Debating obscenity

LEAF tries to work through lesbian SM

It’s a rather weak apology.

And the feminist group which accidentally managed to get vanilla gay male porn and a lesbian sex mag legally declared obscene, won’t say how they plan to make amends.

“We did not expect or intend for obscenity legislation to target lesbians and gay men,” says Kim Buchanan, the staff lawyer for the Women’s Legal, Education And Action Fund (LEAF).

“That’s what ended up happening.”

LEAF led the charge against straight pornography in 1992 in what’s now known as the Supreme Court Of Canada’s Butler decision, which added a new category to what’s illegal. “Degrading” and “dehumanizing” porn is now banned.

The first two casualties were gay.

A judge ruled that vanilla sex between gay strangers was dehumanizing – and therefore illegal. And an SM story with pictures in the lesbian magazine Bad Attitude was immediately declared obscene.

Now LEAF is trying to right old wrongs – maybe. The influential equality rights group will decide by mid-June whether to try to intervene on behalf of Little Sisters Book And Art Emporium in its fight against Canada Customs seizing its inventory at the border.

The Supreme Court Of Canada has not decided when it will hear the case.

“We don’t anticipate there’s going to be a consensus,” says Buchanan, of a series of consultations held across the country this month. Toronto’s was last week, and Buchanan admits the turnout was small, but says the ideas were big.

But she also won’t tell what those ideas are. Focussing on just some ideas, Buchanan says, would make it look like she’s playing favourites. And she can’t appear to have a bias, the lawyer says, because LEAF hasn’t decided on its final positions yet.

A 16-page discussion paper prepared for LEAF by University Of Manitoba law professor Karen Busby, however, tackles the big issues.

“Coercive sexual practices are not central themes in sexually explicit lesbian materials,” Busby writes. “Nevertheless such themes do exist. Difficult issues arise in this consultation on what position LEAF should take regarding the eroticization of various manifestations of inequality.

“This category could include materials like the eroticization of rape myths (such as ‘no means yes’ and ‘all a lesbian really needs is a good f-‘ [sic]); dangerous practices (such as penetration with objects like glass bottles and guns); racism (such as master/slave and nazi/prisoner scenes or reliance on discriminatory myths about the insatiability, compliancy or natural masochism of racialized women)….”

Then, Busby writes, there’s lesbian SM. Can LEAF accept the argument that bottoms are really in charge? Can two women negotiate SM without unduly pressuring the other? Can someone really consent to pain? Should violence ever be eroticized?


Readers are also asked whether LEAF should argue that:

obscenity laws shouldn’t exist

any lesbian portrayal is good, and dyke sex should be exempted from obscenity laws altogether

only portrayals which are clearly discriminatory or violent should be banned.

Says Buchanan: “Just as there isn’t consensus in the community, there isn’t consensus on the committee, either. We’ll have to make some difficult choices. LEAF isn’t going to be able to make a decision that will please everybody.”

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