A passionate debate over pornography

RAE CORELLI February 22 1988

A passionate debate over pornography

RAE CORELLI February 22 1988

A passionate debate over pornography


Last December the Winnipeg Art Gallery removed an 18th-century work entitled Violation Scene from an exhibition of Japanese prints because it graphically depicted the rape of a woman. But to forestall accusations of censorship, the gallery left in place another print called Two Lovers, which, according to gallery spokesman Terrence Aseltine, reflected sexual consent, not violence. Despite that distinction, many supporters of the arts in Manitoba objected to the removal of Violation Scene. In response, the gallery put the print back on the wall last week —but cancelled school tours of the exhibition until the show closes on Feb. 21. The gallery reversed its stand, said Aseltine, because “we wanted to demonstrate dramatically that we are united with galleries across the country.”

The common enemy, according to Aseltine:

Bill C-54, the sweeping antipornography proposals currently before Parliament.

Bill C-54, which Justice Minister Ray Hnatyshyn introduced last May 4, has sparked controversy across Canada. Many church organizations and some women’s groups have applauded its declared aim of cracking down on depictions of sexual violence and sexual exploitation of children. But many members of the arts and letters communities, including actors, television and theatre producers, film-makers, writers, publishers and librarians, have roundly condemned the bill as unwarranted censorship. And as the bill proceeds through second reading and the parliamentary committee study that is scheduled to follow that step, its progress appears likely to generate even stronger passions among supporters and opponents alike.

The proposed law is an amendment to the Criminal Code and would do away with the general definition of “obscenity” under which Crown prosecutors have conducted pornography-related proceedings during the past 29 years. Under existing law, any depic-

tion 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. Violations can bring a sentence of up to two years imprisonment upon convic-

tion. But Bill C-54 would replace that definition with two new categories— erotica and pornography.

Erotica—which the proposed law could equate with the nudity displayed in such magazines as Playboy—would be legally available, although not to minors. And the section dealing with pornography would ban any portrayal of “masturbation or ejaculation or vaginal, anal or oral intercourse.” Selling material containing stories or pictures about sexual violence or placing children in sexual contexts could bring prison sentences of up to 10 years. In certain cases—those involving artists for instance—the bill provides for acquittal where the defence can establish that the material “has artistic merit” or served “an educational, scientific or medical purpose.”

Opponents of the proposed legislation have harshly criticized that socalled reverse-onus clause, which would require a defendant to prove himself not guilty. Said Toronto criminal lawyer Marc Rosenberg: “It offends the presumption of innocence.”

And Alan Borovoy, general counsel to the Canadian Civil Liberties Association, said that the bill’s attempts to shield minors from explicit sexual material could outlaw books by U.S. child specialist Dr. Benjamin Spock and other clinicians who provide

advice on children who masturbate.

Other critics have launched campaigns to generate public support for their opposition to the bill. Members of the Canadian Library Association are participating in a national “Freedom to Read Week” from Feb. 22 to 28. To demonstrate their opposition to C-54, the 32 branches of the Toronto Public Library have been displaying books that association members say might provoke prosecution under the proposed legislation. Among the books are such works as Marian Engel’s Bear— the 1976 Governor General’s Awardwinning novel that contains descriptions of sexual contact between a woman and a bear—and William Faulkner’s 1931 Sanctuary, a book that includes scenes of sexual assault. Toronto librarians have also been distributing protest postcards, addressed to Prime Minister Brian Mulroney, for library-goers to send. Declared Toronto libraries chief executive officer Les Fowlie: “The whole area of teenage sexuality, which the bill really does not allow, is of very great concern to

us. We can’t ignore the fact that there is such a thing.” He added that the bill “would turn Canada into a cultural hinterland and make it the laughing stock of the Western world.”

Other library officials echoed those opinions. In Vancouver, Brian Campbell, chairman of the British Columbia Library Association’s intellectual freedom committee, argued that C-54 should be withdrawn because the definitions of pornography and erotica were “so broad that it makes amending the bill untenable.” And Régine Horinstein, executive director of the Corporation of Professional Librarians of Quebec, said that the bill “would require libraries to discriminate in what they could offer.” Indeed, William Converse, the University of Winnipeg’s chief librarian, said that the proposed law would make even academic libraries vulnerable. Added Converse: “If librarians imagine it would not, they are living in a fool’s paradise.”

But Hnatyshyn has gained some support for his bill. Patricia Marshall, executive director of the municipally funded Metro Toronto Action Committee on Public Violence against Women and Children, said that she was “quite happy” with C-54’s sections prohibiting child pornography and sexual violence. And she insisted that the artistic-merit defence would discourage police from raiding art galleries and libraries. For her part, Rose Potvin of Ottawa, president of the nationwide Canadian Coalition against Media Pornography, said that libraries had nothing to fear because police would not “waste their time on questionable pornography when they’ve got so much nasty stuff to chase.”

Still, in its January newsletter, the Canadian Actors’ Equity Association circulated a question-and-answer response to the bill, which claimed that director Franco Zeffirelli’s 1968 movie Romeo and Juliet would have been banned under Bill C-54 because it portrays teenage sexual behavior. Equally vulnerable, according to the newsletter, would be books by such widely read Canadian novelists as Robertson Davies, Alice Munro and Margaret Laurence. Similarly, Celia Duthie, the owner of one of Vancouver’s largest bookstores, said that C-54 could “affect 20 per cent of our stock if it’s really stretched.” Added Duthie, in a reference to the task that would befall customs agents if the Commons approves the bill: “I haven’t had any books held back at the border since the 1960s.” But if Bill C-54 passes, she and many other opponents may face a future in which history repeats itself.