Confronting pornography

Mary Janigan October 29 1984

Confronting pornography

Mary Janigan October 29 1984

Confronting pornography


Mary Janigan

Twenty-two years ago, when the Supreme Court of Canada declared that D. H. Lawrence’s novel Lady Chatterley’s Lover was “not obscene,” it dropped the legal shackles that had previously censored a tender, erotic love affair. Lady Chatterley, now a classic, seems almost virginal by the permissive standards of 1984. Now, private acts—and private parts—are publicly available across Canada in books, films, videotapes and magazines. This month’s Hustler, for one, features graphic pictorials of a lesbian encounter and of an aroused heterosexual couple who are engaged in explicit foreplay. Even those represent only mainstream, soft-core samples from the $50billion North American porn industry which spews out an estimated 540 different magazines and thousands of videos across the country every month. From Halifax to Vancouver, that societal shift is provoking an intense debate over censorship—and the limits of freedom of expression.

The battle is breaking out everywhere. It encompasses politicians, feminists, academics—indeed, most Canadians. In British Columbia feminist social activists such as Jancis Andrews are bombarding the provincial attorney general’s department with the names of

Unresolved censorship issues are seriously polarizing key groups in almost all segments of Canadian society

tapes depicting rape, torture and incest, available at the Red Hot Video chain, in an attempt to bring its products under the control of the B.C. Classification Board. In Manitoba concerned parents last month forced the provincial education department to withdraw a planned sex education course because it did not present notions of “right” and “wrong” in sexual behavior. In Newfoundland,

the influx of sex videos has prompted the St. John’s police to lay more than 50 charges against several video distributors in the past two years, with 56 other charges pending. And in Toronto last week the festival of Forbidden Films opened with 100 banned films from 25 nations, only to find that some of them had also been banned by Ontario’s censor board. Meanwhile, the Supreme Court of Canada is expected to rule next year on the constitutionality of the Ontario Censor Board’s right to cut and ban.

The issues raised by those and other related events are polarizing key groups in almost all segments of Canadian society. Feminists such as Maude Barlow, a former federal Liberal government adviser on women’s issues, contend that the deluge of pornography debases women and threatens their safety. Other feminists, including author June Callwood, argue that it is dangerous to give governments more power to control the media. The arts community is also divided. Two months ago, 1,115 furious members of the Alliance of Cana-

dian Cinema, Television and Radio Artists (ACTRA) cancelled a recent decision by their union executive which could have discouraged union members from participating in productions involving excessive violence and abusive sexual behavior.

Violence: There is no consensus on what to do about controlling pornography, least of all among academics. Some of them flatly declare that violence in the media generates violence in the real world. Others deny the existence of any causal link. Politicians, too, are buffeted by the confusing messages they receive. Last January, the Gallup organization reported that two-thirds of Canadians said that television violence may adversely affect youngsters. And in February, 1983, 58 per cent of Canadians supported censorship of television programs, especially pornographic and violent shows. Said Eastern Passage, N.S., fisherman Stanley Purdy: “TV is terrible. It should be censored more thoroughly, especially the obscene parts.” But politicians also note the contradictory evidence of the marketplace. Between 1965 and 1980 the sales of pornographic magazines in Canada skyrocketed by 327 per cent, to $15.4 million from $3.6 million. In the United States box office receipts of violent horror and science-fiction movies have shot up by 600 per cent since 1970, according to the Washington-based National Coalition on Television Violence.

One of the most vociferous pressure groups clamoring for political change is the police. They claim that media violence is partially to blame for the deaths of six on-duty policemen during the past two months and they cite the case of Metro Toronto Const. David Dunmore, who was shot and killed by 18-year-old Gary White last month. Friends said that the killer was fascinated by the violent movie First Blood, in which star Sylvester Stallone, an army veteran, engages in hand-to-hand combat with the police force of a remote U.S. town. When White shot Dunmore he was wearing army fatigues, as Stallone does in the film.

Societies have been censoring perceived threats to state stability or public morality ever since the power of the written and visual message began to be understood. In the 4th century BC the Greek philosopher Plato argued for the banishment of all poets because he claimed they lied about gods, heroes and men—and hindered the development of virtue in individuals and justice in the state.

Last week the Alberta education department scrapped four textbooks as teaching materials after an audit found sexist or racist biases in French and Ukrainian readers already in use. That decision highlights probably the largest single reason that the debate over censorship is sharper and more rancorous than ever: more diverse interest groups

are detecting more types of threats to their values. Ethnic and religious groups are challenging the way they are portrayed in everything from Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice, which offends some Jews, to snack food commercials which depicted Mexicans as lazy. Meanwhile, conservative lobbies continue to object to explicit material because they perceive it as a threat to a family-oriented society. But the most powerful pressure comes from women, who have emerged as a strong political interest group at a time when massmarket pornography has become more violent and more degrading. Many women contend that other types of sexually explicit material, both printed and on film, are a threat to their rising status and dignity.

Tragic: The feminist proponents of censorship have redefined the traditionalists’ definition of obscenity. They do not object to erotica—portrayals of sex between affectionate men and women—but they do oppose material that degrades or violates women, especially if it includes sexual violence. Declared Eileen Hendry, the acting president of the Canadian Advisory Council on the Status of Women: “I have no trouble with censorship when I know that the results of this type of pornography are damaging and tragic.”

Indeed, feminists are among the most divided groups on the issue. Callwood, for one, argues that rather than

fighting degrading porn, women should concentrate on acquiring even more economic power. “People do not beat up equals but inferiors,” says the bestselling author and civil libertarian. “Men do not push around women who make as much money as they do.” Still, because of her anticensorship stance, Callwood claims that she has been ostracized by many feminists and has resigned from two national women’s organizations.

Obscene: Politicians, conscious of the changing definitions of obscenity and of the new distinctions that the public is drawing between erotica and violent porn, are now attempting to change the laws on the subject. They have three main federal tools at their disposal: the Customs Tariff, which prohibits the import of books or visual material of an “immoral or indecent character”; the Canada Post Corporation Act, which limits prohibited material from coming into Canada; and the Criminal Code, Section 159, which makes it an offence to sell or distribute obscene material. Many critics argue that the code is inadequate because its definition of obscenity is too narrow: it says that obscenity exists only when there is “undue exploitation” of sex or sex coupled with crime, horror, cruelty or violence. Last February, former justice minister Mark MacGuigan intro-

duced an amendment that would add degrading and violent material even if it does not include a sexual component. The bill died when the Commons adjourned last June.

But the new Conservative government may revive that initiative. In June, 1983, MacGuigan asked Vancouver lawyer Paul Fraser to head a commission that would cross the nation to examine the whole question of pornography, evaluate the public’s attitude and make recommendations. His report is due before the end of this year. The Tories will probably wait for the Fraser report before taking public action on pornography. But Prime Minister Brian Mulroney has said that he will take “whatever legislative steps are necessary to define and control pornography ... swiftly and decisively.”

Bylaws: But censorship in Canada falls under both federal and provincial jurisdictions. The provinces can empower municipalities to enact bylaws regulating the display of pornographic materials. Last year municipal politicians in Dorval, Que., persuaded local retailers to keep porn magazines five feet above floor level and block everything but the magazine title with a barrier. That move convinced Quebec politicians to empower other municipalities to enact similar legislation. More significant are the powers of the censor

boards in the eight provinces that have them: they range from Manitoba’s liberal classification system, which merely warns viewers of the type of content, to Ontario’s strict censorship board, which cuts and bans without a trial. The Ontario board’s actions are the most controversial and far-reaching, because most films enter Canada through that province, and other provincial boards usually maintain Ontario’s cuts.

Because of those powers, Ontario inevitably finds itself facing the hardestfought battles over film cuts. Now the opponents of censorship are challenging the legality of Ontario’s censoring process with a powerful new weapon: the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. In 1982, the Ontario Censor Board banned public screenings of several films, including Michael Snow’s Rameau’s Nephew, an experimental work on perceptions that included a brief scene of penetration, and Not a Love Story, a National Film Board documentary on pornography. Soon after that, the Ontario Film and Video Appreciation Society, a group of arts organization administrators, film-makers and civil libertarians, sprang into existence. The film society promptly challenged the board’s fundamental right to cut and ban films. In divisional court in 1983 and in the Ontario Court of Appeal the following year, the society’s lawyers argued that the constitutional “freedom of expression” was being curtailed by a board that used only vague, subjective “community standards.” They said that that was not a reasonable limit to a sacred right. Both courts have backed the society’s position, with the Supreme Court of Canada likely to hear the case next year.

Censors: Four months after the February, 1984, decision, the censor board unexpectedly intervened in a new area. On May 31, Ontario censors seized two British videotapes from the avantgarde Toronto art gallery A Space, arguing that the board has authority over public showings of videos and that the gallery should have submitted the tapes for prior approval before showing them. The gallery protested vigorously. This month, Ontario county court Judge Douglas Bernstein added strength to the anticensorship forces when he ordered that the tapes be returned because the censors did not have a warrant. Bernstein ruled that the Charter guarantees freedom from such unreasonable search and seizure. But the judge did not have to touch the sensitive issue of the censor board’s authority over art galleries. A Space co-ordinator Douglas Sigurdson continues to maintain that the province does not have the right to censor art before it is shown.

The censors also have to deal with the shifting and confusing nature of com-

munity standards. The country’s censor boards have tried to adapt to community standards the notorious film Caligula which features buggery, mass murder and mutilation of genitalia. The variety of rulings that resulted was staggering. British Columbia and Quebec allowed the U.S. edition, which featured 20 more minutes of violence and explicit sex than a British version. Five other provinces approved the British version, but in one—Alberta—police subsequently charged distributors with obscenity under the Criminal Code.

Nova Scotia banned the film altogether.

The Caligula example reflects the ambiguity that haunts the issue of censorship.

Community standards differ widely. And the question of what is “undue” exploitation of sex is still largely a subjective judgment.

Former Ontario censor Michele White, who ended a three-year term last month, says,

“Some men who find lesbian sex between Playboy bunny types just fine are appalled by male homosexual sex acts.”

Sadistic: Meanwhile, the flood of sadistic, graphic material continues to grow. As a result, the police are demanding better weapons and tougher penalties to wage war on porn. And they are seeking a more forceful message from the public. As Insp. John Lucy of the Vancouver police department told Maclean's, “The police are paying more and more attention to the issue, but I think that clear public opinion is sorely lacking.”

In the forefront of the pressure for tougher laws is Ontario’s groundbreaking Project P. Formed in 1975, the four-member group of two Ontario Provincial Police officers and two Metro Toronto police officers is the country’s first antiporn squad, and it now offers courses to police and other law officers on how to recognize and charge obscenity. The officers of Project P have become active proponents of the need for an expanded definition for obscenity that includes violence and degradation. Project P’s Cpl. Ronald Kirkpatrick says that most provinces now draw a legal line between simulated sex acts

and such acts coupled with violence. As a result, sex with violence, hard-core sex, bestiality and pornography involving children can be considered obscene. The courts have confirmed Project P’s judgment on the issue: since 1975 the squad has lost only four of 450 cases. Kirkpatrick said that Quebec and British Columbia are more tolerant: provincial police mainly restrict obscenity charges to kiddie porn, bestiality and violent sex and coercion. But violence

without sex remains largely free from censorship. “You could have a threehour documentary about disemboweling babies,” says Kirkpatrick with visible disgust, and police officers would not be able to stop its distribution. The officer added that most pornography users become “desensitized” and begin to crave more explicit and violent material. “The public at large is unaware how far things have gone,” he declared. “Our tolerance changes because stuff sneaks up on us. Every month [the distributors] push the law and we try to push back.”

Central to the concern of police and other pro-censorship forces is their belief that porn affects behavior. Whether

or not they are right is a question that has driven a nationwide wedge into the academic community. At the heart of the controversy are a series of dramatic studies by leading North American academics whose results are both fascinating and disturbing. In 1981 two University of Manitoba researchers, Neil Malamuth and James Check, showed two sexually violent films, with rape scenes, to half of a group of 115 students and two nonviolent films to half of another 115 students. Subsequent questionnaires indicated that males who saw the sexually violent films revealed increased acceptance of violence against women. (The changes in female attitudes were insignificant.) Then, a 1982 study by Americans Dolf Zillmann and Jennings Bryant which exposed 160 male and female subjects over a sixweek period to degrading but nonviolent pornography concluded that all members of the group became less supportive of women’s liberation, more inclined to give lighter sentences to convicted rapists and more distrustful of their partners in extended relationships. One of the most respected professors in the field, Ed Donnerstein of the University of Wisconsin, says that there has been sufficient serious research to justify the conclusion that pornography influences behavior.

‘Aggression’: But the debate is not closed. York University sociologist and feminist Thelma McCormack, for one, is vehemently opposed to increased censorship—and she insists that the recent studies do not show any direct link between sex offences and pornography. McCormack argues that because men become desensitized, “It does not mean that they are doing anything.” As well, she contends that there is no conclusive proof that the media can change attitudes, and that the media rarely change behavior. “Researchers are now saying that porn does not cause aggression but it reinforces attitudes that condone aggression,” she added, “Well, there is a big step between attitudes and behavior.” Criminologist Cyril Greenland of the University of Toronto, an expert in sex offenders, is even more blunt. “To the best of my knowledge, there is no causal relationship,” he says. “Life is much more complicated than that. They [sex offenders] may be turned on by porn but the existence of porn does not compel them to act.”

While the question remains unresolved, the belief that films and books affect behavior still lies behind the call for more censorship—and indeed the basic justification for all censorship. The head of Ontario’s embattled censor board, Mary Brown, contends that pornography is changing the face of Canadian society. She says that the incidence of violent sex films has more than

doubled in the past year. Her board’s monthly list of requested cuts contains almost as many violent scenes (“Eliminate two poles through man’s eyes— graphic”) as sexual scenes. Brown says that the current controversy over censorship is obscuring the real problem— the nature, not the control, of the product. “Porn is being force-fed into our culture,” she says.

Imprisoned: But Callwood said that the urge to censor is simply the urge to avoid the unsettling, the unpleasant and the disturbing. People reach for censorship as a “big white bottle of pills” to cure society’s ills, said Callwood, but it is really “a big white ball of cotton that will cover our eyes from the realities of the world.” Indeed, the desire to suppress what is perceived to be a threat has caused governments all over the world to censor various kinds of expression. According to PEN, the international writers’ organization, at least 500 writers are currently imprisoned in countries from the Eastern Bloc to the Third World for their controversial works.

The results of government censorship were on view at the festival of Forbidden Films, which opened last weekend in Toronto. Each film shown was

either banned in its home country for political, religious or moral reasons, or else government forces had hindered the film-maker in his or her work. The festival’s selection included the 1976 Israeli film The Black Banana—director Benjamin Hayeem’s satire of religious practices which the Israeli government suppressed because it offended that country’s politically powerful religious groups. The festival also tried to run In The Realm of the Senses, a 1976 Japanese film which is both sexually explicit and violent—as well as being a powerful critique of the decadent elements in Japanese society. Last week the Ontario Censor Board banned the film because of its explicit sex. “The amazing thing is how many times great film artists have been censored,” said festival chairman Marc Glassman. Added Wayne Clarkson, director of Toronto’s internationally acclaimed Festival of Festivals— which has had its films banned with numbing regularity ever since it began in 1976: “The price that we pay for censorship is a far greater price than those films inflict.”

Satiric: Increasingly, critics are concerned that those with the power to censor are banning films for political as well as social reasons. In August the Ontario Censor Board restricted showings of the British rock video Two Tribes by the group Frankie Goes to Hollywood to those over 18. The board claimed that the tape was too violent, but many observers countered that its content was clearly satiric: Two Tribes shows U.S. President Ronald Reagan and Soviet leader Konstantin Chernenko in a vicious, groin-grabbing cat fight. In the United States the trend to political censorship appears even more clear cut. The Reagan administration, which last year ordered National Film Board films on acid rain and nuclear war to be labelled as “government propaganda,” this year moved to curb the

freedom of expression _

of its federal employees. In June The New York Times revealed that more than 120,000 federal workers had signed agreements to submit for censorship any speech, article or book that they produce on U.S. intelligence gathering.

Both the advocates and the foes of censorship base their cases on a judgment of what causes society the most harm. Many Canadians, angered by sadistic and vulgar pornography, argue that a government must be

able to protect the dignity and interests of its citizens. Others, alarmed by the prospect of surrendering more freedom to governments, contend that banning books and films will not make society safer or solve the real problems of its weaker members. It is a philosophical struggle that began before the first Chinese emperor held his book bonfire in 213 BC—and burned the humanist writ-

_ ings of the great sage

Confucius. And it will continue as long as governments attempt to decide what freedoms and rights must be curbed for the greater good of society. The choice is one that no responsible legislator makes easily—and history is littered with ample evidence of their mistakes.

Diane Luckow

Garry Moir

Ann Walmsley

Hilary Mackenzie

Bruce Wallace

Deborah Jones