From the time Bill C-54 was introduced in the spring of 1987, Canadians have been subjected to one of the most massive and blatant disinformation campaigns ever carried out in their country. The Canadian Civil Liberties Association, the Writer’s Union, the Alliance of Canadian Cinema, Television and Radio Artists and countless other group s have banded together to discredit – and misrepresent – Justice Minister Ray Hnatyshyn’s bill to control pornography.
These groups have had the willing support of the media. When a popular writer, Pierre Berton, appeared before a Toronto Library board to denounce the proposed legislation, the cameramen and reporters were there in droves. As they packed up to leave after his presentation, Nancy Pollock, head of Canadians for Decency, asked some of them, “Don’t you want to hear the other side?” The reply was, “Is there another side?”
In one of its editorials of the bill, “Tory pornography,” the Toronto Globe and Mail said that it reflected a repressive view of the world at odds with the existence of human beings as sexual creatures. This is fairly typical of the extreme condemnations which the bill has provoked. In a later editorial, the Globe solemnly listed the alleged flaws, the allegedly nonsensical restrictions, the opportunities for zealots to force their standards on the community, which the legislation provided. If the Globe was not zealously trying to force its own views on the community, what else was it doing? The rival Toronto Star was equally immoderate in its observations: it declared, for example, that the National Gallery might have to post prominent warnings beside some of its finest treasures – or else cover them over with brown wrapping paper.
As many others did, the Star concluded that the bill constituted a grave assault on freedom of expression. For Ross Lambertson, head of the Canadian Rights and Liberties Federation, the central question was whether the state ought to prevent adult citizens from consuming materials which although not dangerous, were considered by others to be disgusting. His answer was that the state has no such right in a democratic society: “Not only has it no place in the bedrooms of the nation, it also has no right to censor what people may want to watch in their bedrooms. Where adults are concerned, this is a matter best left to each individual’s conscience.” He was referring to former Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau’s famous dictum about the state having no place in bedrooms – a dictum which hardly bears examination, since the state does have a place in the bedrooms where rape or incest is involved, to take only two obvious examples.
Furthermore, the claim to privacy involves an equivocation and a pretence – that what is seen in the bedroom is an essentially private matter. But a film or television production is not something private; it may be seen by millions of people, and it is bound to have an effect on how the activities it exhibits are regarded in our society. Even those who never see the programme in question may be affected by it indirectly.
One of the most vigorous assertions of the rights of the individual was made by Pierre Berton. “In order to protect our children, we are all being treated like children,” he declared. “I for one resent it.” “Here I am, heading for my 70th year in a free country, looking forward to the dawn of the 21st century,” he continued, “only to find my government is determined to thrust me back into the 19th. For I am now told that I cannot watch any film showing two beautiful people making beautiful love.”
The recent conviction of a Vancouver millionaire for performing sexual acts in a public place reminds us that our society still considers that some acts should be performed in private, not in public. Whether the people are beautiful or not is of no consequence. In the name of his civil liberties. Pierre Berton wants to turn the stage and screen into the equivalent of Paris brothels, in which men and women put on, “exhibitions” for money. The fact that they consent to be filmed in these activities is irrelevant; they still degrade themselves and they degrade the viewers as well.
Still, the main assault on Bill C-54 has involved not rights but consequences. Alan Borovoy, general counsel for the Canadian Civil Liberties Association, managed to convince the Toronto Public Library Board that the bill was not merely intended to control “sleaze shops”; it might very well mean that librarians would face prosecution for having obscene material on their shelves. It is not Mr. Hnatyshyn, he said, who faces a jail term for keeping copies of Vladmir Nabokov’s Lolita, or Plato’s Symposium, or even books by Dr. Benjamin Spock.
Librarians and library boards all across the country believed Borovoy and his allies. Les Fowlie, chief librarian of the Toronto system, told the Toronto City Council that many library materials could fall under the pornography law and leave libraries open to prosecution. A trustee of the Toronto board, Sheryl Taylor-Munro, called the bill a threat to a first-class library system, and added, “The government is saying we are no different than child pornographers. This bill goes against everything we believe in – things like open access and freedom of speech.”
Librarians all across Canada sent letters of protest to Ottawa. On December 10, all but four Toronto libraries shut down, while their staff members attended a study session. Among the prominent people to speak to the librarians that day was novelist, Margaret Atwood, who said that the proposed legislation was using a blowtorch to cure a blister. (Pierre Berton had – previously written that “The rednecks are using a cannon to kill a gnat.”)
Unfortunately, these representatives of Canada’s intelligentsia have been demonstrating nothing more than their lack of thought upon, and lack of knowledge of, this controversial question.
Of course they are no more ill-informed than some members of Parliament. Svend Robinson has called the bill an obscenity and said that it would make Canada the most culturally repressive nation of all the western democracies. Lucie Pepin says that the bill does not just attack pornography but sexuality as well and asks whether the government is saying that human sexuality can never be depicted as healthy and loving.
We can dismiss most of the terms of abuse, like “puritan and Victorian” as simply vague expressions of disfavour which have no intelligible content; they reflect stock responses rather than real thought on the subject. Similarly, we can dismiss ad hominem attacks on “moral busybodies.” The more serious issues involve the dimensions of the problem the bill is attempting to address and the harm which pornography may do or may not do at all.
First of all, in response to Berton and Atwood, we might say, “Some gnat.” The industry in the U.S. is estimated to take in as much as $4 billion a year, it was wealthy enough to provide a fund of $9,000 for lobbying in Washington against the Meese Report, and it is controlled Mafia-style by a few families. (It is somewhat ironical to find a member of the NDP defending such a singular example of American-style free enterprise.)
Ross Lambertson maintains that no studies have ever shown that depictions of sexual activity can have harmful effects. The accumulation of probabilities, the amount of evidence, is far more compelling than Lambertson would admit.
Controlled experiments by Edward Donnerstein and Neil Malamuth have revealed that exposure to violent pornography leads men to make light of rape and other sexual assaults. Studies by Dolf Zillman, Jennings Bryant and James Check have shown that erotic materials without violence – the kind of material which Robinson, Berton and others defend – can be harmful in itself and can also stimulate a desire for something stronger.
Professor William Marshall, through his work with sexual offenders in Kingston Penitentiary, has found that men have often prepared themselves for sexual assault by looking at magazines showing explicit sexual scenes – the erotic material which Berton likes so much.
In its very careful study of sexual offences against children, the Badgley Commission concluded that for a number of persons pornography has served as a stimulus to the commission of sexual assaults against children; in its chapter 55, “Associated Harms,” the committee gives a number of striking examples.
“We are all subject to the laws of learning,” says psychologist Victor Cline, and therefore we should all be concerned about the kinds of experience which affect behaviour adversely. “What does it mean to grow up in a society which accepts pornography as normal?” he asks. One answer he gives is that it must lead men to expect the wrong things of women. So he stresses the need for us to assert that there is a standard of decency in our society and that we have a right to defend it.
Will the proposed legislation spell ruination of art and literature? Time magazine called it a “fig leaf law.” The newspapers made the same point by reproducing pictures of famous statues and paintings with black ink blotting out sensitive areas. In his regular column on art in the Financial Post, Arnold Edinborough wrote that bills like this “are getting at the arts people where they live;” let common sense replace draconian laws,” he urged.
Common sense should have urged him and other critics to read what the bill actually says. Section 159.1 (1) says that “the court shall find the accused not guilty, if the accused establishes, on a balance of probabilities, that the matter or communication in question has artistic merit of an educational, scientific or medical purpose.” No leap of faith is involved; it is simply a matter of accepting that the words mean what they say.
Alan Borovoy (among others) contends that Shakespear’s Romeo and Juliet and Plato’s Symposium might have to be removed from the library shelves. We have only to imagine what would happen if anyone prosecuted a librarian for having Romeo and Juliet on his or her shelves; the parade of Shakespearean scholars ready to testify to its artistic and educational value would reach around the world. Imagine similarly the parade of classical scholars who would take the stand to patiently explain that Alcibiades’ division of human beings into homosexuals and heterosexuals is not only a small part of the Symposium and that the dialogue is really about degrees of love, including the disembodied type we call Platonic love.
Borovoy is being completely disingenuous in his list of literary works subject to censorship if the legislation passes. And he knows very well that our judges have bent over backwards to show that they are as liberal and tolerant as anybody else; it is rare for a book or film to meet their censure if it has any pretensions to artistic merit at all.
In fact, groups like Canadians for Decency point out that the defense of artistic merit is open to abuse; what justification artistic or otherwise, can there be for scenes of sexual violence, gross intrusions of objects into body cavities, necrophilia and bestiality? The officers of Project “P”, the section of the Ontario Provincial Police assigned to deal with pornography, consider that the proposed legislation will not enable them to bring court cases against the most offensive pictures in Penthouse and Hustler and the like, such as those in which intercourse is simulated or nearly occurring – much less against a Rodin nude.
They are not the only ones to feel that the present legislation is inadequate and more restrictive laws against pornography are needed. In a Globe column last June, Michele Landsberg pointed out that a Manitoba judge had acquitted Penthouse magazine of obscenity charges, citing the testimony of respected civil libertarian spokeswomen that photographs of Japanese women ankles, bound, or trussed, with ropes tightly lashed around their breasts and through their genitals, were “strange and beautiful.”
Two days before this column appeared, the Ontario Court of Appeal upheld a decision by Judge P.T. Matlow that 36 sex magazines which showed sex without violence were not obscene. Crown attorney Stanley Berger said that the judgment made the law against obscene literature virtually unenforceable. “Unless we get the equivalent of pictorial representations of snuff films,” he said, “everything else can be distributed.” He had urged during the trial that the magazines advocated incest, bondage and use of children as sexual objects, and that they degraded women by showing them as sexual machines.
The proposed legislation is necessary, and most of the arguments against it are spurious. The objectors degrade the Canadian intellectual scene by making stock responses, using clichés, and failing to consider evidence which is generally available – including a carefully prepared report to our own government – that pornography causes harm within our society.