Book Club: Freedom to Read Week Edition

by | February 20, 2011
filed under Can-Con, Feminism, LGBT

It’s one of my favourite weeks of the year. Feb. 20-26 is Freedom to Read Week in Canada.

Instead of writing about the craziest banned books examples like I did for US Banned Books Week last fall, I thought I’d kick off the highly informal Gender Focus book club with a book suggestion left by Claire M. on our Facebook page: Forbidden Passages: Writings Banned in Canada.

Forbidden Passages was released in 1995 to support the defense fund for Little Sister’s Book and Art Emporium, a Vancouver bookstore challenging Canada Customs’ seizure of gay and feminist literature at the Canadian border.

The book starts off with a punchy intro by Pat Califa, whose book Macho Sluts had been seized by Canada Customs (a particularly controversial chapter is reproduced in Forbidden Passages). Califa gives an impassioned recounting of the history of anti-gay censorship in Canada and looks at how anti-porn laws, pushed for by some feminists like MacKinnon and Dworkin, have served to allow regulation of free speech by “straight, homophobic men who thinkt hat lesbianism is much more dangerous and degrading to women than domestic violence or rape.”

In the first week of Women’s Studies 100 at UBC our professor asked, “Who here is anti-porn?” Only my friend Anna and I, both 17, put up our hands, surprised to see no one else joining in. Our professor and class engaged us and found we had no really good reasons for thinking we were “anti-porn” other than finding it degrading to women. Looking at how censorship has unfairly targeted gays and lesbians and how prohibiting freedom of sexual expression has rarely emancipated women, we were convinced. But Califa’s essay put it better than our professor did: “If we wnt to live in a world free of sexism and homophobia…we must defend all expressions of sexuality.”

The targeting of gay and lesbian books has been particularly hurtful, denying queer people the right to write and read their own histories, especially when representations of same-sex sex are so much rarer than straight sex in mainstream pop culture and books.

Forbidden Passages is great at showing a wide range of writings banned in Canada. As Califa predicts in the intro, you might not like all of them. But the thing is, you can’t pick and choose when you’re fighting censorship. I found the enema scene in Macho Sluts’ really grossed me out. But just because that’s not my thing doesn’t mean no one should have the right to read it.

There are so many different things in Forbidden Passages. In addition to Califa’s fictional S/M depictions, you’ve got Susie Bright’s matter-of-fact reflections on the importance of women having sexual pleasure while pregnant; a vaguely erotic story by Marguerite Duras; a non-explicit set of cartoons of “Hothead Paisan: Homicidal Lesbian Terrorist”; and an excerpt from a bell hooks book, focused on representation of blacks in the media, fairly academic-y except for the use of the word “f***ing”.

All in all it’s worth a read to learn more about the works that we don’t always leap to defend and to demonstrate the sometimes problematic applications of obscenity laws in Canada.

A quick note to congratulate Twitter fan @megkrausch, winner of law week’s Henrietta Lacks book giveaway. The next book on my list is Rebecca Traister’s book about women and feminist issues in the 2008 Presidential election: Big Girls Don’t Cry, suggested by Lisa on the Gender Focus Facebook page. If you’ve read it, I’d love to hear what you thought! And remember, you can always make more suggestions for other books I should review.


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