COVER

SEX AND CENSORSHIP

JOHN BARBER September 1 1986
COVER

SEX AND CENSORSHIP

JOHN BARBER September 1 1986

SEX AND CENSORSHIP

COVER

The only film shown regularly in the screening room of the Ontario Film Review Board is 22 minutes long and has no title, although some viewers call it “Mary Brown’s horror show,” after the province’s recently transferred chief censor. The film is made up entirely of scenes which the board has ordered removed from movies, beginning with two from the The Tin Drum, the 1980 Academy Awardwinning film. And some scenes in the Mary Brown film are less explicit than the peep shows shown in the dank arcades of most large-city downi towns. But the short also contains a prolonged sequence from the movie Snuff, which the board rejected in 1977. If anyone had publicly screened it, successful prosecution under the obscenity section of the Criminal Code would almost certainly have followed.

The scene shows a man with wire cutters apparently snipping the fingers off a bound, naked woman. After more torture he slits her body open and pulls out her heart. Then he disembowels her, raises her entrails above his head and screams in triumph.

Murder: A police official said that Snuff is “the Hollywood version” of a real snuff movie, so-called because it ends with the actual murder of the actress. Although the existence of genuine snuff films is in dispute, they have become vivid symbols of what concerned citizens see as a new wave of pornography now threatening to engulf the nation, one characterized by a level of violence and cruelty that would sicken the pioneers of the so-called permissive society. The new pornog-

raphy has given urgency to demands from social conservatives for stricter censorship. At the same time, the trend is forcing some civil libertarians and other liberal-minded people, including feminists, to advocate the censorship cause.

Earlier this year the federal gov-

ernment responded to the new militancy by drafting some of the toughest antipornography laws in the Western world. One result is that in Canada now, the debate over censorship has reached an intensity that would have been inconceivable at the dawn of the sexual revolution in 1962. Then, after relatively little contro-

versy, the Supreme Court of Canada ruled by a narrow 5-to-4 majority that D.H. Lawrence’s 1928 novel Lady Chatterley’s Lover was not obscene.

Much of the contentious new pornography is produced, and for the most part freely distributed, in the United States. There, an antipor-

nography report recently delivered to Attorney General Edwin Meese drew strong criticism even though it stopped short of recommending official censorship (page 42).

In Canada, by contrast, several existing statutes successfully suppress the open distribution of hard-core pornography in most provinces. Still,

the new legislation tabled in the Commons by then-justice minister John Crosbie last June is much more severe than the measures proposed by the Meese Commission. The most controversial aspect of Bill C-114, as the new Canadian legislation is officially known, is its sweeping definition of suppressible pornography. Indeed, a New York Times headline recently speculated that even such established soft-core publications as Playboy magazine could be banned in Canada as a result of the new law.

Necrophilia: The contentious clause would outlaw “any visual matter showing vaginal, anal or oral intercourse, ejaculation, sexually violent behavior, bestiality, incest, necrophilia, masturbation or other sexual activity.” Many observers, including those who favor limited censorship, have criticized that clause for failing to distinguish between common sex acts and the most bizarre perversions. But the ban against pictures of “other sexual activity” has proven most controversial. Declared Alan Borovoy, general counsel of the Canadian Civil Liberties Association: “I used to think that I was somewhat worldly. But when I read through the list, I couldn’t for the life of me figure out what they could possibly have meant by ‘other sexual activity.’ ” Added Borovoy: “I would have thought the list was exhaustive.”

Despite the considerable criticisms levelled against it, the new law will bring some order to an often dizzyingly inconsistent system of official censorship that satisfies neither its detractors nor those who favor more

stringent controls. The wide scope for interpretation in the current legislation, which outlaws the “undue exploitation” of sex and violence, has led judges to formulate what they described as “community standards” in order to determine obscenity.

Fined: But those standards vary widely among regions. A Winnipeg retailer was recently fined $1,000 for renting out video cassettes of nine films, including one called Coed Teasers, which the Ontario censor board had approved and which recently completed a short run in one of Toronto’s few remaining sex cinemas. But the movie’s distributor, Douglas Rankine of Toronto, declared: “I couldn’t give this censor-board product away in Quebec, British Columbia

or even Alberta. It’s not explicit enough.”

Crosbie’s bill marks a dramatic departure from the recommendations made last year by the Special Committee on Pornography and Prostitution, chaired by Vancouver lawyer Paul Fraser. The federal government committee called for revisions to the Criminal Code that would suppress a wide range of “violent and degrad-

ing” pornography while decriminalizing depictions of certain so-called obscene activities. It said that the code’s emphasis on the corruption of morals was anachronistic. Instead, it proposed sanctions against “the denial of human dignity” which it saw in much pornography. That would have opened the door for highly explicit material of the kind now illegal—a prospect that alarmed many politicians and their constituents.

As a result, a group of 15 organizations including Roman Catholic and Pentecostal churches joined together to form the Toronto-based InterChurch Committee on Pornography. The group then organized a letterwriting campaign opposing the recommendations. As a result, after receiving “thousands” of letters, Crosbie said that he rejected Fraser’s recommendations. Said Suzanne Scorsone, committee spokesman and director of the Office of Catholic Family Life for the Archdiocese of Toronto: “There might be some on the committee who want the legislation to be stronger than it is, but basically we are very much in favor of it as it stands.”

Erotica: Although the new legislation directly addresses those concerns, many women’s groups, which otherwise support the suppression of pornography, have criticized Bill C-114. Some feminists say that it fails to distinguish between erotica—which by their definition can be highly graphic depictions of normal, healthy sex— and violent or degrading pornography. Said § Louise Dulude, presidí dent of the National I Action Committee on 55 the Status of Women: I “They completely fail I to recognize that there “ is a difference between erotic material and pornography, a crucial difference that feminist groups have been presenting for a number of years.”

According to the prevailing feminist analysis, pornography is a form of hate propaganda directed against women. Feminists say that because of it, men see women merely as tools for sexual pleasure, and it encourages sexual violence by fostering the myth

that women enjoy being abused. But few feminists are totally opposed to the new legislation, and many approve of severe penalties for violent and child pornography. Lynn McDonald, for one, a Toronto New Democratic MP, has endorsed the Tory initiative with only a few reservations. She declared: “By and large, it is very good legislation. It does what I have been urging the government to do.” More conventional feminists dispute the claim that the proposed legislation is largely a result of the political pressure that they have applied. Said Dulude: “To use us as a scapegoat in this instance is extremely unfair.” She added that her group is currently preparing a brief for Ray Hnatyshyn, the new justice minister, outlining its opposition to parts of the bill.

Others say that the similarity between the two positions is illusory. Declared Alison Kerr, a Toronto researcher who heads the educational program Resources Against Pornography: “I think the press, in its terror of censorship, has been using that idea as a red *> herring to deflect at2 tention from what we are really saying.” «

Pregnant: Kerr uses | an extensive collection of z pornography, much of it £ collected from corner-store newsstands, to illustrate her point. It includes a cover from the June, 1982, issue of the French magazine Hara Kiri—a photo montage depicting a pregnant Princess Diana, naked from the waist down, being kicked hard in the stomach by a man with a cleated boot. There is a cartoon from an edition of Hustler magazine which was passed by Customs, in which a character named Chester the Molester hides behind a tree with a net while a young girl nervously approaches a doll he has set nearby. A “how-to” feature from Gent magazine shows men how to pierce women’s nipples and set chains in them. And an advertisement in Video-X magazine, promoting famous porn star Vanessa Del Rio, declares: “You’re in for some of the meanest, cruellest, most downright savage footage you’ll ever see. It’s females in bondage, replete with straps, whips, ropes, apples in the mouth—all the accoutrements. Vanessa takes it like you’ve never seen it before: hopeless, helpless, powerless.” Whatever their differences, nearly all modern proponents of increased

censorship rely to some extent on recent research that has examined the relationship between pornography and violence. They say that the real harm caused by pornography— either to women or to society as a whole—justifies limitations on freedom of expression.

Decay: After surveying many studies, the Fraser commission said that it was forced to conclude “very reluctantly” that they offered no real proof of pornography’s role in promoting violence against women or so-

cial decay in general. But that conclusion proved to be controversial— almost as controversial as the Meese commission opinion, based on much the same research, that the opposite was true.

The most frequently cited studies are those which use standard experimental techniques to measure changes in attitude within audiences—usually male college students—before and after viewing pornography.

The inconclusiveness of the research is most evident from the fact that partisans of opposite views often cite identical studies, especially those done by Edward Donnerstein, a psychologist at the University of Wisconsin, who has documented what he

calls the “desensitization” of audiences subjected to sexually violent material. Over the past three years Donnerstein has concentrated on socalled slasher films such as The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. He found that after viewing the movies, male audiences became more callous in their attitudes about rape.

A related study was conducted in 1980 at the University of Manitoba by Neil Malamuth, now a professor of psychology at the University of California at Los Angeles. He found that

films depicting violence against women made male college students far more willing to accept it than students who saw films without violence.

Destructive: Still, neither researcher is willing to propose a direct cause-and-effect link between pornography and violence. Donnerstein said that extreme violence is destructive, but there is no evidence that explicit sex is as well. Malamuth says that pornography is only one of many factors that might induce a person to commit a sexual offence, although he added, “It may be the straw that breaks the camel’s back.” Indeed, many of the worst serial murderers of modern times

have maintained collections of pornography.

Central to most modern procensorship arguments is the belief that a new and far more dangerous kind of pornography has emerged to serve appetites stimulated by the sexual revolution of the 1960s. That view is shared by many police officials, censors and Customs agents, who say that the material they seize or suppress is becoming increasingly more violent. As a result, a special unit of the Toronto and Ontario Provincial

Police, known as “Project P,” has assembled videotapes of material seized in that province, which it shows on request to community groups. The worst material, which the squad reserves for the media and parliamentarians, is replete with simulated and real child molestation, bestiality and footage of actual torture and mutilation of a group of women in South America. Said Project P Sgt. Wendy Leaver:

“The average person has no idea what we mean when we talk about pornography today.”

The office in which Project P screens its tapes is lined to the ceiling with shelves of videotapes, and the floor is almost invisible beneath knee-high

stacks of sex magazines. The unit shared some of its lurid collection with justice department officials while they were drafting Bill C114. During her presentation, Leaver points out which material would have been allowed under the Fraser commission recommendations, and she says that the group was wrong to propose removing sanctions against nonviolent pornography. Declared Leaver: “When explicit, degrading sex becomes legal, the violence and the bondage becomes available under

the counter, and right behind that you get your kiddy porn and your snuff movies.”

Meanwhile, Canada’s civil libertarians have been struggling to make themselves heard. Although Borovoy emphasizes his support of feminist goals, he said that their procensorship arguments represent “a disquieting new dimension” in the debate. One of his colleagues in the civil liberties association, Toronto journalist June Callwood, said that she was “devastated” after a public dispute with prominent feminist and former Liberal party adviser Maude Barlow two years ago. After attacking Barlow’s procensorship position in a column, Callwood

found herself isolated and shunned by many feminist friends. Added Callwood: “It has been a hard choice for me: principle over popularity.” Borovoy described the sweeping definition of pornography in Bill C114 as “obviously fatuous.” But unlike many critics who oppose Canada’s current obscenity regulations, he says he does not believe that any substitute wording, no matter how precise its definitions, will be better able to distinguish between pornography and legitimate art. He added: “The position that we have taken is that there simply are no words in the English language sufficiently precise to make that distinction. In fact, the effort to ban one inevitably creates pressures to ban the other, and that is the argument that in my view many of these people have failed to answer and often even failed to address.” Abhorrent: Feminists like Kerr, as well as many police officials, say that libertarian arguments indicate an ignorance of the abhorrent nature of modern pornography. Kerr added that the persistence ¡2 of grey areas would be § a small price to pay for the suppression of mag terial that systematig cally degrades women. 5 Said Kerr: “I would say that protecting more than half the population comes ahead of protecting a piece of borderline pornography.” And Scorsone said that it is not necessary for censorship laws to make painstaking distinctions between art and pornography because police are able to distinguish between the two. Added Scorsone: “Very, very rarely will you find the hassling of somebody who is a poor and struggling legitimate artist. For the most part what you find are people who are making a big buck on very cheesy low-life material.”

In the cramped premises of the Glad Day Bookshop in downtown Toronto, the outlook is radically different. There, a rack of well-perused homosexual-oriented magazines bears two handwritten notices. One says “Seized since mid-July,” and lists about 20 titles; the other says “Censored this week,” and lists six. The seized magazines will eventually be destroyed by Canada Customs. But the censored magazines—some with pages ripped out, others with blank

spaces or black ink obscuring pictures and text—were altered by publishers acting on the advice of Customs officials who preview advance copies.

Customs agents have increased their scrutiny of Glad Day shipments ever since April, 1985, when Parliament adopted tariff guidelines that ban “portrayals and descriptions of the act of buggery.” The guidelines were developed after the Federal Court of Appeal struck down the previous law that Customs had used to ban books because it was too vague to qualify as a reasonable limitation of free speech under the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. But the precise wording of the new law has resulted in much more controversial decisions.

Nazi: One of the most notorious Customs decisions is a ban against a book titled The Joy of Gay Sex, coauthored by Dr. Charles Silverstein.

The publication is part of a popular series of sex manuals that began in 1972 with Dr. Alex Comfort’s international best-seller, The Joy of Sex. Customs has also banned The Men with the Pink Triangle by Heinz Heger, a nonfiction account of homosexuals in a Nazi death camp, because of its disturbing description of how the SS tortured one young man.

Among the censored magazines available at Glad Day is one with a square of black ink obscuring an advertisement for condoms, which homosexuals now use increasingly to avoid contracting AIDS. Customs has also censored at least two articles in different magazines that tell readers how to avoid AIDS by practising “safe sex.” Although the reasons for the Customs decisions are not made public, the material presumably offended because of its association with “the act of buggery.”

Glad Day manager James McPhee says that he always appeals the seizures to customs officials, but that he has rarely succeeded in freeing seized shipments of books and magazines. Seizures made since mid-July have cost the shop $6,000. But when Crosbie was justice minister he defended the toughness of Bill C-114 on the grounds that it allowed what he called “artistic merit” as a defence. However, McPhee said that such pro-

visions will be irrelevant to his store, and added: “The reality is that Customs will still seize books, and the onus will still be on us to go to court to prove they are not pornographic. We don’t have the money ourselves to support these kinds of judicial challenges.”

Still, a group called the Canadian Committee Against Customs Censorship has joined with the store to challenge The Joy of Gay Sex ban in court. Their lawyer, Charles Campbell of Toronto, is also acting on behalf of a group of film-makers, distributors and exhibitors called the Ontario Film and Video Appreciation Society, which will resume a longstanding battle against Ontario’s film censors next month. In 1982 the

society challenged the prohibition of four films at The Funnel, a Toronto art gallery. The society fought the case all the way to the provincial Supreme Court, which upheld its contention that the vague language in Ontario’s film censorship laws was unconstitutional. The province appealed the case to the Supreme Court of Canada, but it effectively preempted the proceedings by writing a more precise law and reconstituting the censor board as the Ontario Film Review Board.

Threat: At least part of both cases will concentrate on the important legal concept of prior restraint. Unlike statutes that provide for prosecutions against pornography already being distributed, both disputed laws are designed to suppress material before the public has had a chance to see it.

Borovoy said that “in a democratic society, that is a particularly intrusive exercise.” He added that officials do not preview controversial newspaper or magazine articles, even though after publication a court might find that they had violated such laws as the Official Secrets Act. Said Borovoy: “In some parts of Canada it would appear that films with certain sexual content are a greater threat to the public interest than revelations of national security material.”

Adult: Distributors of pornography have for the most part been silent in the current debate. One reason is that in Canada many of the most successful of them already operate illegally and have no interest in defending the legitimacy of their business. And businessmen who openly distribute what they call “adult” material are often more interested in laws that are clear-cut rather than liberal. Douglas Rankine, who distributes U.S.-made sex videotapes mainly in Ontario, says that he has experienced a “dramatic” increase in his business ever since the provincial government passed laws requiring videotapes to be screened and classified by the censor board. The reason is that retailers 3 consider the classified I tapes, which bear a ^ sticker attesting to z their approval by the § board, immune from prosecution.

As Parliament resumes this fall and begins debating Bill C-114, there is considerable speculation that the government will amend its most controversial aspects. Even church leaders who fully support the new legislation say that they would be willing to see the “other sexual activities” language disappear. There is also a possibility that the government will introduce an entirely new bill in a new session of Parliament. But Canadians have called for a firm response to their perception that society is being polluted by a deluge of pornography, and the federal government seems determined to provide it. Ultimately, it will be up to the courts to decide whether it has gone too far.

—JOHN BARBER in Toronto with correspondents’ reports