THE BODY POLITIC March 1984, No. 101. Chris Bearchell

p. 7.

Pornography, Prostitution and Moral Panic

Chris Bearchell observes the latest attempts to justify censorship, and ponders life under the new sexual McCarthyism

The Fraser Committee on Pornography and Prostitution has all the makings of a good, old-fashioned travelling road show. Excited whispers announce its imminent arrival. Righteous tongues and fingers have plenty to wag about. Everyone, from the most respectable to the least reputable, wants to gawk and have a say. But, predictably, it's the respectable who are given the most respect. The rest — gay people and a small but growing number of sex-trade workers, some of them feminists — raise their voices in protest amidst the babble.

The babble? Pro-family moralists who favour further restrictions of prostitution and pornography. Politicians who favour whatever they think their constituents most want to hear — usually more law and order. Feminists who support prostitution but oppose porn. And a few feminists and gay liberationists who oppose sexist pornography and censorship and criminalization of prostitution. (Admitted consumers of either branch of the sex industry have been conspicuous by their silence — this porn fan, for instance, didn't have time to explain her preferences, and the anti-prostitution crusader rumoured to have had liaisons with 14-year-old hustlers didn't, understandably, own up to his).

It's easier to make light of it now, but as I sat in the Toronto hearing surrounded by gay journalists and activists, hookers, hustlers and strippers — a collection very much the object of hostility for other observers and participants — and as most other deputants to the committee made their pleas for more laws, greater control and more power, one palpable feeling grew hour by hour; that our very existence was threatened by this charade, and by the larger process it is a part of.


Periodic moral panics and the political scapegoating of sexual minorities have been a part of life in this land for the decade and a half I've been involved in politics. What's so alarming about it this time? Well, for one thing, it's on a grand scale.

Until now, such campaigns have been fairly routine, local diversionary political maneuvers, or part of the usual way police accumulate the statistics they need to justify increased budgets.

The extensive street solicitation that currently alarms Vancouver's West End residents was brought about by the diligent efforts of several city administrations. In 1977, when the notorious hippie-basher Tom Campbell was still mayor, the city commissioned a report on prostitution from anthropologist Monique Layton. The report made all the usual liberal recommendations about discontinuing arrests in favour of providing economic alternatives to people in the business, and detailed the workings of night-clubs that provided heterosexual prostitution for upper- and middle-class men. A secret and expensive police investigation also examining the clubs led to a two-year court action against them, during which time old-fashioned moralist Jack Vollrich was elected to the mayor's chair.

The pressure on the clubs ensured that those who were soliciting were turned out onto the streets. And no sooner had the court case ended than the Hutt decision came down: as a result of a Vancouver prostitute's challenge to the soliciting section of the Criminal Code, the British Columbia Supreme Court ruled that, to be an offence, soliciting had to be "pressing and persistent."

Present mayor Mike Harcourt inherited the problem. A moralist in modern drag, he doesn't care if prostitution goes on, he says, just as long as Parliament passes laws to get it off the streets and out of sight.

In some cases, morality campaigns are the result of internal police politics — that's one of the favoured explanations for the 1981 Edmonton bath raids — or of special local conditions — the pre-Olympic crack-down on Montreal's gay bars in 1976, for instance. Sometimes such campaigns have regional implications. Toronto's "clean-up" of Yonge Street massage parlours in the late '70s not only swelled the ranks of street prostitutes by forcing indoor sex-industry workers out onto the pavement, it also heralded the beginning of Ontario Attorney General Roy McMurtry's political gay-bashing.

"Societies appear to be subject every now and then to periods of moral panic," says Stan Cohen in his book Folk Devils and Moral Panics. "A condition, episode, person or group of persons emerges to become defined as a threat to societal values and interests; its nature is presented in a stylized fashion by mass media; the moral barricades are manned by editors, bishops and politicians and other right-thinking people. … Sometimes the panic is passed over and forgotten, but at other times it has more serious and long-term repercussions and it might produce changes in legal and social policy or even in the way societies conceive of themselves."

"Sexuality has a peculiar centrality in such panics," Jeffrey Weeks observes in Sex, Politics and Society, "and sexual 'deviants' have been omnipresent scapegoats." And the Fraser Committee, or rather Justice Minister Mark MacGuigan's agenda, of which the Committee is only a part, threatens to catch sexual minorities in legal changes that may make them the long-term scapegoats of a new sexual McCarthyism.

A decade and a half ago, important changes in both sex and law were settling into place in western capitalist nations. From the increasingly obvious use of sex as an inducement to consumption in advertising to the increasing explicitness of sex in pornography, social life was becoming eroticized. At the same time, a liberalization of law was taking place in North America and Europe that placed an individual's consent — rather than public morality — at the centre of the law's concern about private behaviour. Weeks calls these changes "a major legislative restructuring, a shift in the mode of regulation of civil society." Radical questioning of society, sparked largely by US atrocities in Vietnam, was widespread at this time. The Vietnam War era also meant a continuation of the post-war boom for economies like Canada's, which was keyed into the war effort, and that meant further extension of relatively affluent lifestyles. As the anti-war movement forced the US withdrawal, the economy and radicalism waned. The chill of the current right-wing political backlash began to set in. Feminists and gay liberationists worried that the backlash would mean a further marginalizing of their concerns, increasing conservatism in their movements and an erosion of the gains made during the '60s. Developments in the current debate about pornography and prostitution may represent the realization of some of our worst fears.

Another alarming thing about the Fraser Committee is that it's being given a progressive cover by feminist support for the anti-porn movement. The day before the Toronto hearings began, some members of the Fraser Committee attended a symposium called "Media Violence and Pornography."

The event was sponsored by the Canadian Coalition Against Violent Entertainment (CCAVE) and chaired by David Scott, a therapist who has a reputation in the Toronto press as a spokesman against violence against women. The 20 US "experts" (less than a third of them women), who dominated the agenda and gave the event its international pretensions, cost a lot of money to import. And that money came out of the pockets of those attending: it cost $40 to get in. Only $10, though, for members of the media — certain media, anyway. When four of us from The Body Politic tried to pre-register, we were told that all but one of us would have to pay the full rate. No such restrictions were placed on the number of reporters allowed from the Globe and Mail, the CBC, the Willowdale Mirror or NOW.

CCAVE also restricted participation to those 18 years of age and older, allowed no questions from the floor and began with a religious service. The $40 fee included one plastic lunch, but no daycare. There were no deals offered to students or the unemployed.

The agenda included in the conference press kit noted that, in order to "avoid controversy," hot topics like abortion and homosexuality were not to be addressed. All the speakers had apparently agreed to this, but one, Dr Pauline Bart of Chicago, used some of her time at the podium to defend her pro-choice position on abortion. For this, she was pounced on in the hallway by CCAVE president Joan DeNew, who threatened punishment for her violation of the rules: the conference might decide not to cover her hotel bill.

There was other evidence of ruthlessness among the organizers. I discovered that a friend, a stripper, who had managed to get in at the $10 press rate only after being told rudely and condescendingly to behave herself, was likewise suspect. She had been working with the YWCA to organize a strippers' support group. The day before the symposium she was told by someone at the Y that David Scott had called to ask them to warn her not to disrupt the event by performing a strip. ("Without being paid for it?" was her incredulous reaction.) The police had been notified, Scott said, and were prepared to jail her if any disruption occurred. No, Mr Scott wouldn't say where he'd heard that such a dramatic bit of subversion was being planned. Fortunately for my friend, the women at the Y were appalled at Scott's allegations, and the women's relations with the Y were not jeopardized. But now we know how dedicated censors operate.

The day's programme, after the service, got underway with an extensive, if repetitious, review of research documenting an apparent correlation between seeing violence on television and engaging in violent behaviour. There followed a lengthy, repetitious panel about violent pornography and violent behaviour. The conclusions drawn about TV were apparently meant to transfer to porn. I'd wondered about those conclusions earlier — did the correlations documented prove that watching TV violence caused violent behaviour, or were other factors at work? Maybe things influencing violence in life could also influence a person's attraction to violence on television. And no one now seemed to question how comparable the studies on two different media — television and pornography — might be. The effects of TV violence have mostly been judged by measuring real-life experience — so many hours of viewing per day, every day — and mostly in the long term, assessing the experience of children who've grown up into violence-prone adults. Most research on pornography and violence has been laboratory-constructed, and has dealt with short-term effects on adults. And most TV studies have involved violence alone, not violence in combination with sex. The assumed connections were as dubious as they were suspicious.

The lunch-hour address, by US Surgeon General Everett Koop, sounded for all the world like a recording of Ronnie Reagan. (I didn't get close enough to see whether he had a wind-up key in his back.) It was more imported American fantasy, and we were not given the chance to question its applicability to Canadian reality. That very day, the Toronto Star carried a front-page feature entitled "Violent Crime Is Not Rampant." In Ontario, the Star reported, the violent crime rate has remained almost constant for the past ten years, but public anxiety about violence is escalating.

Then the real emotional manipulation began. More researchers with scads of slides, excerpts from rick videos and advertising images, all warm-up acts for the thing that got all the press: an FBI slide-show on "child molesters." Pedophilia, contrary to enlightened scientific understanding, was defined by the FBI as an essentially violent pathology, and one characterized by a neurotic penchant for collecting things — pedophiles save letters from each other, photos of their lovers or other images they find sexually attractive. Thus the ordinary habits of people whose erotic lives are denied public validation, and who would naturally seek communication with each other, were construed as symptomatic of serious illness. Many of the slides of these collections (no doubt gathered by the FBI in their continuing witch-hunt against the North American Man-Boy Love Association) included pictures of children — living people whose faces the FBI felt free to display widely and in public, with no regard for potential consequences. All, of course, in the interest of "protecting" the very same children.

How, you might wonder, could feminists stand for all this? They didn't — sort of. A group of protestors took to the stage, hastily made banner in hand, and read a statement, in English and French, condemning the fact that the symposium cost too much, that it censored discussion of abortion and lesbianism, and that it was not feminist-controlled. The protestors also said that the critique of pornography was not discussed in its proper social and analytic context: the broader condition of women in society.

Most of the statement's original signatories were symposium speakers — including key-note speaker Andrew Dworkin, who delivered an oration that rivalled Billy Graham for sheer vehemence. Her signature, and those of other speakers on the protest statement, seemed a token gesture. But they couldn't have done anything else, except acknowledge that they had lost control over what was supposed to be their issue, that their allies on the right could not be trusted, that they had made an error in political judgement in lending credibility to people such as those who had organized the symposium. But they weren't willing to admit any of this. It was, in many ways, a pathetic scene: a determined group of women, complete with Maude Barlow, the prime minister's feminist advisor, up on stage trying to keep up a brave front in the face of real powerlessness. It is a scene I fear will be repeated too often before we've heard the last of the moral panic over pornography.


And then there is prostitution. The only reference to it in the symposium was in the statement of protest, which took an insulting slap at prostitutes by equating their jobs with the victimization of women who are raped.

In its initial radical fury, women's liberation attacked marriage because it institutionalized women's economic dependence on men, perpetuated sex roles and an unfair division of labour that left women responsible for largely unpaid domestic work, denied sexual choice and freedom, and symbolized the ownership of women by men.

Prostitution isn't that different from marriage. Rather than sign a lifetime contract of sexual and other services for security, the prostitute negotiates many such contracts, all more or less on her own terms. The stigma of the whore keeps most heterosexual women faithful, to preserve bargaining power within their marriages, while the existence of the whore ensures the double standard that allows men more sexual options. It is not possible to deal with problems presented by prostitution without dealing with the totality of women's oppression; prostitution is just another part of "women's work" that perpetuates systemic inequalities, and it requires systemic solutions.

Many feminists who addressed the Fraser Committee took the easy route and denounced porn, while not discussing prostitution. Those who did tended to recommend decriminalization without hesitation. So why did members of the Canadian Organization for the Rights of Prostitutes see themselves as "sold out" by many of those same feminists? Partly because the women who work as models in pornography are sisters in the struggle for the right to make their living as they choose — pornography is a form of prostitution, and many who work in the sex industry will not be so easily divided. And partly because the advocacy of decriminalization usually came without a thorough-going feminist analysis, but with a dose of paternalism — like that shown at the symposium, where prostitutes were compared to victims of rape. Prostitutes were no longer potential allies — they were pitiable victims. "I don't want to hear that 'jobs, not jail sentences' bit one more time," the stripper beside me muttered darkly, at one point during the hearings. "Don't they know we have jobs — or had them, until they went on their little moral crusade. All we want is some respect for our work."

Seeing prostitutes as helpless victims is consistent with the way such feminists also see pornography — as rendering all women helpless victims. The power of a critique of fundamental social structures is lost as individual men are seen as the source of women's problems. But it is the system that perpetuates male domination. These women have ignored this, though. If the system is to be blamed, there would hardly be any point in demanding that the government legislate against sexist images in pornography. Not only would such action not change anything; it would give greater power to the system that causes the problem in the first place.


Any woman who comes to feminism through the anti-porn movement comes to a much more respectable, less radical, more conservative movement than the one which once clearly aimed at the important, rather than the easy, targets.

But there are still feminists who have the important targets in sight. They know that when disease is rampant, you can't simply concern yourself with the symptoms, no matter how horrible those symptoms may be. They also know that an obsession with victimhood can derail a movement that must concern itself with power — who has it, how they got it, and how to take it for ourselves.

It must be up to those feminists to point out the ever-more-apparent dangers of allegiances with those who, despite their superficial commitment to common concerns, are enemies of freedom and justice.