A constant cry of our pluralistic and secular society is that morality is not to be legislated. Indeed in 1969, then Justice Minister, John Turner, claimed that the Criminal Code of Canada is neutral and cannot represent ‘private moralities.’(Speaking on the abortion bill in the House of Commons.)
An unexpected subsidiary theme of this is-called neutrality of the State was that those members of parliament of groups of society who still believed in the validity of the old moral principles — rational or religious or both — were told in no uncertain terms to be silent, that they had no right to present their private moralities, that if they were to do so they were imposing their private views, something clearly unacceptable. Few seemed to notice that these people, for all practical purposes, were being dis-enfranchised. Meanwhile, those who favored abolishing the old morality demanded a free hand in order to make the Code neutral, and secular, and, therefore, presumably, acceptable to everyone.
As in the continuing abortion battle, the controversy over pornography tends to split people into two camps — pro or anti censorship.
The question of obscenity and censorship is not new to the period 1965-1985; nevertheless, these years seem to mark a crucial stage in the debate. Even a cursory examination shows that over the last twenty years the pornography trade in North America has expanded from almost nothing into a billion dollar industry with a fair share of that in Canada, accompanied by increased acceptance in society and an increased hostility towards all forms of censorship. In 1982, in a letter to the Globe and Mail, the National Film Board stated that “at the lowest estimate, the pornography industry has increased from an annual turnover of $5 million to $5 billion during the past 12 years,” a turnover greater than that of the film and music industries combined.
The first major setback for control of pornography, whether in books or movies, came in the early sixties, when Lady Chatterley’s Lover (1963) and The Moon is Blue were held not to be obscene. Ten years later, views had changed so quickly that some people supported the abolition of all restrictions, including censorship boards, following similar recommendations in the USA.
This stand was adopted in 1973 by the Government’s Law Reform Commission, which recommended repeal of all legal restrictions prohibiting adults from buying or possessing pornography. In May 1977, the Supreme Court of Canada ruled that municipalities may not protect public morality by withholding a business license. In the same month, an Ontario provincial judge ruled that a Miss Nude contest was not contrary to the law. The following month, an Ontario Country Court jury ruled assorted pornographic magazines such as Penthouse and Gallery not obscene. In July 1977, the Ontario Supreme Court decided that pornographic magazines do not automatically become obscene if they are available for viewing by children. In years following, municipalities found it almost impossible to pass anti-pornography by-laws which were not successfully challenged in the Courts.
Those favoring uncensored movies played out provincial censors against each other as, for example, in 1972 when the movies Clockwork Orange and Last Tango in Paris were condemned in some provinces and accepted in others. Again, as time passed by, the anti-censorship forces became more vocal. In April 1978, ACTRA, the Association of Canadian Radio and Television Artists, wanted the Ontario government to end all film censorship. In the same province, censorship opponents created controversies over cuts in the movies Pretty Baby in the 1978 and the Tin Drum in 1980. in 1981, they helped rally radio and TV artists, the Association of Canadian Publishers, the Periodical Distributors, the Writer’s Union, the Canadian Association of University Teachers, the Civil Liberties Union and assorted newspaper editorial writers to oppose stricter laws proposed by the Federal Government. In 1982, under the name “Ontario Film and Video Appreciation Society,” they launched a constitutional challenge to the censor which was rewarded by a decision of three Ontario Supreme Court justices who in March 1983 ruled that the Ontario Film Censor Board is operating in violation of the Charter of Rights.
Opponents of total freedom were neither entirely without support, nor completely passive. For example, in 1974 the Catholic Holy Name Societies of Hamilton protested nudity on Toronto’s Channel 79. in 1975, some action was undertaken in Ontario to pledge Christian women to bring back decency in dress. In December 1976, Archbishop Pocock of Toronto launched a campaign to remove pornographic magazines from neighborhood stores and push for a stricter federal definition of obscenity. The Archbishop started his anti-pornography campaign with an Open Letter of Concern published as an advertisement in Toronto daily papers on December 3 and read at Sunday parish Masses. He called on concerned people to refrain from patronizing the publications, theatres and places of business which encourage pornography.
Father Brad Massman, director of the archdiocesan social action office, reported support from the Anglicans, the Salvation Army, Baptist and Greek-Orthodox Churches as well as from the group Citizens for Decency. A department of the United Church Head Office expressed interest also. The diocesan spokesman stated he was especially impressed by the coverage provided by the CBC and the Toronto Star and the support from major magazine dealers wanting help in breaking the wholesaler’s system which forces them to take allotments of magazines they don’t want. As for the Courts, in April 1977 the Federal Court in Ottawa ruled that a particularly vile issue of Penthouse was obscene and in January 1978 the Supreme Court of Canada upheld the office of Provincial film censor, thereby fighting off an attempt to remove all restrictions. On lower levels, police actions against obscenity did bring an occasional conviction here and there.
Despite actions and decision such as the above, every Canadian city today has its “adult” bookstore, adult being a euphemism for sex, violence, sadism, self-abuse, rape, lesbianism, homosexuality and masochism. Restrictions on the content of films are minimal, if they exist at all. In one medium large Canadian city, one-third of the movies shown recently in its 52 theatres carried the classification “Restricted Adult” (the equivalent of an X-rating elsewhere); another one-third were classified “Mature,” a grading often accompanied by the warning: “crude language and violence”; and only seven out of the 52 were designated fit for family entertainment. When the movie Caligula was seized in the same city, the court ruled that it was not obscene. Yet, the regular film reviewer of the local newspaper, the Edmonton Journal had noted that the film contained “numerous scenes of sexual intercourse, homosexuality, lesbianism, orgies, decapitations and disembowelings” and the judge who presided at the trial found this film “revolting, repulsive, repugnant and offensive.”
In his pamphlet, Censorship in a pluralistic society, Dr. David Dooley commented that we are moving “towards the limits of brutality.” Around the world of movies and books there is a rising tide of meta porn, an ever bolder world of nudists, sex and shops, female mud wrestlers, live sex shows in night clubs, male strippers, coarse language and nudity on the stage, and various public expressions of sexual perversity now even brought into the home by means of video tapes and Pay TV. A great many people, be it a silent majority or minority, are convinced that there is a cause and effect relationship between that world and the world of crime and violence in the streets.
The collapse of effective controls over obscenity is due to the same factors which brought about the changes in law during the years 1966-1969: a new permissiveness reflecting a secular spirit which demands complete freedom of action. The law, revised in 1959, considers material to be obscene if its dominant characteristic is “undue exploitation” of sex in conjunction with crime, horror, cruelty and violence. Undue exploitation in turn, is to be measured by contemporary Canadian community standards, but it is precisely these community standards which, some claim, have disintegrated.
While it is difficult to know what to do under these circumstances, the supposed disintegration of standards does not explain wholly the lack of resistance on the part of the Christian churches. These are of good will and supportive of initiatives such as the 1982 federal government proposal to prohibit child pornography. Yet at the moment, the more determined forms of opposition to pornography seem to be left to groups of feminists.
Originally, feminist groups were part of the problem because of their pressure politics for less restraints and greater freedom in all aspects of marital morality. Yet, today, a number of feminists have begun to understand that pornography and violence against women are closely associated. Thus, during the national “pornography-on-pay-TV-controversy” of January and February 1983, groups of feminists demonstrated in many Canadian cities against the corporations and businesses whose financial backing makes the Canadian production of pornographic TV films a reality. Later on a number of churches such as the United and Anglican churches also expressed concern about the turn of events in the television industry. The CCCB, the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops, issues a public letter addressed to the CRTC, the regulatory agency of radio and television, in February 1983.
From “ring around the collar…”
It is interesting that after scoffing for years at the common sense view often represented only by Christian women’s groups and Catholic teaching, the sociological experts are finally catching up, though not quite all the way. For example, in 1983, NDP MP for Broadview-Greenwood, Lynn McDonald, said that recent research had disproved the “commonly held” belief that the availability of violent pornography reduces the incidence of sexual offences by providing an outlet for men’s aggressive impulses. Earlier research, she said, especially studies in the 1970s in Scandinavian countries following the liberalization of sexually-explicit materials there, dealt only with erotica and not with violent pornography. New research is showing that men who view films and magazines which depict violence against women are more likely to commit such acts than men shown materials that are sexually explicit but not violent. Miss McDonald went on to say that, “because they are based on sex, rather than on violence, our current obscenity laws are clearly inadequate.”(Globe & Mail, May 14, 1983.)
As yet, the sociologists do not seem to accept the relationship between sexual violence and what they term “erotica.” Traditional Christian teaching has maintained that what is now called “erotica” is part of a process of undermining the dignity of women by making them into objects of lust. However, half a load may be better than none and perhaps it is possible to limit the pornographic explosion by outlawing sexual violence and child pornography.
In the meantime, we may hope for further growth in understanding. At a two-day conference for anti-pornography groups held in Toronto on January 12, 1985, sociology professor Judith Posner of York University reported that women’s media images have gone from “ring around the collar to rope around the neck…the image of women in the media is not improving, it’s getting worse,” she said. Posner, who has been studying women in advertising for 15 years, said the use of soft-core pornography in advertising socializes children and teenagers to accept male domination over women. “What is disturbing,” she said, “is the correlation between sex and violence.” Another speaker called for action on the high school level: “There is so much peer pressure to accept whatever is on TV or the latest rock video.”