Federal Government Committees
- Browse the MSVU Lesbian Pulp Fiction collection for titles that appeared in a governmental report on obscenity in the United States or Canada
Between 1952 and 1953, both the United States and Canada reviewed the role of paperbacks in North American society. In the United States, the House of Representatives struck the Select Committee on Current Pornographic Materials (Gathings Committee), and in Canada, the Senate formed the Special Committee on Sale and Distribution of Salacious and Indecent Literature. The Women’s Barracks by Tereska Torres was cited in both the U.S. and Canadian final reports. Spring Fire by Vin Packer was also among the eleven books discussed in the Gathings Committee final report.
The Gathings Committee recommended the strengthening of the powers of postal workers to inspect the mail for obscene material, and a reframing of obscenity laws to focus on what they believed to be the threats to U.S. society. Among the themes that the committee found most disturbing were violence, lust, drug use, juvenile delinquency, homosexuality, and other sexual “perversions”. They also cautioned publishers to self-regulate their industry in keeping with the Committee’s report. The outcome for the Canadian Senate Committee was similar in that it reaffirmed the powers invested in Canada Customs and the definition of obscenity in Section 207 of the Criminal Code.
It may seem that the Committees' recommendations were toothless as nothing new was added to law enforcement in either Canada or the United States, but they had a significant impact. They acted to legitimize the actions of the lobby groups, and the mainstream publishers began to tone down their racy covers and authors' prose. Robert Silverberg, an author focused on the erotica market, recalls that he was under strict instructions from his publishers to avoid obscene words or explicit anatomical descriptions so that none of his writing "was much spicier than Peter Rabbit".
In 1956, in response to the Decency Crusades of the 1950s, the Ontario Attorney General struck the Obscene Literature Committee. The Committee was comprised of members of the church groups (who had organized the Decency Crusades) and leading members of the business community. Between 1960 and 1972, an advisory board was formed to handle complaints from private groups through negotiation with the national magazine and paperback distributors to remove offensive titles from circulation. In exchange for compliance, publishers got a virtual guarantee from local authorities that there would be no risk of prosecution for the rest of the publications on sale. Due to the nature of national distribution networks in Canada, the agreements between the Ontario advisory board and the paperback distributors were felt across the country.
The public was mostly unaware that the deliberations of a small committee responding to individual complaints were causing books to be removed from stores without the benefit of a public trial. Researcher Bruce Ryder's analysis of the advisory board's reports reveals that they categorized sexual representations into "normal" and "not normal". They legitimized heterosexual representation and had the effect of marginalizing or suppressing representations of gay, lesbian and other minority sexualities.
Ontario was not alone in its response to pulp literature. Many U.S. states appointed similar bodies. The relationship between the committees and the publishers did not always go as smoothly as in Ontario. In the mid-1960s, publishers sued the Rhode Island Commission to Encourage Morality in Youth, and the Georgia State Literature Commission for threatening legal action against their distributors.
Adams, Mary Louise. "Youth, Corruptibility, and English-Canadian Postwar Campaigns against Indecency, 1948-1955." Journal of the History of Sexuality 6.1, 1995. 89-117.
Davis, Kenneth C. "The Lady Goes to Court: Paperbacks and Censorship." Publishing Research Quarterly 11.4 (1995): 9-32.
Lisby, Gregory C., "'Trying to Define What May Be Indefinable': The Georgia Literature Commission, 1953-1973," Georgia Historical Quarterly 84, 2000. 72-97.
Ryder, Bruce B. "Undercover Censorship: Exploring the History of the Regulation of Publications in Canada." Interpreting Censorship in Canada. Toronto, ON: University of Toronto Press, 1999.
Strub, Whitney. Perversion for profit: The politics of pornography and the rise of the new right. Columbia University Press, 2013.