5 min

American Apparel backs Butt magazine

Freedom & art are important, says company head

SPREAD WIDE OPEN. Trina Campbell saw this centre spread in Butt magazine and complained to clerks at American Apparel. Credit: Photo by Jeff Burton, courtesy of Butt magazine

American Apparel says it will continue to carry and defend Butt magazine and its right to freedom of expression, despite one West Vancouver mother’s complaint about the gay magazine’s allegedly prominent placement — and the city fine the store received as a result.

“Butt is a wonderful fashion, culture and art magazine,” says American Apparel spokesperson Ryan Holiday from the store’s headquarters in Los Angeles. “It’s particularly popular with metropolitan adults and fashion insiders who shop at American Apparel. We are proud to carry it.”

“I wanted our company to be open enough to accommodate this kind of magazine,” Dov Charney, the 40-year-old head of American Apparel, said in a 2007 internal email addressed to staff. “Freedom, art and photography are important to me and I am standing firm on my support for Butt. No question that it is going to offend people and it is my feeling that that is the nature of provocative art.”

On Jan 10 while shopping with her 13-year-old daughter at Park Royal shopping centre in West Vancouver, Trina Campbell was offended when she wandered into an American Apparel store and right up to a rack of clothes and a mannequin display.

Campbell says she was “drawn” to the “sparkly” backpack on the shelf and was further interested in the magazine peaking out of the bag. “It caught my attention,” she admits.

The publication on display was Butt magazine, an Amsterdam-based gay quarterly filled with pink-hued pages, photographs and candid interviews with gay artists, photographers and pornographers.

Campbell, who claims she is not a prude or opposed to nudity, quickly grabbed the magazine after seeing a nude male on the cover. “I found it interesting, I found it eye-catching. I didn’t find it offensive in anyway,” she says.

But when the magazine flipped open to the centre spread revealing two men rimming, Campbell says she was unprepared for what she saw. “It was an artfully done photograph but it was two men engaged in sex. It was shocking,” she says.

Campbell says she “slammed it closed and put it back” and left the store immediately, then returned briefly to complain to clerks about selling what she describes as “pornography.”

“I was disgusted when I thought of all the kids I knew that had probably been in that store that day,” she says. “Porn is not for children and I think that most gays and lesbians would agree with me. The kind of sexual activity going on in the picture is not something that my child would have been able to understand and place in the right context.”

Becki Ross, professor of Women’s Studies and Sociology at the University of British Columbia, suggests the experience might have been better utilized as a “teaching moment” between Campbell and her teenage daughter.

“Rather than communicate to youth that queer imagery — and by extension, queer sex — is dirty, shameful and deserving of expulsion for the social/psychic landscape, Trina might seize upon opportunities for conversation about sexual pleasures of all varieties, hence supplementing a woefully inadequate sex education in schools,” says Ross.

“Not at her age,” replies Campbell, when asked if she had considered having a conversation with her daughter about sexual diversity after seeing the magazine.

“I don’t really want to go there,” she says. “This isn’t about me and my daughter, it’s about other families with children.”

“This is another example of sexual negativity in our culture,” says John Ince, head of the BC Sex Party.

Campbell’s knee-jerk reaction is proof that sexual oppression still exists in western society, says Ince, who also co-owns the Art of Loving sex store.

“We see the same pattern over and over again. It’s okay for teens to see in newspapers, in newscasts, in magazines the full range of human expression, including death, disfigurement, dismemberment, horror, anxiety and pain — but images of sexual display are not acceptable.”

Canadian gay writer, producer and pornographer Bruce LaBruce agrees.

“The violence that children are allowed to watch [is] based on torture; women are tortured. I don’t think there should be censorship but I find that offensive,” he says.

LaBruce says he understands how explicit sexual images can shock some people but says this issue is “a bit of a tempest in a teapot,” adding that he thinks Campbell overreacted.

“One person complained when hundreds of people would have walked away,” he suggests.

LaBruce, a past contributor to Butt, describes the magazine as being “low tech” and its content reminiscent of a more “simple aesthetic” and a nod to the artsy and intellectual gay men that were coming of age two decades ago.

“It’s almost like an oral history, so to speak,” he quips. “They were living their lives. They were very promiscuous. They were very creative. They were a little more wild, especially in the ’80s,” he explains. “Butt is more in the spirit of this old gay consciousness.”

The centre spread in question features an image of two men reflected in a window, one with his legs spread while the other eats his ass. The photo is the work of Jeff Burton, porn-still photographer and artist.

Butt magazine says the work is art. “It’s not pornography,” insists managing editor and publisher Jop van Bennekom, who is calling the West Van magazine controversy “Trinagate.”

“We are making a sweet, liberated, ironic and honest gay magazine.”

Butt is “very in your face,” van Bennekom continues, adding that the magazine’s content is primarily about, art, politics, creativity and sexuality.

Van Bennekom says the fuss surrounding the issue is comical. “Maybe it’s being European; I think it’s a bit ridiculous, this whole thing. I think people are more concerned with decency in North America.”

Van Bennekom says Butt is sold worldwide and has an annual distribution of 150,000. The magazine is very popular with university students ages 20-30, says van Bennekom, adding that since “Trinagate” orders for Butt have risen.

Following her encounter with the magazine, Campbell was so distraught she decided to tell her story to CBC news. That’s when the city of West Vancouver got involved and slapped American Apparel with $100 fine.

Liz Holitzki, manager of permits, inspections and bylaws for the District of West Vancouver, says it’s important that businesses know that the city is not saying adult sexual materials cannot be sold. But they must be displayed in opaque covers and only on shelves of a certain height to ensure they’re not open to public view.

As far as Holitzki is aware, no one in West Van has ever been fined under this bylaw before. The bylaw has been in place since 1995.

The city of Vancouver adopted the same bylaw in 1984, says chief licensing inspector Barb Windsor.

City business license bylaw 4450, section 10.2 entitled Adult Publications states that: “Except where the business is an adult entertainment store licensed under this By-law, no person carrying on any trade, business or occupation shall display or permit to be displayed an ‘adult publication’ except as herein provided: a) no ‘adult publication’ shall be located on any shelf the bottom edge of which is no less than forty-seven inches from the floor b) all ‘adult publications’ shall be placed behind a sheet of opaque plastic or other opaque substance which extends for the full length of the shelf on which such publications are placed and which extends vertically for at least eight inches from the bottom shelf.”

Windsor says no fines have been issued in Vancouver.

American Apparel says it will continue to carry Butt magazine and maintains it’s standing behind the magazine for the purpose of free expression and not notoriety. “Carrying Butt magazine is not a publicity stunt,” says Holiday. “It’s something that we feel is an important artistic statement.”