On Feb. 1, Canadians for Decency held its 4th Annual Seminar on Obscenity, Violence and the Future of Society at the Prince Hotel in Don Mills.  As in the past years, the society’s president, Nancy Pollock, produced a stimulating array of speakers, and again there was a large and appreciative audience for them.

Dr. William Marshall, a psychologist from Queen’s University, first went over familiar ground and then described explorations of his own.  He summarized the findings of Neil Malamuth and Edward Donnerstein, who has shown that, repeated exposure to pornography results in desensitization and callousness.  Then he mentioned the research of Dolf Zillmann, who has shown that similarly undesirable results come from exposure to material which is erotic but not violent:  contrary to feminists like Margaret Laurence, he contends that the depiction of sex which is explicit but not forceful does cause an interest in and pursuit of undesirable sex practices.

In his native Australia, he pointed out, there was a tripling of the rape rate in a very short time in South Australia, after restrictions on pornography were removed in 1971.  When the restrictions were restored six years later, the incidence of rape went down.  Clearly there is a correlation between pornography and attitudes and behaviour.  An American study of high-school students revealed that an astonishingly high proportion of them were readers of magazines like Playboy and had seen X-rated movies; among children in senior high school, 25 per cent of the boys and 15 per cent of the girls made some attempt to imitate the acts they saw.

Dr. Marshall was especially interesting in talking about his own work with sex offenders in Kingston penitentiary.  Based on it he estimated that about half of child molesters use pornography, especially child pornography.  About a third of rapists use pornography as an instigator:  they prime themselves sexually for their offenses through pornography.

Family breakdown

Elinor Caplan, Minister of Ontario Government Services, then spoke about the dilemmas facing legislators in the exercise of their responsibilities concerning obscenity and related matters.  Stressing the dramatic changes in society in a short space of time, with the loss of fundamental beliefs generally accepted only a few decades ago, she asked in effect whether we are to accommodate ourselves to a new social order in which there are increased violence, increased apathy, and family breakdown.  Today’s pornography employs types of sex and violence which are highly disturbing – rape, mutilation, torture, dismemberment, death.  Her government, she said, is listening to the range of views and seeking answers to the complex questions regarding pornography; at the same time it is making strong representations to the federal government concerning the Fraser Report.

Later on Robert Fulton, speaking on rock video, said that we are inviting the devil right into our living rooms.  We reap what we sow, he said; what kind of behaviour can we expect of children brought up in a debased culture, children bombarded with conflicting messages coming into their consciousness too fast for them to integrate?  Some of these messages create a great deal of anxiety, as when a young girl, in the process of forming an image of herself as a woman, sees men standing over women on television and asks herself, “Is that what men like?  Is that what they think about?”  Many of the themes in rock video, Fulton said, are in conflict with Christianity; they involve devil worship, sex perversions, and specific attacks on religion.  Since rock video links sex with aggression and death, and reinforces deviant sexual behaviour in men, he felt justified in calling it “interpersonal fascism.”

Katherine Smalley, producer of television’s “Man Alive” series, presented one of her programmes dealing with pornography, and made several interesting points in relation to it.  One was that it was very difficult to find intelligent criticism of television among the young:  they accept what they see.  Television legitimizes whatever goes on in it, whether good or bad; young people get their values about sex principally from television, and they are not sufficiently aware to be able to decode its hidden messages.  Like Robert Fulton, she stressed how present-day culture is affecting the young; the behaviour they learn from the media’s teaching may isolate them from truly human responses.  Like Dr. Marshall, she pointed out that Prof. James Check at York University has shown that eroticism is just as stimulating as violent pornography.  In a national survey, “Man Alive” found that 90 per cent of Canadians do not want violent, degrading sex on television, yet they will accept explicit sex which is not violent – even though Zillmann and Check stress that it, too, is harmful.

In a brief but forceful luncheon speech, Suzanne Scorsone gave a timely warning about what the Fraser Committee on Pornography and Prostitution has recommended.  It divides pornographic material into three categories or tiers.  Serious criminal sanctions would apply to material in the first tier, chiefly involving abuse of children or their representation in indecent acts.  Less severe sanctions would apply to a whole range of horrifying matter – “any matter or performance which depicts or describes sexually violent behaviour, bestiality, incest or necrophilia.”  Here as well the defense of artistic merit or scientific purpose would apply.  The third tier, to be treated still more leniently, could include “visual pornographic material or performances in which are depicted vaginal, oral, or anal intercourse, masturbation, lewd touching of the breasts or the genital parts of the body or the lewd exhibition of the genitals.”  Does the Fraser Committee really think, Mrs. Scorsone asked, that Canadian society is so corrupt that it will accept such material without question?  Since amendments to the Criminal Code are now under consideration, she emphasized the desirability of writing to members of Parliament and otherwise trying to apply political pressure in order to secure sane amendments rather than destructive ones.

Once again, Canadians for Decency has provided a useful service by giving us a forum in which such questions can be discussed.  If the society did not exist, it would be necessary to invent it.