THE BODY POLITIC June 1984, No. 104. Chris Bearchell

p. 8.

Combat Zone

The magnificent distraction

For months, the headlines have been full of talk about smut — with an emphasis on kiddie porn and murder/mutilation movies — leaving good citizens everywhere cringing in the dark, and politicians plotting the real mayhem: guaranteeing their own political futures.

Lately, the headlines have been the result of the last round of public hearings on prostitution and pornography by Justice Minister Mark MacGuigan's Fraser Committee. MacGuigan hopes to pre-empt the committee's findings by ramming a series of Criminal Code amendments through the next session of Parliament. Bill C-57 would expand the definition of obscenity to include the degradation of persons, and would further penalize prostitution by making customers liable to prosecution. The god-fearing must be made to tremble if they are to be persuaded that the armed guardians of social order need more power to do their jobs well.

But if that doesn't work, the justice minister will at least have succeeded in putting his pet issues on the campaign agenda for the election that's just around the corner (an election during which MacGuigan still nurtures fantasies that he may become prime minister). There's nothing like law and order, except maybe sex, to take the voters' minds off social and economic problems.

Even if the Fraser Committee were to endorse some of the more interesting or innovative ideas it has heard, it's too late. The committee's role in the "discussion" was set a long time ago: to become an elaborate distraction; and to provide the media with the opportunity to create "appropriate" public opinion.

A good chunk of the mainstream media has been happy to oblige. Pornography and prostitution are issues that lend themselves to a lucrative school of journalism: sensationalism. There are plenty of vicarious thrills to be had by probing the pain of rape victims and the fascinating horror of life on the streets. The latest article about women tearing up pornography in some hotel lobby makes a perfect accompaniment to the standard fare of sex and violence that dominates the headlines and keeps "decent folks" nervous behind closed doors.

Sensational "journalism" is most effective, and most insidious, when it works in cooperation with credible institutions like the police. A four-column story in the April 18 Globe and Mail was headlined: "Hard-core porn for rent; snuff film a hit with children." The article quoted homicide detective, who said that at least one of the killings in videotapes they'd seized was real.

Fortunately, the spectre of state censorship ensures that not all journalists are naive or cavalier about police interests in the debate. Michael Enright, editor of Quest magazine, said in a letter to the Globe April 25 that, if the substance of the snuff story were true, the Globe had "fallen over a journalistic exclusive of stupendous dimensions." As Enright pointed out, no one has ever been able to authenticate rumours that so-called snuff films include actual murders. If the police now have the evidence, Enright asked, when will they lay murder charges?

Ten days later, Enright's question was answered. In a Globe feature entitled "Where is all that porn?," Bryan Johnson explained that some bureaucrats and their political bosses at Queen's Park were afraid to e quoted if their views departed from the all-party pro-censorship "correct line." That line is based on the widely held perception that the province is being flooded with vile and disgusting smut. Tory culture minister Susan Fish, for example, had no trouble assuring Johnson that "everything from so-called snuff movies to very, very serious exploitation of women and children" is available in Ontario video stores.

The facts, as Johnson discovered them, were a little different. Project P, the joint Metro Toronto/Ontario Provincial Police anti-porn squad, has created a set of guidelines that forbid "any form of penetration, sexual act combined with violence, with children or with animals" (yes, the cops really talk like that). Last year's raids for videotapes, based on these guidelines, netted Project P 300 different titles. Any snuff films? Corporal Ron Kirkpatrick told Johnson, "We've never seen a real snuff film at Project P." Seizures of kiddie porn have been limited to a couple of homemade efforts. Convictions are virtually automatic for such "hard-core" material.

Johnson concluded that existing criminal law, not to mention censorship, is controlling both violent and sexual imagery quite effectively — in spite of the startling revelations of that first Globe article. This is the closest either the cops or the Globe have come to a retraction.

Nonetheless, the belief that porn — and the video-porn industry in particular — is completely out of control has voters and politicians at all levels convinced that something must be done. A dubiously worded poll by the Ontario Ministry of Consumer and Commercial Relations shows support for the province's censor board. And Minister Robert Elgie has announced that new legislation will empower the Ontario Censor Board to ban commercially distributed videotapes. (The new, improved censors will be re-named the Ontario Film Review Board.)

State bureaucrats aren't the only bureaucrats who want in on the action. The Alliance of Canadian Cinema, Television and Radio Artists (ACTRA) made a submission to the Fraser Committee that consisted of a newly released policy statement produced by ACTRA's board of directors. The statement advocated that the Criminal Code definition of obscenity be expanded to include depictions of a variety of acts, among them "sado-masochistic portrayals of men or women being beaten, tortured, maimed, raped, tied up, chained, whipped…" (did somebody get off on writing that line?) The ACTRA board proposed to limit the need for government censorship by negotiating with producers clauses that would prohibit "materials that advocate or condone violent or abusive behaviour towards human beings." This prompted the Association of Canadian Film and Television Producers to declare that a professional association should not "impose on a production its editorial bias or standards of morality." But the loudest protest came from ACTRA members themselves. Dozens signed petitions or sent letters protesting their own board's actions, with some expressing wonder at the short memory of their colleagues: McCarthyism, the blacklists and the prissy Hollywood production code are not things of the distant past.

But actors and other artists aren't the only people with a great regard for freedom of expression who nevertheless have given liberal cover to the censorious urges of those in power. The day after the first "snuff" story appeared in the Globe, Toronto New Democrat Dan Heap demanded that Justice Minister MacGuigan explain what the government was going to do about "the explosion of video films that peddle obscene violence." Heap quoted the cops' claims that they had seized snuff films. The Canadian Civil Liberties Association defends the obscenity section of the Criminal Code even as it denounces prior censorship. In Vancouver, the visible role of gay men in the latest twist to the anti-prostitution crusade, the "Shame the Johns" campaign, has given gay liberationists cause to ponder.

The pressure on unionists, artists, civil libertarians and other progressive people to condemn the sex industry, marginalize its workers and cast them as victims (lavishing pity on them, at best) has been generated by a tendency within feminism that is not only anti-violence, but erotophobic as well. Fortunately, there are feminists who challenge this tendency. They were among the artists who criticized the ACTRA board's actions; they are the people who are coming forward to make the diversity of feminist opinion on porn and prostitution more obvious.

Feminist writer June Callwood recently asked pointed questions about the role of Maude Barlow, once leader of the protest against Playboy programming on pay-TV, and now the latest anti-porn activist to make her living off the sex industry — taking across the country a travelling road show of film clips and photos depicting atrocities against women and children. And she's doing it at public expense: she's now the prime minister's special advisor on women. After more than a decade of feminist organizing, women in Canada are as economically disadvantaged as ever. Callwood cites the statistics: half the single-parent families headed by women live below the poverty line; two-thirds of women over 65 live in poverty; women still earn an average of 60 per cent of what men earn; most welfare recipients are women and children. Daycare is inadequate; abortion not readily available. In the face of all this, Callwood concludes, Barlow and her travelling show are "a magnificent distraction. A government that doesn't want to take any meaningful action to help women needs all the Maude Barlows it can get."

The tragedy of all this is that a cycle of poverty is the real source of the violence that victimizes so many women and children. But let's face it: poverty isn't a very sexy subject for journalists. Not when they can turn their attention to streets supposedly overflowing with hookers, to little kids getting their grubby paws on supposed snuff films and to the Maude Barlows of the world showing off a bunch of dirty pictures.