Ineffective Solutions to Porn
Women Against Censorship,
edited by Varda Burstyn
Douglas & Mclntyre, 210 pages, $10.95
Reviewed by: Reva Landau
Women Against Censorship will be an inspirational document
for those who agree with the contributors' position. However, such
faults as lack of understanding of feminist positions, lack of documentation
and clarity of meaning severely mar what could have been a very
The introduction by Varda Burstyn illustrates several of the problems
repeated throughout the book. She writes about how the women's movement
is in conflict over sexually explicit material. The women's movement
is not in conflict over sexually explicit material; everyone agrees
that material that is merely sexually explicit is not harmful and
should not be controlled by the government. The argument is whether
material designed to sexually arouse the consumer (whether it is
sexually explicit) AND which shows the humiliation and denigration
of human beings and in particular which promotes violence
against and the extreme degradation of human beings should
be controlled through the legal system. I expect this sort of inaccurate representation from publishers
of pornography; I expect better from feminists.
It is astounding that a book called Women Against Censorship
never gives a definition of "censorship." Nowadays, "censorship"
is used to refer to everything from the traditional legal definition
which would cover what the Ontario Film Review Board (formerly
the Ontario Censor Board) does to a much broader category
including not only Criminal Code regulation but civil laws. Clarification
by writers using this term is essential. For example, a Toronto
Star columnist who reviewed the book mistakenly concluded that
some of the contributors object only to the Ontario Film Review
Board and would support the use of the Criminal Code to control
The contributors make some valid points. Varda Burstyn and Mariana
Valverde point out that, because of their lack of economic power,
freedom of speech is not a reality for most women. Lisa Steele provides
an excellent analysis of the advertising industry in which she explains
that advertising is not art and that one of the roles of advertising
is the transmission of ideas about how men and women should behave.
It is a pity that she does not apply these same insights to pornography.
The contributors seem unaware of the pervasiveness and extent of
pornography, of the reasons women object to it, or of the latest
developments in the ongoing debate. For example, June Callwood states
that there is very little "hardcore" pornography around.
"Hardcore" is not defined so I cannot be sure what she
means by this statement. I do know, however, that stores in Toronto
sell magazines entirely devoted to pictures or descriptions of women
in bondage or being tortured and assaulted, and that the less extreme
men's magazines commonly sold in variety stores also feature such
material. Either she does not know that such material exists or
she does not consider it "hardcore."
June Callwood and Ann Snitow are even surprised that violence against
women has become a central theme of the women's movement. June Callwood
views women's "almost primeval obsession with protecting our
bodies" as "atavistic" and interprets our need for
security as a "distaste for impersonal sex and fondness for
romantic literature." Most women would agree we object to pornography
because of a "need for security" but it is a need to feel
safe from sexual assault, mutilation, torture, and death, not from
The lack of documentation and footnoting is frustrating for the
reader. Vague statements are made several times about millions being
spent on the prosecution of progressive artists, gays, dissidents,
and feminists. What feminists? On what charges? When? Where?
When, in an article by Lynn King, some details are given, a different
picture emerges. She cites four films censored or cut by the former
Ontario Censor Board. Beau Pere was censored for condoning
a sexual relationship, explicitly portrayed, between a man and his
14-year-old stepdaughter. Raneau's Nephew was censored for
scenes of explicit sex and urination. Urination and child abuse
are not progressive or feminist. The other two films she cites
Taxi to the Loo and A Message From Our Sponsor may
or may not be progressive. As King does not provide the Censor Board
reports which explain why they wanted the films cut or banned, it
is impossible to tell. But, at best, it is hardly the flood of prosecutions
against feminist and progressive work cited elsewhere.
In any case, all the emphasis on past Censor Board decisions is
misleading. There is very little acknowledgement in the book of
new definitions being proposed by women's groups, definitions which
would distinguish between pornography and erotica, which would distinguish
between material that condemned and material that condoned sexual
violence, and which would concentrate on the use of the Criminal
Code rather than Censor Boards. Only June Callwood mentions these
new definitions; she goes on to say that none of them would work.
As she does not provide any of the definitions, we cannot judge.
The only detailed analysis of proposed laws is the one offered by
Vance et al of the Minneapolis civil by-law legislation. Unfortunately, much of what
Vance says does not apply to proposed Canadian solutions.
However, Vance et al should be congratulated for stating
openly what is only implied in other sections of the book. They
criticize the Minneapolis civil legislation because it assumes that
all forms of bondage and all types of sado-masochistic behaviour
are violent. They are of the opinion that this is an area which
we must explore, and that feminists who oppose pornography are trying
to cut off discussion in this area. It makes sense for women (and
men) who support sado-masochistic practices to oppose government
regulation of pornography. That's because laws can distinguish between
violent and non-violent sexual material but they cannot distinguish
between "consensual" and "non-consensual" bondage
and sado-masochistic material, especially since a standard message
of violent pornography is that women enjoy pain and humiliation.
It would help debate in this area considerably if more anti-censorship
proponents acknowledged that they want to protect at least some
sado-masochistic material, and that it is not merely "erotica"
which they want to defend.
Most of the proposed solutions in the book are valid feminist objectives
which should certainly be supported. They would, however, have little
effect on pornography. For example Sara Diamond admits that pornography
does encourage violence against women. But she says that abolishing
pornography alone will not stop this violence. I agree, but day
care and rights for lesbians and gays two of the solutions
that she advocates will not by themselves stop violence against
Similarly, while forcing distributors to handle feminist material
will be good for both women and publishers of feminist works, it
will not affect pornography. Men do not read Hustler because
they cannot buy Ms. or Broadside at the local store.
Some of the suggestions in the "Positive Strategies" section
were quite surprising in view of positions taken earlier in the
book. The contributors had repeatedly made the point that women
could not trust the state, that laws are always interpreted by non-feminists
who will never use them in our interests, and that we should not
focus on law reform. But a number of the proposed solutions
compulsory distribution of feminist material by booksellers, equal
pay for work of equal value, and affirmative action necessitate
state intervention, law reform, and interpretation of law and regulations
by male judges and boards. The section even appears to advocate
the use of Human Rights Tribunals to prevent women from being harassed
by the presence of pornographic material in public places.
I say "appears" because on page 158 the writer says that
human rights legislation should not be used to prosecute sexual
material, and on page 160 she says that women could ask Human Rights
Commissions or local authorities to remove offending material from
public areas. What are "local authorities?" Police? City
Hall? And "asking" will not accomplish anything unless
the law clearly gives the "authorities" the right to forbid
the selling or posting of pornographic material. And, if they are
willing to use the "state", why use a relatively ineffective
tool like the Human Rights Commission?
Most of the solutions in the Strategies section will not stop either
violence against women or pornography but at least they are not
harmful. I am, however, concerned about the suggestions regarding
sexual child abuse. What Varda Burstyn seems to be saying is that
the laws prohibiting all sexual contact between a minor and an adult
should be abolished, and that only laws prohibiting "forced"
contact should be used. The thought of a defence attorney cross-examining
a 10-year-old child as to whether or not she "agreed"
to child abuse is frightening. I hope that I have misinterpreted
The writers of this book constantly worry about the alleged alliance
between anti-pornography feminists and conservatives. But they never
examine the possibilities of their own position being used to support
the power of pornographers to continue making millions from violence
against, and the degradation of, women. Maybe they should.
Reva Landau is a Toronto lawyer and member of the Committee Against
Published in Sources, Summer 1985
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