Ottawa
2 min

Fucking powerful

It was one of the most tense mornings I’ve had since I joined the staff of Capital Xtra in 2006. Working from three cities — me in Toronto, Daniel Allen Cox in Montreal, Luna Allison in Ottawa — we spent the morning emailing back and forth about Daniel’s newest column which was set to appear in this issue of Capital Xtra.

The column, called “Rape fantasy at Vatican City,” deals with the Catholic Church’s condemnation of condom use. In it, Daniel rightly denounces the Pope’s unholy love of abstinence. He points out the ravages Church policies have wrought (à la Christopher Hitchens, in his stinging reports on Mother Teresa).

As the title of the piece implies, Daniel also weaves in a personal fantasy about holding the Pope hostage and making him plead for a condom, rather than being fucked bareback. It is a graphic, unsettling piece of first-person commentary. Words, I learn over and over again in this job, are fucking powerful.

Philosophically, of course, there’s nothing wrong with rape fantasies, SM stories, sex-with-pain, etc. We have a long history in gay, leather and kink communities of honouring our desires, even on taboo subjects. And equally obvious, at least to me, is that a healthy part of many people’s sex lives involves acting out such fantasies — with consent, negotiation and an eye for safety.

There would be merit in running an edited version of his column, managing the response and using it as an opportunity to discuss the important issues at stake: HIV transmission and abstinence, the Catholic Church and condoms, sexual fantasy and, finally, the legal/publishing prohibitions in the criminal code.

That position, unfortunately, would have left us open to criminal charges. Putting aside our concerns about being charged with issuing threats or, conceivably, libel — since you’re talking about a real, living public figure — we could be pursued as publishers of obscene material.

In clarifying the law via the 1992 Butler decision, the Supreme Court moved away from a “community standards” test and toward a “harm-based” approach. While it was a step in the right direction, the Court’s position did not go far enough. Their decision explicitly singles out SM sex:

“The portrayal of sex coupled with violence will almost always constitute the undue exploitation of sex. Explicit sex which is degrading or dehumanizing may be undue if the risk of harm is substantial.”

There are defences (artistic merit, community good, fair comment) that we could have used, depending on what we were charged with. However, given the position of the Supreme Court, we would have been on shaky legal ground. It would have been unwise to undertake the costly defence that could be required, never mind that we — Luna, Daniel, I and several others — could have landed in jail for the piece.

Considering that the predecessor to Capital Xtra, The Body Politic — a national journal of sexual liberation published in the ’70s and ’80s — fought several obscenity trials, including one that went all the way to the Supreme Court, it was a depressing conclusion to reach.

Canada’s obscenity laws, such as they are, put a chill on free speech in publishing. The fate of Daniel’s column is a perfect example of how the fear of prosecution can force publishers to make “safe” decisions.

Censorship (self-imposed or otherwise) also brings out our natural curiosity. How come Luna and I get to see the piece, but you don’t? When I hear that something is too controversial for me to see, I immediately look for it — whether it’s the SCUM Manifesto or Two Girls, One Cup.