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Ineffective Solutions to Porn
Women Against Censorship,
edited by Varda Burstyn
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 interesting book.
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 pornography.
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 "impersonal sex."
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 women either.
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 this section.
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 Pornography.
Published in Sources, Summer 1985