© 1993 Karen Selick
 Censorship--More Demeaning than Pornography
An edited version of this article first appeared in the May, 1993 issue of Canadian Lawyer.  If you wish to reproduce this article, click here for copyright info.


 Censorship--More Demeaning than Pornography

After last summer's campaign for the right to walk bare-breasted through public parks, you might be forgiven for concluding that radical feminists wouldn't object to the exposure of naked female bodies in glossy magazines.  You'd be wrong.

Starting next month, you'll have the opportunity to witness a protracted morality play on the subject, at the expense of Ontario taxpayers and a few unfortunate individuals.  The cast will include two troubled women, three sets of convenience store owners, and a Board of Inquiry appointed by the Ontario Human Rights Commission.

In April, 1988, the women filed complaints with the Human Rights Commission alleging that the mere presence of magazines such as Playboy, Penthouse and Hustler in three Toronto convenience stores created a negative, hostile environment for women and therefore discriminated against them because of their sex. 

With the almost legendary backlog of cases facing the Commission, one might have thought that a complaint this silly and tenuous would get short shrift.  But no, the employees of the Commission took it all very seriously.  (Maybe this explains their backlog.)

There are so many things wrong with this picture that it's hard to know where to start. 

Even if you accept the complainants' disputable contention that pornography is demeaning to women, it still requires prodigious linguistic and logical contortions to make this complaint fit within the realm of the Human Rights Code. 

The code gives every person "a right to equal treatment with respect to services, goods and facilities, without discrimination because of...sex... ."   If the women had been denied the opportunity to enter the stores or purchase skin magazines, then they might validly have hollered, "Discrimination!" In fact, though, they received exactly the same treatment as anyone else: they were free to buy the magazines, or to ignore them and get on with their shopping, or to flounce out and shop elsewhere.  Where's the discrimination? 

Consider next the plight of the store owners who were unfortunate enough to be located in the neighbourhood of these troubled women.  They're not the only stores in Ontario who sell girlie magazines, but they're the ones who are stuck with defending themselves in an anticipated 30- to 40-day hearing.  If they're cleared of discrimination charges, will they get costs?  Not likely.  The complainants won't be paying for the lawyers on their side, of course.  The taxpayers--including the store owners--will.  It's a no-lose proposition for the women, and a no-win proposition for the stores.

In fact, after five years with this hanging over their heads, it's amazing that these heroic folks haven't quietly caved in, removed the magazines from their shelves and paid the women some hush money.  Anyone who believes in freedom and property rights should thank them for not saddling us with such a precedent.

Peter Israel, counsel for one set of store owners, expects the factual evidence to take less than two hours.  We can surmise that the remaining 30 days of the Commission's case will consist of expert testimony "proving" that the magazines are demeaning to women and create a poisoned environment.

What will the standard of proof be?  Do the magazines have to offend all women, or a majority, or some other percentage?  If unanimity is the test, they might as well call the whole thing off right now.  There is clearly a substantial contingent of women who don't share those feelings--namely, women who buy the magazines, female store owners who sell them, women such as Christie Hefner who publish them, and of course the women whose photographs appear in them (who compete energetically for this opportunity to demean themselves all the way to the bank).

There are also women like me, who believe that women are all unique individuals, as different from each other as we are from men.  We are not living inside a science fiction story.  We are not cordless mobile operating units dispatched by some giant central brain called Woman.  Even if I believed that some particular photograph were undignified or insulting to the woman shown in it, what does that have to do with me?  I am not that woman.  She is not me.  How am I demeaned by that picture any more than her brother or her uncle are?

Radical feminists argue that women who enjoy, produce or even tolerate pornography have been so brainwashed by a male-dominated society that their apparent consent is invalid.  Feminists try to relegate their female opponents to the legal status of infants or mental incompetents: benighted persons in need of protection.  They never explain how they themselves withstood the cultural onslaught and learned to think independently.  They refuse to grant the possibility that women who disagree with them might also be thinking independently.

Author Wendy McElroy, writing recently in Liberty magazine, answered this argument beautifully:  "The touchstone principle of feminisim used to be, `a woman's body, a woman's right.'  Regarding date rape, feminists declare, `No means no.'  The logical corollary is `Yes means yes.'  Now, modern feminists are declaring that `yes' means nothing.  It is difficult to believe that any form of pornography could be more degrading to women than this attitude."


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June 07, 2000