History Lesson: what happened when Canada enacted a feminist anti-porn law?

In 1992, Canada enacted (via the Butler decision) the world’s first feminist anti-porn law. The judge in the decision wrote, “Among other things, degrading or dehumanizing materials place women (and sometimes men) in positions of subordination, servile submission or humiliation … they run against the principles of equality and dignity of all human beings” (p4). Sounds fairly feminist, huh?

Andrea Dworkin described the Butler ruling as “probably the best articulation of how pornography, and what kinds of pornography, hurt the civil status and civil rights of women”, and Catherine MacKinnon said “[the Butler decision] is a stunning victory for women … this makes Canada the first place in the world that says that what is obscene is what harms women, not what offends our values” (p229; all subsequent page references, unless stated otherwise, from this book).

What with how there’s so much chat in UK feminist circles about “banning” “rape” “porn” (scare-quoted because all the words in this phrase are, um, hazily defined by the advocates of this plan, as if that stuff is just minor detail), along with prominent feminist campaigns to limit other kinds of sexualised images from view or sale (“No More Page Three” and “Lose The Lads Mags”), you’d think everyone would be superkeen to point to the massive success of the Canadian law, right? There’s no patriarchy now in Canada!!!!11!1

Here’s what that looked like, while the law was in effect.

  • ‘The spring 1993 issue of Feminist Bookstore News, a Canadian publication, contained the following description of Canada’s first year of experience with the anti-pornography definition …: “the Butler decision has been used … only to seize lesbian, gay, and feminist material“‘(p231).
  • ‘Within the first two and a half years after the Butler decision, well over half of all Canadian feminist bookstores had had materials confiscated or detained by customs’ (p231).
  • Even feminists who supported the law were horrified by the way it was used. Karen Busby, a lawyer who worked at a feminist organisation cofounded by Catherine MacKinnon, wrote, “before the ink was dry on Butler … the Toronto police raided Glad Day Bookshop, a lesbian and gay bookstore, and confiscated Bad Attitude, a lesbian magazine” (p232).
  • … And the judge who ruled in the Glad Day Bookstore case found that this lesbian feminist magazine did indeed “harm women”. The material that was the premise for the raid was a written (no images) lesbian fantasy of consensual non-consent, on which the judge in the case commented that: “the consent … far from redeeming the material, makes it degrading and dehumanising” (p234). In other words, ‘rape porn’ was the premise for the raid, and the homophobia that held queer sexualities to be intrinsically “degrading”, was the reason for the conviction. Cool.
  • “A second lower court decision enforcing Butler also resulted in seizures of homosexual erotica from Glad Day Bookshop and also held homosexual expression to be ‘degrading’. … As Karen Busby acknowledged, “[this decision] is clearly homophobic … he said that sex between men in and of itself was intrinsically degrading and dehumanising” (p233).
  • Project P, the anti-obscenity squad of the Ontario Provincial Police, interpreted Butler to permit explicit sexual expression only if the material includes “romance and a storyline” (p234).  This prompted the curator of the National Gallery of Canada to express concern (she was like, “hello, video installations often do not include a storyline YOU UTTER TWERPS“), and, y’know, general lol at this.
  • Inland Books, a New York-based small-press book distribution company and the largest exporter of lesbian and gay literature to Canada, had 73% of its Canadian shipments detained during 1993 (p234).
  • The Toronto-based Globe and Mail estimated that 75% of of shipments to Glad Day and similar stores are “opened, delayed, lost, forgotten, and occasionally sent back without more than a handful of Canadian citizens knowing about it”. According to the Toronto Star, ‘books dealing with homosexual activities are seized regularly, and often held for months, quite literally in an attempt to close down the offending stores’ (p235).
  • Two books written by Andrea Dworkin were seized at the US-Canadian border. Pornography and Woman Hating were both detained on the grounds that they “illegally eroticised pain and bondage”. ‘Neither the Butler decision, nor any other version of the Dworkin/Mackinnon law contains any exception for subordinating sexually explicit depictions that are part of a feminist presentation. Nor could any exception possibly be added without compounding the law’s already overwhelming subjectivity’ (p237.)
  • Canadian customs seized “thirty copies of Marguerite Duras’s novella The Man Sitting in the Corridor that had been order by Trent University. This novella by the respected writer was detained because it contained several scenes in which a woman is beaten after passionate sex; in the last such scene, she dies”. Other works seized included books by Oscar Wilde, Audre Lorde, and Langston Hughes. (p238.)
  • The final item that I’m going to list that was barred: an illustrated collection of essays published by the Feminist Anti-Censorship Taskforce, entitled Caught Looking (p239).

Scotland also has a “no rape porn” law, of course. So far as I can see, no one has ever been prosecuted under it, suggesting that your choices as they actually happen in the current actual world are: a useless, never used-law, or, a law that’s used to harass LGBTQ people. (‘Campaigners’ in Scotland are calling for our law to be made even tougher [give them an inch ... ] – no details as to how, of course – and for the police to “clamp down”, which sounds fun. My feminism will be calling for tougher police action against queer people, or it will be bullshit, I guess.)

I typed out all the bullet points above, because I feel like queer and/or sex working women (and others) know this history, because we have to, and then when we make reference to the stuff above, other people who don’t know this history can just dismiss it because they don’t know it – like, ‘blah blah there go the queerios again, making their usual background noise about how our supercool feminist slogans have a really bad impact on their communities blah blah lol’. And I mean, obviously you can’t force people to know this history, but I am frustrated by this eternal sunshine of the spotless politics effect. Awesome-feminist-slogans-sound-awesome and no one ever needs to remember what actually happened! Fuck that. Stop weaponising your ignorance.

On a final note, if you’re under the impression that in 2013 our feminisms are so sophis that we can definitely write an “anti-rape porn law” that won’t target other feminists, sex workers, dissidents, and LGBTQ people, and if you’ve forgotten your barely-history regarding Simon Walsh and Michael Peacock, then you should totally check out the ‘debate‘ about the Porn Studies Journal. In our post-porn feminist utopia, not only will there magically be no porn – and no ill effects of this, like pesky police raids (or at least they’ll happen to someone else, eh?!) – but there will be no academic talk about porn, because rather than being an always-contested and shifting site of polysemous representation(s), everyone will just know that “porn” is “bad”, and that the two opinions you can have on this are “pro” and “anti” and anyone who is “pro” is sinisterly opposed to common-sense and definitely suspect.

Consider not trusting people who think all academic discussion is illegitimate unless it comes with a big red pre-emptive sticker that says “we are ANTI this, we are OPPOSED TO THIS, porn is TERRIBLE and we are ANTI”, especially when these campaigners then tell you they have the necessary nuance to enact any law around such a fraught issue. They don’t even really think it needs nuance, they’re just being ‘polite’ in the face of your weird insistence that the world is complicated and the police aren’t great.

(There’s loads of excellent other reading out there on this theme, by the way. Here’s ‘Why I Cannot Support The Campaign To Ban Rape Porn‘, by Sazza Jay, and ‘Why No More Page Three Is A Bad Idea In Almost Every Way‘, by Nanaya (she quotes Califa!). On the more general theme, ‘Who Speaks For Women in the Adult Industry?‘ by Melissa Gira Grant, and ‘Call Things By Their Proper Names‘, on anti-porn male feminisms, by Sofie Buckland.)

13 thoughts on “History Lesson: what happened when Canada enacted a feminist anti-porn law?

  1. You’re right about knowing the history, because right now all the anti-porn’ and anti-sex worker noise sounds like a bad re-run of the 1980s (and has echoes of ‘social purity’ politics of the late c19th/earlyc20th) – except feminists were still working out the arguments back then. The books and essays are all there now – so there’s no excuse for reading up on them…unless people want to make the same mistakes all over again. Thanks for writing an article that reminds everyone of what actually happens when activists start trying to pass bad ‘feminist’ sex laws.

  2. So do you think it is the fault of feminists, for stirring up these campaigns and creating slogans? Because I think it has a little more to do with who is in power and manipulating those laws into weapons against the LGBTQ community. Love the article, though, a great reminder that even the most well-intentioned of actions can do harm.

  3. Pingback: Essential links defending sexual freedom on the Internet II

  4. Pingback: History Lesson: what happened when Canada enacted a feminist anti-porn law? | melissajulianjones

  5. Thank you for this, though reading it makes my teeth ache – I feel like an angry dog. I had a discussion about this on my uni feminist society page where someone said that of course it should be banned… and then said they had no understanding of queer or BDSM communities’ relationship to porn (I’d argue that both those communities use pornographic material as a basic way of communicating to others the basic elements of that community, for example that sexual desire does not need to be expressed in a romcom/Cosmo style or that gender and sex are not in simple binary categories.).

  6. Ironically I could not read this on my phone because of the mobile filters. This is the same system that camero(o)n wants all ISPs to implement. Also amusingly it took me just two minutes to circumvent it.

  7. Pingback: Banning ‘rape porn’ will censor LGBT, feminist sites and won’t stop rape | Slutocracy

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  9. @Alexandria: when you attempt to repress a particular form of expression, the potential for greater danger is always present. I know the intention of anti-porn laws is to specifically target men and criminalize male sexuality and thus maleness as a whole but when you seed the identical frame work of censorship and oppression it’s likely to always go in ways you least expect.

    It’s easy for feminist groups to hate men and declare anything arousing by straight male eyes should be illegal or punishable by castration and flaying….but what happens when someone else feels the same way about feminist literature or homosexuality. The target might always be men but when you detonate a bomb like this you will never just kill the people you want.

  10. Pingback: Censorship In The UK: The Internet, Media Myths And The Porn Panic - Cliterati

  11. I once had a work colleague whose father’s book was seized at the border under this law back in the 90’s. “Nioka: Bride of Bigfoot” apparently had some ‘graphic lesbian sex’ in it. It was the copy her father had given to her, signed and personalized.

    I’ve never read the book myself, and know little about the content, but according to my colleague, there was nothing really that objectionable in the book itself. Still, it was confiscated nonetheless.

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