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).