The Ottawa Citizen
Saturday, April 24, 1999
page B3

A Pornographic Paradox

A Canada Customs study evaluating the health of its employees exposed to pornography contradicts the government's legal position on child porn.

by Glen McGregor,

McMaster University professor David Jones, shown among network routers that carry Internet traffic for the computer science department, is a free speech advocate and the president of the Electronic Frontier of Canada.
Photo: Glenn Lowson
Civil liberties activist David Jones has a modest proposal for keeping our communities safe from potential pedophiles: The government should warn residents when there's a Canada Customs agent living nearby.

"In the same way we alert neighbourhoods about sex offenders, we should say `there's someone in your neighbourhood who spends eight hours a day swimming in pornography'", says Dr. Jones, a professor of computer science at McMaster University in Hamilton and head of Electronic Frontier Canada, a group that aims to protect freedom of expression and the right to privacy in cyberspace.

Dr. Jones is being entirely facetious, of course. But he raises the idea to test the federal government's recent assertion that viewing child pornography has harmful effects and can compel pedophiles to act on their desires.

Department of Justice lawyers last week made submissions to the B.C. Court of Appeal in the case of John Sharpe, who was acquitted in January when a lower court judge ruled that the law on possession of child pornography is unconstitutional.

In their appeal, government lawyers claimed there was uncontradicted expert evidence that visual or written pornography "fuels the sexual fantasies of pedophiles" and leads to abuse of children.

To Dr. Jones, the government's own 1993 report on Canada Customs agents, which he obtained through the Access to Information Act, punches some holes in the assertion that merely possessing or viewing child pornography is dangerous.

The study was prepared by Queen's University professors Bill Marshall and Sharon Hodkinson, who were hired by Revenue Canada to assess the psychological health of Canada Customs staff who spend their days reviewing the most deviant forms of hardcore pornography, including child pornography.

Employees in Customs' prohibited importations unit are responsible for determining if imported materials qualify as either obscenity or hate literature as defined by the Criminal Code. On a daily basis, they review books, magazines, and videos that can run the gamut of deviant human sexual interaction -- from sex with children and animals, to rape, violence, degradation, and necrophilia.

In their study, the researchers asked 91 Customs employees to complete questionnaires on the amount and type of pornography they are exposed to. The employees were also asked a long series of questions to assess their level of mental health, job satisfaction, socialization, and sexual activities.

The questionnaires were constructed using standard psychometric tools, such as the colourfully titled Beck Hopeless Scale, a true-or-false inventory designed to measure the subjects' negative expectations about themselves and their futures.

The results of the survey were surprising. In all areas of emotional and social functioning, the employees appeared quite normal. Those who viewed pornography more than 60 hours a month enjoyed mental health more or less equivalent to those exposed to far less pornography.

"On measures of hopelessness and depression, there were no effects arising from greater involvement in reviewing pornography", the researchers concluded.

"Similarly, reviewing pornography had no effect on job satisfaction or satisfaction with life generally, nor did it affect most of the features of intimate relations or general aspects of social relations."

Indeed, the study found that, despite the barrage of obscenity they endured in their jobs, the Customs employees held healthy attitudes towards women and enjoyed normal sexual relations.

"Their own sexual lives seem unaffected by their work. They are not haunted by deviant thoughts or desires; they are not worried about what they might do sexually; and they appear reasonably satisfied with their present level of sexual activity", the report claimed.

Canada Customs cautions that the project was merely an internal study of a health and safety issue, not a foray into the contentious discussion of child pornography and the limits of free expression.

"This is a not a contribution to the debate over whether or not pornography is or is not harmful to society", according to Revenue Canada spokesman Michel Cleroux. "It was merely asking, does it eventually have a deleterious affect? We're not entering the debate."

But to David Jones, the implications of the report cannot be ignored. He believes these results contradict the government's conventional wisdom about child pornography and show "an example of some of the evidence that the government claims does not exist".

Dr. Jones believes that rejecting the findings of Dr. Marshall and Ms. Hodkinson would force Canada Customs to limit its employees' exposure to the material.

"If the government's assertion is true -- that mere exposure to this material harms people and causes them to act out in a way that harms society -- then the government needs to limit the number of hours customs agents are exposed to this horrible material, to put counselling programs in place", he says.

"The police need to monitor these employees to make sure they don't act out against children. They need to be put under surveillance."

He admits these suggestions are ridiculous. Following the study, however, Canada Customs took steps to improve the mental health of employees in the prohibited importations unit.

Spokesman Michel Cleroux says that although the study found no major health problems, long-term exposure to pornography and hate literature can be depressing and affect employee morale.

As a result, the department now requires that staff in the unit go through a six-month secondment to see if they can handle the job.

Currently, Canada Customs employs 11 inspectors -- eight women and three men -- in the prohibited importation unit at the Connaught Building in downtown Ottawa. Their names are kept secret because of problems with harassment and stalking of some of the female inspectors. There are another 50 to 60 inspectors in regional offices across the country.

Although he wasn't familiar with the Customs survey, John Sharpe's lawyer, Richard Peck, expects there will be a variety of evidence presented during the appeal to "challenge assumptions that people make about this material".

"I don't think anybody will dispute that, when children are subjected to this kind of mistreatment, that harm follows. That's a given", he says.

"But there are of other aspects that are of concern. ... If you or I are exposed to this stuff, is it going to make us act out?"

Dr. Jones thinks the government's own survey of its employees shows that it doesn't.

"Part of the legal decision that needs to be made is, how genuine is the linkage between written text and actually harming children?" he says.

"The fact that the public would ridicule the notion of alerting neighbourhoods to a customs agent living next door I think reinforces the understanding people have that it really isn't so clear that simple exposure changes you."

Importing Obscenity

Staff in Revenue Canada's prohibited importations unit must decide whether imported materials they view are:

goods which depict or describe sexual acts that appear to degrade or dehumanize any of the participants, including:"

depictions or descriptions of sex with violence, submission, coercion, ridicule, degradation, exploitation, or humiliation of any human being, whether sexually explicit or not, and which appear to condone or otherwise endorse such behaviour for the purposes of sexual stimulation or pleasure;"

depictions or descriptions of sexual assault (previously, rape). Any goods that depict or describe a sexual activity between male/female, male/male, or female/female which appears to be without his/her consent and which appears to be achieved chiefly by force or deception;"

depictions or descriptions of bondage, involuntary servitude, and the state of human beings subjected to external control, in a sexual context;"

depictions or descriptions which appear to be associating sexual pleasure or gratification with pain and suffering, and with the mutilation of or letting of blood from any part of the human body, involving violence, coercion, and lack of basic dignity and respect for a human being;"

depictions or descriptions of sexual gratification gained through causing physical pain or humiliation, or the getting of sexual pleasure from dominating, mistreating, or hurting a human being. This includes depictions and descriptions of physical force which appear to be used so as to injure, damage, or destroy; of extreme roughness of action; of unjust or callous use of force or power; of spanking, beating, or shoving in a sexual context;"

depictions or descriptions of mutilation or removal of any part of the human body or of the taking of human life, real or implied, for the purposes of sexual arousal; and"

depictions or descriptions of menstrual blood, fecal matter, urine, or the inducement of feces through enemas as part of sexual arousal;"

goods describing sexual acts involving children or juveniles, and depictions or descriptions of children or juveniles in total or partial undress, alone or in the presence of other persons, and in which the context is even slightly sexually suggestive. Children and juveniles are persons actually or apparently under the age of 18;"

goods depicting or describing sexual acts between members of the same family, other than between husband and wife. This includes depictions or descriptions of any sexual activity among members of a family, whether or not they are genetically related (incest), except a husband and wife, which generally appear to condone or otherwise endorse this behavior for the purposes of sexual stimulation or pleasure;"

goods depicting or describing sexual acts between human beings and animals (bestiality). This includes depictions or descriptions of bestiality, whether there is actual copulation with an animal or the animal is merely present and copulation is implied;"

goods depicting or describing sexual acts between live persons and dead persons or dead animals (necrophilia)."

Source: Revenue Canada, Memorandum D9-1-1, September 29, 1994

Copyright © 1999 by The Ottawa Citizen. All Rights Reserved. Reprinted with permission.