3 min

‘Transgressive writing’ recognized

Freedoms of writers in Canada at stake

Credit: Xtra files

It’s a victory, anti-censorship activists say of last week’s BC Supreme Court ruling acquitting Robin Sharpe of two out of four child porn charges.

Not only do Sharpe’s writings have artistic merit, says Justice Duncan Shaw, they don’t even meet the definition of child pornography to begin with because they don’t advocate sex with children.

Police first spotted the Vancouver gay man when they seized his Boy abuse stories and a handful of photos at the Canadian border in 1995. A year later, they seized more written material and a collection of 400 photos from his Kitsilano apartment and charged him with two counts of possessing child pornography and two counts of intending to distribute them.

Shaw acquited Sharpe on the more serious distribution charges, which could have landed him up to 10 years in jail, but found him guilty for possession of photos.

Sharpe says he’s not entirely surprised by the ruling. He expected Shaw to see the artistic merit in his writings; it’s the judge’s finding that his stories don’t advocate sex with children that caught him off guard.

“I am particularly pleased that [my writings] were deemed not to be child pornography,” Sharpe says.

There is no question that Sharpe’s writings contain sadomasochistic sex scenes with youth and that these may be “morally repugnant” to many people, but they fall within a tradition of “transgressive literature,” Shaw writes. Sharpe himself “is not devoid of literary skill…. He writes about varied topics and, in doing so, he shows a fair depth of knowledge and ability to observe and describe people and events. His works indicate that he is a writer who seeks to express himself in a manner that has literary merit.”

It’s a victory, says Lorraine Weir, an English professor at University Of British Columbia and a lesbian who testified for Sharpe about the artistic merit of his writing. “I’m absolutely delighted.”

Being found “not guilty on two counts powerfully transforms the freedoms of writers in Canada to use their craft to depict situations and characters that have previously been excluded from the domain of literature. That freedom has now been affirmed,” says Weir.

Dany Lacombe, a criminology and sociology professor at Simon Fraser University, says the ruling is a double affirmation.

“Not only is it not child porn but it’s a text which has artistic merit. So [Justice Shaw] is completely negating the Crown’s theory that this is child porn. He [also] blows apart the police understanding of these texts,” she says.

Shaw says stories like Boyabuse and Stand By America 1953 might glorify acts of sex and violence between boys and between boys and men, but “they do not go so far as to actively promote their commission.

“Nor, in my view, do [they] send the message that sex with children can and should be pursued. If that were the case, then literature describing murder, robbery, theft, rape, drug use and other crimes in such a way as to make them appear enjoyable would likewise be said to advocate or counsel the commission of those crimes.”

Sharpe’s writings merely describe morally repugnant acts, Shaw says. “The descriptions may well be designed to titillate or excite the reader (if the reader is so inclined) but these descriptions do not actively advocate or counsel the reader to engage in the acts described.”

Weir says this statement is an advance in the law, because it takes into account the reader’s volition.

“We not only receive titillating signals; we choose to act on them or not,” she says.

In a 2001 ruling on Sharpe’s works and photos, the Supreme Court Of Canada added two narrow exceptions to Canada’s porn laws to protect teenagers who record or write about their own legal sexual activities with each other for their own personal use from child porn charges.

They also reaffirmed the artistic merit defence to child pornography, saying a piece of pornography can still be legal if it has some artistic merit. The justices then sent the otherwise unchanged law back and ordered Justice Shaw to resume hearing Sharpe’s charges of possession and possession for distribution.