Beyond censorship: Feminists and pornography

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'It wasn't all cheap strip shows. There was hard-core stuff where most of the women were strung out on heroin. It was sad, pathetic and awful. There really were snuff films. There were girls in poor countries who were killed in films.'

There has never been a more polarized debate within the women'smovement than the debate over pornography. While there had alwaysbeen some discussion on the issue among women in Canada, intense organizingbegan in the late 1970s against snuff films, which portrayed womenbeing killed as a sexual turn-on.

Radical feminists held militant protestsagainst porn theatres in Toronto and outside the Red Hot Video store inVancouver. Theory developed by American radical feminists such as Andrea Dworkinand Catharine MacKinnon saw pornography as leading to violence againstwomen, and those who embraced this view called for censorship. Otherfeminists argued that the state would use anti-pornography laws againstthose on the sexual margins of society, not against the billion-dollar pornindustry. But the debate went well beyond censorship to encompass fundamentallydifferent analyses of sexuality and women's oppression.

* * *

With the release in 1981 of the National Film Board's Not a Love Story: AFilm about Pornography, pornography became a major issue across Canada.

* * *

Bonnie Sherr Klein, filmmaker

I worked for the National Film Board in Montreal from 1965 to 1970âe¦ In1975 Kathleen Shannon invited me to join Studio D, the women's studioshe had started at the NFBâe¦

Studio D was always the orphan at the National Film Board. Kathleenwanted to keep everyone busy, so we were doing a patchwork film on feminism;we called it the quilt project. But there was an administrative glitch,and all of a sudden there was money and we had to spend it before an April1 fiscal deadline. We were scrambling for an idea.

I went to a conveniencestore with my daughter, Naomi, and saw some “tits and ass” magazines. Iwondered what kind of sense they would make to her. I knew nothingabout it, but I thought maybe we should be investigating the issue ofpornography. When I mentioned it at work, all the women had storiesabout pornography that they had never formulated. It was obvious therewas a window here.

I didn't start out hating pornography and wanting toget rid of it, as things were later interpreted. I was thinking of it as a way tounderstand what was going on between men and women. That was theimpetus. I thought that once you brought an issue to light and it was seenand analyzed, everything would change.

* * *

Early on in the research, I knew I didn't want to be a voyeur, looking atwomen in the industry as objects. Someone I knew had interviewedLindalee Tracey, a stripper who had started Tits for Tots, a strip-a-thon toraise money for a children's hospital. I met Lindalee and fell in love withher. She'd begun a feminist investigation before me. She had met womenfrom the U.S. group Women against Pornography, but she felt they wereanti-sex. She came to trust meâe¦

I changed my thinking about pornography by being exposed to it. Itwasn't all cheap strip shows. There was hard-core stuff where most of thewomen were strung out on heroin. It was sad, pathetic and awful. Therereally were snuff films. There were girls in poor countries who were killedin films. I went from wide-eyed innocent to seeing how violent and sickpornography could be. One accurate criticism of Not a Love Story is that itdoesn't make a distinction between soft core and snuff films. It became acontinuum for us, a consistent and coherent line. . .

There were test screenings and trials as the film was being made. Aninteresting thing when editing the film was deciding how much pornographyto actually use. I wanted to use the minimum, just to let women seewhat was there. But we had to have enough. Women's reactions to the filmwere often visceral. We would go to the women's room after the screeningsfor reactions and some women were terribly upset and couldn't move. Menfelt incredibly attacked and uncomfortable. A lot of good men didn't wantto be tarred with the same brushâe¦

At first, the Film Board said the film couldnâe(TM)t be released because it wastoo explicit. Really, the male administration thought the film was tooinsulting to men. The ban made it all the way to the commissioner of film,François Macerola, who said that it had to be seen. He was willing to becourageous and was maybe smart, too, because the notoriety helped put theFilm Board back on the map.

The first big public showing was a premiere at the Toronto Film Festivalin the fall of 1981. It was terribly scary. It was a huge event. Jay Scott, whowas a highly respected film critic for The Globe and Mail, called me a bourgeois,feminist fascist. He gave everyone permission to yell and scream andgo crazy. The audience reaction broke down along gender lines. Mostwomen were incredibly moved, disturbed, grateful and often relieved. Somesaid it was a litmus test for their relationships, in terms of how the men intheir lives reacted to the film. Some men were fine. Some thought Studio Dhated all men. Lots of men hated the film with a passion.

The way wesurvived this was that we had screened the film enough with women toknow it had an impact. We were grounded as a studio. I give Kathleen enormouscredit for her leadership. Journalist Michele Landsberg said Jay Scott'sreaction was so off the wall that she knew something good was happening.She gathered men off the street to come to a screening, and she wrote anewspaper column about their reactions.

The New York opening of the film almost a year later was fabulous. Thefirst night was for industry people, and that was very gratifying. The secondnight was sponsored by Ms. magazine. You could really see that the filmwas part of the women's movement there. It was important and embeddedin the culture. The film wasn't as mainstream in Canada as in the U.S.I was haunted during the editing and release of the film by whetherthere was a way of having it speak to women and not be as threatening tomen. I would like to have succeeded in both. Kathleen felt that in speakingto women, we would have to offend men. So it probably wasn't possible notto alienate men. The film came from a place of anger. Besides disgust, I feltanger, and this touched men in their balls.

Of the five or six of us involvedwith the film, everybody's relationship failed except mine. Even the cameraman,who had been married a long time, lost his marriage. We were all veryvulnerable.

Issues of pornography helped open the door to the issues of violenceagainst women. But it was never my aim or illusion to stop the porn industry.I resented for a while being known for Not a Love Story, because I didnâe(TM)tfeel it was my best work. Today, I am proud of it. I still meet women who saythat the film changed their lives. Lots of men say that to me, too. How manythings do we do in our lives that have that effect? The film has become such acommon reference point.

* * *

Varda Burstyn, feminist against censorship

The first thing I ever wrote about pornography was in 1975, after a marchby Women Against Violence Against Women (WAVAW) on Yonge Street in Toronto in front of one those so-called pornpalaces. That a theatre would show something that encouraged some kindof sexual experience from watching a woman being murdered demandedprotest, but should it call for censorship?

If the woman was actually beingkilled, then the film should be confiscated as evidence of a crime, ratherthan calling for laws that said you couldn't show it. I didn't want the theatreowners to show it, but that was different from calling for state censorship. Ifthis wasn't acting, then it should be treated as a crime. That's when I begantheorizing about what approach to take to pornography and censorship. Iwas seen as a traitor by a lot of feminists in '78 because I differed overpornography. It was a hideous experience, and I didn't want to be involvedin the issue ever again.

Unfortunately, I was not to be free of it. I was doing some film studies,and I ended up teaching courses on gender and film. Because of that, I wasinvited to serve on the board of directors for a wonderful film festival inPeterborough called Canadian Images, run by Susan Ditta. I believe it wasthe only feminist film festival in Canada, and Su involved other feminists tohelp her program.

In 1981, the festival screened a short film from B.C.Called A Message from Our Sponsor. It showed images of a man and womanhaving sex, and also images of women in ads. It asked viewers which wasthe greater obscenity: the way women were treated in the ads or the sexualimages? Which was more offensive? I thought that was a good point. Butthe festival was busted by the Ontario Board of Censors and the festival'sdirector went to trial. Her defence cost tens of thousands of dollars. Thishappened because she critiqued pornography. Suddenly I was on the boardof an organization that was facing the full legal wrath of the Ontariogovernment.

The next summer we programmed a day on pornography, and weshowed Not a Love Story, which had been censored in Ontario. Irony ofironies, many of the women who eventually became part of the groupWomen against Censorship didn't like Not a Love Story, because they felt itlacked depth and led to conclusions that would be harmful to feminists. Itwas a film that showed sex workers as victims. A lot of women felt the filmtalked about pornography as a tremendous evil, without making room forshared fantasy between men and women. There was a lot of bad feelingabout it.

Picture a beautiful evening in Peterborough and everyone gathered onSaturday night for the big event of the festival. Not a Love Story had beenshown during the day, and I was moderating the evening discussion.Reporter Carole Corbeil arrived late to cover the event for The Globe andMail. I was trying very hard to explain that there was a feminist positionthat was not pro-censorship, one that was critical of sexism but was not forcensorship. But she left early and wrote me up as a pro-censorship feminist.“Here are a bunch of feminazis,” she said, and she included me. Over thesix or seven years that I worked on this, the mainstream press almost neverunderstood that there was a feminist position against censorship.

It was a very painful debate. I did an interview for Penthouse Forum aftermy research showed that 60 per cent of its readers were women, and I wasattacked viciously for that by Catharine MacKinnon in Broadside, theToronto feminist newspaper. Broadside then censored my piece defendingmyself. I was attacked as a pornographer, as an agent for pornographersand as someone who justified violence against women.

I went across thecountry three times in the space of six years. Typically it would be me andthree other people, and I had to stick up for the side that said censorship isdangerous and what we have to do is address the conditions that victimizewomen, otherwise, we will wind up in trouble. It was hard always being inthe tiny minority. At the end of every one of my speeches, women wouldcome up and say they agreed with me but were afraid to say so becausethey'd be kicked out of their groups.

To me, it seemed that all sexual representation got thrown in withpornography. To suggest women can't represent our sexuality is insane. Thatpenetration is rape and that all men are rapists were important ideas in thecurrent that I worked against. I thought there were more important things toaddress; for example, putting out our own media so that we could put outour own versions of sexuality and erotica.

In 1987 I stopped and said I wouldno longer have my life taken over by the issue. We all stopped. At that point,librarians had mobilized against censorship, and a piece of legislation, Bill C-54, that had been put forward in the House of Commons was pulled back. Sowe thought we had won, and that we had enough legislation to cover whatneeded to be covered. But the anti-pornography women didn't quit.

I remember hearing on the radio that the Supreme Court had passed the Butler decision that LEAF had been working in favour of, and that suddenlythe laws of Canada contained language that American feminists had rejectedand we were saddled with it. Even though I had worked for years to stop this,I couldn't continue, so I did not go back. By then I was working on reproductiveand genetic technologies, which I think is a much greater threat.

Sex is about our most intimate selves. One of the earliest things thewomen's movement said was that women were not sex objects. Of coursewe don't want to be objects, but we all want to be sexually attractive. Andsex is biological; when we experience arousal, we experience it in ourbodies, and our bodies and our minds are one. So we feel that our identityand our sexuality are closely linked. All of these things were fiercelyprovoked by this debate.

There was also a crisis of political leadership in theradical feminist movement, in my view. To have an analysis that basicallysays men are the problem, I think brings you to a number of dead ends. Ifmen are the enemy, then sleeping with the enemy became the worst thing.Women who were attracted to the censorship current and were heterosexual felt conflicted about that. We got viciously attacked as a result, andmaybe we viciously attacked back, I don't know.

We brought these very private things out in public, and it was upsetting.We said over and over again that it was easy to see that Hustler andPenthouse were getting across the border and the authorities would neverbust the kind of pornography feminists were concerned about. We have toempower women and change the way that communication happens. Bycensorship, all we are doing is empowering governments to have morepower over people considered marginal or deviant or different: gays,lesbians, artists. The only thing that will work is to change how people feeland relate to each other, and the whole economics of sexuality, and that wefailed to do.

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