by Jean Roberta
Selena Kitt’s clear expose of the “Pornocalypse” of hard-to-find erotic titles on the Amazon site reminds me of my uncomfortably educational stint on the local Film Classification Board in the early 1990s. Yes, folks, I belonged to a government-run board with the power to ban films.
I was a single mother, and desperate for any job that paid, a situation which could make almost anyone vulnerable to demonic temptation. A sister-feminist of my acquaintance told me about the position on the classification board that she had just vacated; she claimed that all the porn films she had been forced to watch had given her nightmares. I sympathized, and tried to ask as discreetly as possible what, exactly, had kept her awake at night: serial killers in masks chasing terrified women with chainsaws? The torture of political prisoners? My acquaintance was both vague and indignant: it was porn, and therefore an expression of contempt for women. Wouldn’t that be enough to give any woman nightmares?
I recklessly applied for the position on the board, and was accepted. I was told that I would need to watch films in a basement screening room with a few other board members for only a few days per month, and I would be paid a “per diem” to cover my “expenses.” This was not to be referred to as a salary, so I agreed not to call it that.
I watched numerous short porn films that had been seized from places with names like “Joe’s Gas and Confectionary.” The worst aspect of the films, IMO, was the relative lack of originality or esthetic value in them. There was usually a soundtrack of elevator music, and a well-worn plot about a horny housewife and a pizza delivery boy, or a naughty co-ed and her manly professor. The actors usually recited their lines as though reading them off cue cards. There was no torture, and no overt use of force.
Several of the films I watched were (somewhat) witty parodies of mainstream films (e.g. Edward Penishands). They combined sex with humour, not the degradation of the innocent.
I soon learned that while all mainstream Hollywood movies had to be viewed and rated by us, the classification board, before they could be shown in movie theatres in the Canadian province I live in, the rating of porn videos was complaint-driven. This meant that if no one complained, Joe’s Gas could stock unrated porn films for sale or rental, and life went on. If someone complained to the police (in small towns here, this consists of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police), they would hand over the entire stock of porn films from Joe’s Gas to us, the film police, to rate or to declare illegal.
The Film Classification Board was not equipped to rate every single porn film that entered a fairly large (geographically speaking) Canadian province from elsewhere. (As far as I knew, none of it was locally-produced.) There was just too much of it for six board members to view, discuss, and classify. This meant that any irate mother who caught her teenage son watching a film he had secretly rented from Joe’s Gas had enormous power to force Joe to hand over his entire stock, without compensation, to the Authorities (the police or us) and with no guarantee that it would all be given back to him. At the time I joined the board, it was in the process of reviewing a stash of over 900 films that had been seized from one retail outlet.
In a nutshell, anyone who claimed that the Film Classification Board was standing guard over the morals of the entire province was delusional. No one who actually sat on the board could believe that we could classify every piece of film available. Our role was to give an appearance of protecting “community values,” whatever those were, and to actually protect the politicians above us in the government from having to answer sticky questions from the public about what they were doing to stem the tide of “porn,” or why they were trying to limit what local consumers could read or watch.
Discussions with fellow board-members were informative. None of them was an anti-sex fanatic, as far as I could see, but all of them seemed to think we could make decisions that no sensible person could disagree with. The problem is that most people consider themselves to be sensible, neither prudish nor pathological, yet even in a relatively small population, there is large diversity of opinions about the depiction of sex.
Amazon, as a huge purveyor of books and related products, is highly visible to zillions of netsurfers. Although Amazon is a private company, not a branch of government like a film classification board, its administration probably feels the pressure to please a large, middle-of-the-road buying public that really does not exist. Given the quantity of items sold by Amazon, I suspect they have no coherent policy on what should be kept on a back shelf behind a curtain and what should be advertised from the rooftops.
In 1755, after an author and thinker named Samuel Johnson had produced the first “modern” English dictionary, a lady reader complained to him about the “improper” words in it. To his credit, Sam did not offer to pull them out of the next edition, but then, he wasn’t trying to earn a living from the sale of that book alone. Had he been more dependent on public opinion in general, Sam probably would have waffled, apologized, tried to blame an irresponsible typesetter, or promised that the offending words would be removed forthwith.
The problem with censors is not that they all have a fascist agenda to control the whole world, but that they try to please everyone in order to avoid negative publicity. If a certain book is available, someone will be offended. If it is suddenly made unavailable, someone else will be offended.
In effect, most censors are politicians who try to appeal to the largest number of voters by speaking in soothing generalities. Like politicians, censoring organizations need to be watched.