuse the passions. Indeed, Maclean’s has learned that the government no longer intends to pursue the legislation.

The bill is currently stalled in Parliament, with government spokesmen saying officially that the cabinet has other legislative priorities. Said deputy House leader Douglas Lewis: “I think it is fair to say in terms of priorities, proceeding with the porn bill as it is now is not possible because of the controversy surrounding certain parts of the bill.” And a senior government adviser, who asked to remain anonymous, described the proposed legislation as ill-conceived. “It is a bad piece of business,” he said. “No one wants to know about it.”

Bill C-54, introduced in the Commons on May 4, 1987, by Justice Minister Ray Hnatyshyn, was the Tories’ second attempt in a year to tighten the law dealing with obscenity. In June, 1986, Hnatyshyn’s predecessor as justice minister, John Crosbie, proposed some of the toughest antipornography legislation in the Western world. His bill died quietly after women’s groups, artists and legal experts denounced it

as prudish, vague and unworkable. In tabling Bill C-54, which would amend the Criminal Code to include, for the first time, legal definitions of pornography and erotica—the existing law concerns itself only with obscenity— Hnatyshyn said that Ottawa wanted to “attack pornography head on.” He added, “I believe—and I know all Canadians agree with me—that there can be no justification for the depiction of extreme sexual violence or the exploitation of Canada’s youth.”

Many church organizations and some women’s groups applauded its declared aim of cracking down on depictions of sexual violence and sexual exploitation of children. But many

members of the artistic community, including writers, film-makers and librarians, roundly condemned the bill as unwarranted censorship. And both the Liberals and New Democrats agreed, successfully stalling the bill at second reading, where it has remained since last December.

The bill attempts to define and toughen legislation regarding child pornography and the manufacturing of material degrading to women. Under the existing obscenity law, any depiction in words, pictures or sculpture “or other thing” is obscene if its chief characteristic is the undue exploitation of sex or of sex in conjunction with crime, horror, cruelty or violence. But in the past, the wide scope for interpretation in the current law has led judges to appeal to what they described as “community standards” in order to determine what is obscene.

Bill C-54 would create two categories of sexual material—erotica and pornography. Erotica, which would include the kind of nudity generally depicted in mass-distribution adult magazines such as Playboy or Penthouse, would still be legally available, although not to minors. But the bill would ban portrayals of “masturbation or ejaculation or vaginal, anal or oral intercourse,” or material containing stories or pictures about sexual violence or placing children in sexual situations—all of which fall in the pornography category.

The bill has fuelled the debate over how much sexuality should be permitted in movies, books and magazines. One major criticism of the legislation itself is that it differs little from Crosbie’s unpopular version. According to its detractors, Bill C-54 attempts to deal with the proliferation of pornography by treating all public displays of sexual acts as obscene, which courts have refused to do under the existing law. According to many feminists, pornography is a form of hate propaganda directed against women. Feminists say that because of it, men see women merely as objects for sexual pleasure and that it creates a myth that women enjoy being abused. Said Rose Potvin, president of the Ottawa-based Canadian Coalition Against Media Pornogra-

phy, an umbrella group of 350 organizations: “The main mistake with the bill is that the government has mixed sex and pornography. Hate is the issue, and it has nothing to do with sex.” According to one Canadian expert in the field, North American studies have clearly established different effects from exposure to nonviolent erotica or to some forms of pornography. York University psychologist James Check, who specializes in research on human sexuality and aggression, has conducted extensive research into pornography for the justice department. He said that his own studies have shown that the effects of exposure to sexually explicit material vary widely according to the type of material. Said Check: “Simply because you are watching people having sex is not going to make you a slobbering sex fiend.” In studies done by him and others, Check said, men exposed to hard-core pornography—sexually violent acts depicting women as victims of rape and torture-over a long period admitted that they had become more likely to rape a woman. Those exposed to nonviolent pornography, such as a man masturbating on a woman’s face, also said that they were more likely to believe that women enjoyed sexual abuse.

On the other hand, Check said that similar studies have shown no visible psychological damage from exposure to erotica, as opposed to nonviolent or violent pornography. But particularly alarming, said Check, is the fact that the largest consumers of pornography in Canada are young people between the ages of 12 and 17. He added: “Pornography becomes their sex education. If all they ever see is women enjoying being abused, how are they ever going to think otherwise?”

Many artists and writers have questioned the value of one defence that the bill allows them for legally displaying sexually explicit material: that it has “artistic merit.” That phrase, according to John McAvity, executive director of the Canadian Museums Association, is dangerously open to various interpretations. Said McAvity, whose organization represents 2,000 museums across the country: “Art is about expressing one’s point of view. It is a judgment call, not a decision to be made by policemen or the courts.” However, supporters of the legislation said that they would oppose any efforts to liberalize the bill. Rev. Hudson Hilsden, co-ordinator of social concerns for the Pentecostal Assemblies of Canada, said that he would like to

see the bill toughened even more because some forms of pornography can be defended as erotica on the grounds of artistic merit. Said Hilsden, who is also chairman of the threeyear-old, 15-denomination Interchurch Committee on Pornography: “All liberties and freedoms have their reasonable limits.”

Hilsden said that although his group is not currently launching a campaign to resurrect C-54, the Tories would face the issue during any election campaign. “It appears that the government has backed away from the bill because of media attacks,” Hilsden said. “I think it is going to be asked a lot of questions about this. One of these days it is going to have to stand up and bite the bullet.” g But the government I has already relegated Q the bill to the back j§ burner. With free trade as legislation expected to pass third reading this week, the government will shift its focus to its six-month-old conflict-of-interest bill, which would require elected officials and civil servants to reveal details of private assets and liabilities to a political ethics commission. But other major pieces of legislation appear to be destined for the same fate as C-54, including bills covering day care services and bank service charges, and reforms to the broadcasting and the election acts. At the same time, a new opinion poll, released last week, fuelled already-rampant speculation that Mulroney will call an election soon. The poll by Angus Reid Associates Inc. showed the Conservatives, with 36-per-cent support from those polled, marginally ahead of the Liberals, with 32 per cent, and well in front of the New Democrats, with 30 per cent, confirming what private Tory polls have been showing for weeks.

Still, many Canadians are calling for a firm response to a widespread perception that a deluge of pornography is polluting society. And while the federal government seems to be determined to provide a solution—eventually—it now appears certain that it will have to go back to the drawing board to find one.

THERESA TEDESCO with

HILARY MACKENZIE