3 min

Slouching toward censorship

We care more about thoughts about children than children themselves

Credit: Xtra files

I’ve often wondered why Showcase and its owners, media giant Alliance Atlantis, weren’t charged with kiddie porn when they aired Queer As Folk. Both versions of the series, after all, opened with a scene in which a 15-year-old kid (17 in the American version) got fucked by an “older” guy. Under the terms of the Criminal Code Of Canada, that’s a no-no. The code prohibits the depiction of “explicit sexual activity” involving anyone under the age of 18.

It doesn’t matter that the actors playing the kid were older. As far as the law is concerned, if they look like they’re under 18 (“depicted as being”), they are under 18. I’m no lawyer, but as far as I can see, the only thing that saved Showcase’s ass was the tiny little qualifier, “explicit.” The kid got royally rimmed and fucked but we didn’t actually see the act of penetration. No taut and trembling teen bumholes, therefore no kiddie porn.

In the Alice In Wonderland world of Canada’s porn laws, such intricate and arcane distinctions may be all that stand between you and a visit from the porn inspector.

Canada’s original kiddie porn law, passed in 1993, was bad enough. It criminalized the depiction of acts that were not in themselves criminal and played fast and loose with the term “child,” turning everyone under the age of 18 into a legal infant.

A new version could be even worse. Amendments now before Parliament would remove the defence of “artistic merit” and replace it with “public good.” The good news is that the public good apparently encompasses the pursuit of art. The bad news is that it’s not going to be much help to artists. It’s way too earnest.

Imagine trying to defend your scrappy little first novel in a court of law. Conceived in a spirit of cheeky irreverence and a cheerful “up yours,” it’s now supposed to have some sort of public good. I don’t think so. Like most works of art, it’s probably quite serious at heart; it just doesn’t look that way. That’s why it’s art and not a royal commission report.

Needless to say, arts groups are in a lather over that particular amendment, but if artists in general are annoyed, writers in particular should be really pissed off. The old law largely ignored written material unless it counselled or advocated illegal sexual activity with a person under 18. The new law explicitly condemns any erotic writing describing teen or child sex.

So what becomes of something like Larry Kramer’s homo classic, Faggots, in which a 16-year-old beauty gets it on with a fortysomething hunk in front of a wildly appreciative audience at a private orgy? Or Paul Bowles’s classic short story, “Pages From North Point,” in which the seemingly abused “son” manipulates the seasoned “father”? Kramer is a pungent satirist, Bowles a stylist of austere beauty, but I’d bet those qualities are lost on the police.

In theory, such works would be, if not exactly exempt from the law, then able to slide discreetly past it. To qualify as porn, for instance, written material must be written “for a sexual purpose,” ie with the intention of getting you off. Fortunately or unfortunately, most literary works aren’t up to the job.

But the bill will almost certainly inhibit explorations of youth sexuality. What artist in their right mind would essay a topic that might land them in jail? Who wants to be the next Eli Langer, an artist arrested in 1993 and his works almost destroyed because police decided his work was pornographic?

I don’t think anyone would have a problem with anti-porn legislation if it actually helped kids. But as it stands, it’s chiefly a voice for widespread public revulsion at the idea of child abuse. I say “idea” and not “act” deliberately because it often seems as if people are more upset by the image than the reality.

Child porn is important only insofar as it is evidence of crimes committed against actual kids, yet society often seems more upset by the porn itself than by the act that lies behind it. Even the current law makes almost no distinction between looking at the stuff and making it. Possession of child pornography can get you up to five years in jail, or half the maximum sentence for production and distribution.

The cops maintain that they need the possession provisions of the Criminal Code in order to track down abusers. Sometimes this theory works. A November edition of CBC’s Fifth Estate described the work of a Manchester cop who used a single image from a porn collection to track down a man who was sexually abusing little girls in southern England. That’s clever work, but how often does it happen?

A backgrounder to the same story, posted on the program’s website, admitted that, “out of the thousands of victimized children on the Internet less than 500 worldwide have been identified so far.”

In other words, kiddie porn legislation isn’t doing much to help kids. Mostly it’s just a big placebo for adult fears, guilt and distaste. A placebo that stifles art, thought and intellectual discourse.

* Brent Ledger’s column appears every issue.