Are we unshockable?
by Ian Haysom
VANCOUVER - A Blackpool street trader in turn-of-the-century England was fined two guineas for selling "lewd and disgusting" photographs he had discreetly tucked inside white envelopes. The photographs were of nude statues.
If you fast-forward to the end of the century, passing by the scandals and public uproar that were heaped upon the likes of Ulysses, Lady Chatterley's Lover, Tropic of Cancer, Lolita, Peyton Place, Fanny Hill, Catcher In The Rye, photographer Robert Mapplethorpe, and the movie Last Tango in Paris, you arrive at a particular site on the Internet, complete with - or so it claims - 5,000 "XXX" hard-core images. It has been visited 130,000 times since Jan. 1 this year.
As we approach the end of the millennium, it would seem that we are unshockable and that sex and pornography are unstoppable.
You can rent an X-rated video just about anywhere in Canada, and watch softer porn on pay-per-view TV. There's full-frontal on the specialty channels, fully nude strippers in most cities, and ads for "massage parlors" in respectable newspapers.
Literature - with the Canada Customs exception of many gay and lesbian books and magazines - is largely unfettered and uncensored. You can buy Hustler magazine at convenience stores, and there's still a waiting list for Madonna's Sex book at your local library. Catcher In The Rye, once condemned as salacious and anti-family, is now a high-school textbook.
The Internet has become the latest flash-point over what is and what isn't acceptable in westernized society (in many eastern societies, flashing an ankle is still a no-no).
The preponderance of sex on the Internet is, say observers, the natural result of a century of obscenity battles that have been won in the courts and the attendant campaign for freedom of expression, particularly by arts groups and writers. With each win, the permissiveness pendulum shifts a little farther.
Many suggest the 1960s were a turning point, particularly when Lady Chatterley's Lover won obscenity court battles in England and Canada. Since then, the floodgates have been opened.
While the U.S. is looking at controls on pornography on the Internet, many believe the Web is virtually impossible to censor. It has also become a symbol of democratic porn: you can subscribe to a service offering hard-core pictures of professional models, but an increasing number of ordinary "amateur" women are putting up home-pages of themselves in the nude.
In Canada, politicians have been largely mute on the subject of Internet control, though Francoise Bertrand, appointed chairperson of the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission last year, said she expects companies that provide Internet access to take responsibility for pornographic material.
Charles Crawford, a Simon Fraser University professor and expert in the evolution of human behaviour, remembers the movie Tom Jones being banned when he was a student in Alberta in the 1960s. "It seems so innocent now. We have come a long distance very quickly."
Crawford says there has been a century-long move to increased permissiveness because of demand and a "progressively liberal attitude in our western societies. The world is becoming freer and sex has become much more acceptable."
Crawford believes, however, we may now be moving into a less-permissive period. "I think we've started to go back, in terms of what is considered acceptable. We're now seeing V-chips, attempts to control the Internet, our universities are far less liberal, there's the increased impact of feminism, and a whole range of other factors.
"They're putting Playboy in plastic wrappers and placing them on the top shelves. At my own university, we used to have co-ed saunas in the 1970s. People would be horrified at the thought today."
Jeffrey Shallit, a vice-president of Electronic Frontier Canada, a group that promotes freedom of speech on the Internet, says despite increased liberalization and continually evolving values "this is the next medium on which the fight over what and what isn't acceptable will be fought".
"We don't want to see any government control of the Internet whatsoever, beyond those limits already in the Criminal Code. The individual should decide."
"My daughter is only two years old and I don't want her to watch Snow White right now because the witch is too scary", he says. "We set our own values. I don't want someone banning Snow White. The Internet's the same. Self-censorship is the only way to go."
B E T W E E N
Crawford, the human behaviorist, agrees. "People on the Internet will have to show self-control. If not, they'll simply arouse increased opposition from the moralists. The farther people go, the more activist or extreme they become, the more the other side will seek restriction."
But while the debate still rages over acceptable sexuality, the advancement of sexuality has been inexorable. The change has been rapid and, like most everything else in the 20th century, dramatic.
In 1933, Hedy Kiesler (soon to become Hedy Lamarr), caused a worldwide scandal by appearing nude in Gustav Machaty's Extase. The movie is still considered beautiful and, by today's standards, tame and innocuous. The pope protested the movie's appearance at the 1934 Venice festival. Most of the nude scenes were cut from versions seen in Canada and the U.S.
Fast forward to The Nutty Professor, starring Eddie Murphy. The movie, ostensibly a family picture, features a scene in which a hamster runs up the pant leg of a student while he's being amorous with a girlfriend. The hamster does an imitation of an out-of-control penis inside his trousers and the girlfriend's eyes immediately light up at the spectacle. It's hardly coy.
But despite changing values, popular culture still has the facility to shock and offend. Canadian director David Cronenberg's sex-and-cars movie Crash, which received howls and bravos at Cannes last year, opened across Canada and France with minimal opposition. In Britain, however, the movie, featuring sado-masochism and anal sex, has been loudly opposed by politicians, and the movie's release has been delayed until the spring in the U.S. because its distributors got cold feet.
A movie version of Vladimir Nabokov's Lolita has yet to be released because of the new Child Pornography Prevention Act in the U.S., which forbids the depiction of a minor engaging in a sexual act.
The movie, starring Dominique Swain as Lolita and Jeremy Irons as her seducer, has scared off potential distributors. Interestingly, Nabokov, who wrote Lolita in 1949 while teaching at Cornell University in New York, also had concerns about his "short novel about a man who liked little girls". He insisted at first it be brought out under a nom-de-plume because he feared being fired by Cornell for producing such a controversial work.
Every area of culture and popular culture has been touched by the debate over obscenity and censorship over the past century, but the evolution of permissiveness has continued while the rhetoric and court cases fly.
In theatre, burlesque has been replaced by sex shows. Sometimes, local police raid the shows. Increasingly, they don't.
The serious stage of Bernard Shaw has been superseded by such contemporary issue-oriented theatre as Angels In America, a play that graphically portrays the agony of AIDS and symbolically portrays anal sex. It caused a slight uproar in Calgary.
On TV, it wasn't so long ago that Elvis had to be shown from the waist up, less he endanger the morals of teenagers. Now Seinfeld, in prime time, can coyly discuss orgasms and masturbation without fear of criticism.
Books have become increasingly more daring and less controversial in recent years, though the occasional library will still ban a new gay work and Canada Customs has enjoyed its fair share of controversy by stopping the imports of what it feels is prurient material.
Art and photography have changed radically. The post-impressionism of the beginning of the century has given way to art often designed to affront, such as American photographer Mapplethorpe's celebrated X-series, which graphically depicted white and black homosexuals and their body parts. The uproar over the funding of an exhibition of Mapplethorpe's works by the National Endowment for the Arts, led conservative William F. Buckley to say that: "If a democratic society cannot find a way to protect a taxpaying Christian heterosexual from finding that he is engaged in subsidizing blasphemous acts of homoeroticism, then democracy isn't working."
The case had resonance later in Toronto, when police shut down an art gallery and seized a series of paintings by Eli Langer, a 26-year-old artist whose work depicted child abuse. Langer was arrested on child pornography and obscenity charges, which were later dropped.
Industry Canada recently released an exhaustive background paper on "illegal and offensive" material on the Internet in which it carefully negotiated the minefield of freedom of expression versus community outrage.
The paper calls for the same standards to be applied to the Internet as other forms of other media, pointing out that many erotic images on the Web are culled from magazines freely available in Canada.
It also points out how what once was banned is now increasingly part of the acceptable mainstream, a sexual trend this century. Large book chains such as W.H. Smith carry naughty novels that "range from (once-banned) Victorian erotica such as My Secret Life and Man With a Maid to contemporary novels devoted to sexual exploits.
"A curious eye scanning the shelves in a bookstore's literature section could easily discover publications which could be regarded as legally available pornography (the works of the Marquis de Sade, for instance)."
One thing is clear, however: the debate over freedom of expression and censorship will continue into the next century. "The values may shift, but the debate is unending," says the Electronic Frontier Canada's Shallit.
"Once Web-TV becomes possible on the Internet, with people able to download any porno movie they wish . . . the debate will go into overdrive."