How to be an Anti-Porn Activist

I recently read Perversion for Profit: The Politics of Pornography and the Rise of the New Right, (2013) by Whitney Strub. Strub discusses the origins and operations of the anti-pornography group Citizens for Decent Literature in the 1960s, and touches on later individuals and groups such as Robin Morgan and Women Against Pornography in the 1980s. It struck me that much of the rhetoric of these earlier groups is the same as that used by contemporary anti-pornography individuals and groups, such as Gail Dines and the National Center on Sexual Exploitation. There are several common approaches:

  1. Do not define pornography. It can be anything that is vaguely sexual, from lingerie ads to risque TV comedies, from erotic videos to photos of child abuse, from artistic nude paintings to stolen topless selfies. It can also refer to prostitution, kidnapping, or any number of sex crimes.
  2. Declare a crisis. Claim pornography is more common than ever, due to the new technology of cheap paperbacks / storefront 16 mm theatres / 8 mm home movies / videotapes / phone sex lines / DVDs / the internet / mobile phones / high speed internet. Also claim it is more violent / explicit / depraved than ever before.
  3. Stress that this is a public health matter, not a moral or censorship issue. Pornography causes masturbation, homosexuality, communism, rape, aggression, passivity, premature sexual activity, delayed sexual activity, erectile dysfunction, cheating, loss of interest in sex, sex trafficking, prostitution, abortions, divorce, child abuse, suicide, nightmares, drug addition, racism, sexism, brain damage…
  4. Blame greed. Point out the massive profits of pornography producers, to make it clear that this is not about free expression or artistic desire.
  5. Fudge or fake data. Since pornography is never defined, it’s hard to verify if any claimed facts or conclusions are valid, but that does not stop them from getting made up and repeated. The massive profits reported in the 1960s originated in Citizens for Decent Literature‘s completely unsubstantiated claim that porn was a two billion dollar a year industry. More recently, in her book Pornland, Gail Dines lent her academic authority to the claim that porn is a thirteen billion dollar a year industry in the United States. Her source was a web page on an advertising website. There are no sources provided for the financial numbers, or any of the other shocking statistics on the page. The information is not just unsubstantiated, the source is biased: The company that maintains this page sells the internet filtering program Net Nanny. As another example of false data, many sources claim 300,000 children are sexually exploited in the United States, despite this figure being debunked. Claims about porn’s effects, contents, availability, viewing by children, and internet dominance have similarly been debunked.

If pornography is harmless, why are so many people devoted to stopping it? Notwithstanding the statements of some anti-pornography advocates, the primary concern is often old fashioned morality. The National Center on Sexual Exploitation, known on Facebook as Pornography Harms, was founded as a Catholic group, and until recently was known as Morality in Media. Anti-porn groups typically stress that they are not opposed to sexuality, but the sexuality they support tends to be straight, married, and limited to procreative vaginal intercourse (pulling out is not only poor birth control, it’s apparently inspired by porn). Anti-porn feminists have dismissed gay porn as simply substituting men in the women’s oppressed positions, and dismissed lesbian porn as simply a show for men, effectively denying these sexualities.

There’s also money in fighting pornography. The many non-profits that fight porn, including Gail Dines’ own Stop Porn Culture, all raise funds to pay their staff and raise more funds. The National Center on Sexual Exploitation‘s Finances page is a broken link. Citizens for Decent Literature collapsed when its founder, Charles Keating, was jailed for financial fraud. Women Against Pornography, which actively opposed sex shops in New York’s Times Square, received generous financial support from developers eager to see the businesses shut down, so that the properties could be purchased at low prices. When it comes to academics, current concerns about campus sexual assault and providing safe spaces for students make being an anti-porn academic a safe route to publications and tenure.

An old tactic for fighting pornography is to distribute it. Citizens for Decent Literature did this, and Stop Porn Culture continues the tradition, with several downloadable slide shows on their website [Update April 2019 – the site no longer available]. This is hypocritical for two reasons. First, it presumes that enlightened anti-porn viewers will be immune to the claimed harms of the images. This is reminiscent of old obscenity laws which were intended to protect the easily corrupted (i.e. women, children, servants, the poor, foreigners, etc.). Second, the examples allow viewers to indulge whatever interests they may have in the material, in a ‘respectable’ manner.

Anti-pornography advocates do raise some valid issues about the consumption of porn. What is often overlooked is that the issues raised are not unique to porn. For example, many films and television shows promote sexual violence. Most obscenity laws and anti-porn advocates are only concerned with this when there is explicit sexuality, but studies have shown that the degree of sexual  explicitness has minimal impact on changes in attitudes. Studies have also shown that there is considerably more sexual violence in mainstream films than in pornography. In other words, if we are concerned about portrayals of sexual violence, we need to be looking at Hollywood, where most of it comes from. For the film review boards in Canada, extreme sexual violence is not a concern in widely seen mainstream films, but limited distribution porn films can be banned for simple coercion, even as mild as the ‘sex to pay for the pizza’ story line.

There are also valid issues about production. Defenders of pornography often note that performers participate of their own free will. Successful performers sometimes promote their work as a lifestyle choice. However, many other performers, such as the countless young people in the pro-am genre, make the choice due to economic necessity and limited employment options. Some producers encourage consumers to shop for ethical porn, which acknowledges the exploitative nature of parts of the industry. Rather than attack a symptom of dysfunctional economies, efforts to stop young people from being exploited for pornography should ensure they have other options.

Anti-pornography advocates have the advantage of a simple, strong argument: Porn is bad. People who defend pornography rely on more complex arguments. They call for considerations of  cultural and media context, acknowledge social and production concerns, quote research studies, and struggle to balance sexual expression with freedom from offense. Pornography makes many people uncomfortable for various reasons, and makes a great scapegoat for social ills. Anti-porn advocates take full advantage of this to advance their own moral or financial interests. They have been making their claims of a public health crisis for more than fifty years, with false or fudged data, but there are still people happy to donate to the cause, in the vain hope that fighting pornography will make a better world.

Ontario Film Authority

The Ontario Government has spun off the Ontario Film Review Board to a new agency, the Ontario Film Authority. This is an independent non-profit agency which will administer the Film Classification Act. In letters to distributors and retailers, it appears the only change is that fees are now payable to the agency instead of the government, and that there are taxes on some of those fees. According to a news release,

the OFA will:

  • Offer the convenience of a single point of contact for the film and theatre industry
  • Have more effective and efficient service delivery and enforcement
  • Reduce the regulatory burden on the film sector and businesses

It’s not clear how the new agency will deliver these changes, since, at least for now, nothing is changing. In addition, the Film Review Board has operated at a profit for many years, and the government is now losing that income. However, the web site has received a long overdue update. Check it out here:


It’s a Bond movie, and we know what to expect. As the Irish Film Classification Office notes, there is “frequent intense action violence consistent with the franchise.” Across Canada, violence is the advisory. Everyone gave it a PG classification, except Quebec. which does not have a PG equivalent. Quebec noted the film was not suitable for young children, and Manitoba also noted that, even though their PG clearly indicates films with that rating are not suitable for children under 12.

Most agencies give additional information on their web sites. Ontario is the only jurisdiction to warn about a little sexuality, and Alberta and Manitoba warn of alcohol use. British Columbia, which always counts coarse language, noted three uses. The BBFC noted the following uses of “mild bad language:” ‘bloody’, ‘bastard’, ‘shit’, ‘moron’, ‘asshole’, ‘Jesus’, ‘Christ’, ‘hell’. Presumably not all of those words are considered coarse language in BC.

As usual, Canada’s ratings come in below the MPAA rating, however their PG-13, though higher than PG, does not have any age restrictions. Overseas, some countries have age suggestions, some have a requirement for adult accompaniment, and South Africa has an age limit, not allowing any children under 13. New Zealand’s age 16 suggestion seems high, but this classification is automatic when Australia classifies a film as M. Australia’s M means recommended for ages 15 and over. Mature can be a confusing term, since Manitoba uses it to mean viewers over 12.

The BBFC notes that the distributor made changes at the post production stage, in order to achieve the desired classification. These were presumably cuts, and the DVD release might include them as additional footage, though this could only be a few seconds of material, or different angles.

Look up ratings by agency.

Vacation 2015/1983



I’m not sure if the latest Vacation is a sequel, a reboot, or a remake, but whatever it is, something is missing. Rotten Tomatoes gives the original 93%, and this one a mere 25%. The new one has the same general storyline and crude humour, but in a misguided effort to refresh the story, the crude factor is turned up. The respective trailers show the difference in tone. By comparison, the original looks like a masterpiece of sophisticated comedy.

Maybe it’s just nostalgia. The ratings of the original and new version, posted below, are the same in many jurisdictions, though Quebec, the BBFC, and Australia felt a higher rating was required. However, there is also ratings creep, the well documented tendency of each classification to allow more mature content over time. In other words, the current 14A allows more crude materal than the 14A of twenty years ago. While this is not deliberate on the part of the agencies, they are required to keep up with social trends, so if we are more relaxed about crude humour than we used to be, then permitting more of it in the same age classification is reasonable. The new Vacation is cruder in absolute terms, but not much cruder in relative terms.

Whether more crude humour is a good idea is questionable. Box office returns have been fair at best, and some American critics have blamed the R-rated humour, pointing out that previous sequels were more family friendly. However,  the similarly crude (but ultimately family values promoting) “We’re the Millers” did better box office than Vacation is doing. Perhaps the problem isn’t too much crude humour, but too little of anything else entertaining.

Look up the ratings by agency.

Area Classification
Advisories (2015 Version)
Maritimes 14a 14a Coarse Language, Crude Content
Quebec  generalq  c13 Langage vulgaire
Ontario  14a  14a Coarse Language, Crude Content
Manitoba  14a  14a Crude Content, Coarse Language
Alberta  N/A  14a Coarse Language, Crude Content
British Columbia  N/A  14a Coarse & sexual language
MPAA (U.S.A.) R  R Crude and sexual content and language throughout, and brief graphic nudity.
BBFC 15  R Strong language, sex references, nudity
Australia M  15+ Strong nudity and coarse language

Mad Max: Fury Road

The first three Mad Max films are all violent, but different in tone. The third, Beyond Thunderdome, was not even originally a Mad Max film, which explains some of the differences. Mad Max: Fury Road promises to be different again, if nothing else because of time that’s passed. It’s been thirty years since Beyond Thunderdome. The film makers promised minimal use of CGI, but if you are using it to remove safety cables, you’re still taking advantage of new technologies. They also have a bigger budget for cool vehicles (and have finally corrected the questionable but cinematically impressive use of a clutched blower). Purists might argue that filming in Namibia instead of the Australian outback is a cheat, but thanks to climate change, the actual environmental degradation of the outback does not look like environmental degradation, so another location was necessary. (Read an article about the actual and imagined environmental issues of Fury Road.)

Consistent with the earlier films, Fury Road is violent. There’s not much else to cause offense – a touch of non-sexual nudity, a couple of swears – but lots of violence, as noted by classifiers everywhere. There are many deaths during the chase sequences (i.e. most of the film) but less gory violence than I was expecting, based on the advisories. A few disturbing moments were narratively justified, not simply to show off effects or for shock value.  Across Canada the rating was consistently 14A, and most other jurisdictions also set a mid-teen age limit, though in several countries that limit is regardless of adult accompaniment.

There is a controversy about the portrayals of women in this film – not because they are victims, but because they do something about being victimized. One men’s rights reviewer called for a boycott of this subversive film, while feminist reviewers have celebrated the film. The best response is this one. The argument that Max is relegated to a lesser role in favor of a female hero is silly. In both Road Warrior and Thunderdome, Max is a helper to other leaders – a pregnant teenage girl in Thunderdome. He’s the wandering stranger that comes to restore social order, but does not become part of it. There’s still a traditional romantic subplot in Fury Road, and the presence of strong female characters and gender issues adds depth. However, the biggest difference in tone compared to the earlier films is not the strong female characters or the gender issues, but the ending. There’s no place like home.

Fifty Shades of Grey

The publishing phenomenon arrives in theatres for Valentines Day, though it might not be the best choice for a date movie. Much has been written about the books, and the coming movie, and what it all means. It’s good to have conversations about sex and power in relationships, and to remember that most of us can separate reality and fantasy, but I’ll let others dwell on that. I’m interested in how film classifiers handle an erotic film that is based on a popular book yet portrays what is essentially an abusive relationship.

All the Canadian English language agencies agreed on 18A as the classification. This is roughly the same as the Restricted rating in the United States. Restricted in the United States, and 18A in Canada, allow anyone to attend if accompanied by an adult (except in Manitoba and the Maritimes, where there is a lower age limit of 14. Quebec used its 16+ rating, allowing older teens to attend but not allowing anyone younger. The Raven’s Cry Theatre in Sechelt, B.C., has decided not the show the film, on the grounds that the 18A rating admits minors. Countries outside of North America are a little stricter than most of Canada and the United States. Malaysia, one of the strictest jurisdictions, has banned the film, as has conservative Kenya.

Advisories are part of the classification and must be included with all advertising, but agencies often list additional warnings on their websites. Ontario noted “nudity, sexual content, disturbing content” as part of the classification, but online also warns of:

  • Limited use of slurs
  • Coarse language
  • Sexual references
  • Partial or full nudity in a brief sexual situation
  • Limited instances of nudity in a sexual situation
  • Illustrated or verbal references to drugs, alcohol or tobacco
  • Crude content
  • Occasional upsetting or disturbing scenes
  • Embracing and kissing
  • Fondling
  • Sexual innuendo
  • Implied sexual activity
  • Limited instances of brief simulated sexual activity
  • Restrained portrayals of non-graphic violence

Don’t say you weren’t warned.

Look up ratings by agency.


It may be a true story, but I’m not sure who is going to enjoy a film about surviving a Japanese prison camp, and the Christmas Day release seems particularly ill-timed. Back in the 1950s, films like this turned on up the exploitation circuit, and were sometimes banned for stoking racial hatred. Not surprisingly, some Japanese have objected to the film, but other Asians have praised it. The film is clearly presented as a Serious Movie Worthy of Oscar Consideration, but despite the source material and the contributors, much of the presentation is pedestrian – competent, to be sure, but rarely oustanding. Part of the problem may be that the director, Angelina Jolie, was a neighbour and friend of the late Louis Zamperini, and presents him as a perfect hero. The lack of moral complexity in the character may be accurate, but truth does not always make a good story.

Everyone agrees there is violence in the film, but ratings vary. Eastern and central Canada require adult accompaniment for younger teens, while western Canada believes a PG rating is sufficient, and no one specifically advises against children attending. The UK sets a higher rating, not admitting anyone under fifteen. More detailed ratings, available by clicking on the name of the jurisdiction, have additional warnings, including tobacco use. India takes tobacco use in films very seriously: They’ve added anti-smoking disclaimers at the start and middle of the film, and show an anti-smoking message whenever there is smoking onscreen.

Guardians of the Galaxy

Consistently rated PG across Canada, except for Quebec which does not have a PG rating. Manitoba and the Martimes were concerned about language and violence, while Ontario and BC were only worried about violence, and Alberta was only worried about language. Elsewhere there is agreement that this is not a film for young children, with Great Britain setting a restriction on children under 12.

I discussed the film with a couple of children in their early teens, who like it, and I asked them if they thought it was a violent film. They said there is fighting, but it’s not really violent as there is no blood when people are killed. True enough. But large numbers of people are killed, from a captured emissary to hundreds of henchmen to thousands of soldiers. It seems the galaxy is a heavily populated but lawless place, and what is supposedly the most peaceful planet is a police state with a brutal and corrupt prison.

In this wild west universe, feuds between planets simmer for generations, and a thirst for personal vengeance drives both the main plot and assorted sub-plots. There’s no authority, just not-as-bad-as-everyone-else guys, bad guys, worse guys, really bad guys, and truly evil guys, all of whom accept and use rule by force. Sure, there are a few funny lines, but the eponymous band of misfits (“a thief, two thugs, an assassin and a maniac”) are equally comfortable cracking one liners and mowing down the enemy. They lost my sympathies when someone surrendered (played for laughs), and he got the same brutal treatment as everyone else. None of which distinguishes this film from many others where the hero is moral only in relation to a corrupt society, and the solution to any problem is to kill large numbers of people.

Although the killing may be bloodless, the violence is pervasive. This is yet another film promoting the idea that deceit and murder are the only tools we can rely on to survive our lawless society. It’s a well made, well told, cheerfully violent film, and I’m not sure a steady diet of this is good for anyone, adult or child.

Look up ratings by agency.

Neighbors (aka Bad Neighbours)

Another deeply conservative creed disguised as a raunchy comedy. As usual, the jokes break down into a) not funny, b) guilty pleasure, and c) inspired.

There was unaminous agreement among the English Canadian boards that this is a crude film deserving an 18A classification, the same as the United States Restricted. The rest of the world is a little less concerned, but perhaps that’s because the international title is “Bad Neighbours” instead of the friendlier “Neighbors” used in North America.  Quebec stands out for a relatively low 13+ rating and an absence of warnings.

Look up ratings by agency.


Noah dramatizes a well known biblical story with all the spare-no-expense imagery of contemporary film making. The ark size and design are both realistic and based on the bible story. Unlike most representations of the ark, the film makers considered that the ark just needed to float, not navigate, and thus it did not need to resemble a boat.

Unfortunately the film pays less attention to the narrative aspects of the source material. The bible story is concise (Genesis 6-8), so some fleshing out is to be expected. Aspects of the story are pulled from obscure sources including books of the Apocrypha, but eventually the narrative directly contradicts the bible story. This has led many Christian organizations to condemn the film, and at one popular Christian film review site the moral rating is “extremely offensive.”

Biblical authenticity aside, the decision to present Noah as the worst kind of old-testment patriarch ends up confusing the story arc, limits viewer identification, and muddles the climax. Changes to the narrative also allow more opportunities for violence. Granted, the flood had a high body count, but I was not expecting the amount of fighting and killing shown, or the violence against animals in a story about saving animals.

Ratings boards agree this film is not suitable for children, but disagree on whether there should be restrictions on children attending. In Canada, most agencies rated in PG, with only Ontario setting an age restriction with the 14A rating.

Look up ratings by agency.