It’s A Risque Business
Sex-for-sale classifieds made headlines when they came under attack by the police, but many feel sexist display ads are the ones that should be targeted for the way they degrade women
It was no surprise when police dropped charges against NOW magazine last September. The surprise had come when the charges were laid: essentially they amounted to charges of soliciting-“communicating for the purposes of prostitution.” The “communicating” law was introduced in 1985 to curb street solicitation by and of prostitutes, without making prostitution itself illegal. The law states that anyone who “stops or attempts to stop any person or in any manner communicates or attempts to communicate with any person for the purpose of engaging in prostitution or obtaining the sexual services of a prostitute” is liable to a jail term of six months, a $2,000 fine, or both.
Although the communicating law clearly threatens freedom of expression, in May 1990, the Supreme Court of Canada ruled that “the elimination of street solicitation and the social nuisance which it creates” justified this limitation, granted by the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. It’s less clear that prohibiting ads like the following one from NOW would justify the limitation.
The case surrounding NOW is unprecedented. On Friday, August 31, 1990, police entered the paper’s headquarters on Danforth Avenue and charged NOW’s publishing company and its four directors for soliciting. In total, 14 counts of communicating for the purposes of prostitution were laid. NOW’s business/personal classifieds section suddenly became a red-light district smack in the centre of controversy.
Never before in Canada had such a charge been laid against a publication and many viewed it as police a harassment against a paper that had frequently been critical of the police. And unless the communicating law changes to encompass soliciting through classified ads, it may be the last time police try to control the sale of sex in the business/personals.
Understandably, NOW publisher Michael Hollett heaved a sigh of relief that the heat was off his unorthodox 10-year-old weekly paper. Not everyone was as relieved or as satisfied with the outcome. Women’s groups sensitive to sexism in the media say that although the wrong kind of ads were targeted in this instance, the battle against sexual exploitation in the press is justifiable and not yet won. Such groups believe it’s more crucial to eliminate sexually exploitive display ads than to eradicate business/personals placed by legitimate sex-trade workers.
Over the summer, the national feminist organization MediaWatch succeeded in persuading Molson Breweries to withdraw its “Rare Long-Haired Fox” ad from Toronto subways. Members of the volunteer group say the ad, which portrayed a slim, halter-top-clad brunette photographed from the waist up, made the “Fox” out to be a lustful, preying animal.
The “Rare Long-Haired Fox” was intended for newspaper and magazine insertion too, but before it appeared in NOW or the Toronto Sun-two of the media in which it was supposed to run-Molson’s pulled it as a result of the furor.
MediaWatch and groups like it often succeed in getting sexist ads pulled from public property like the subway system and bus shelters, which are responsible to taxpayers, but they have difficulty persuading newspapers and magazines to follow suit. They’d already lost a skirmish with NOW.
In June 1989, approximately 35 men and women picketed NOW offices to protest a full-page display ad for the Lizard Lounge, a Toronto bar. The ad depicted a nude, pregnant woman caked with mud. She stood in the middle of a field on one foot-like a flamingo-with her arms outstretched and a forced smile on her face. Above the photo was the caption “Rock ‘n Roll Breeder Bar,” and below it were the words “where women meet men.”
The publication received several letters to the editor protesting. One was written by Debbie Wise Harris, currently MediaWatch’s Ontario representative. Harris, writing as an individual at the time, described the ad as the “oh-so-titillating, mud-covered pregnant woman who presumably hangs out in the Lizard Lounge.” In her letter, she commends NOW for having a pro-feminist editorial policy, but questions why that same policy does not extend to advertising. Hollett, who made the final decision to run the ad, says NOW is a nonsexist publication whose staff is very concerned about the images of women in the media. “The Lizard Lounge was selling their club with the image of a pregnant woman, not in a debased way,” he says, “like not spread on the roof of a car. It was an extremely positive image. And if there is any sexuality implied, that it be implied in a pregnant woman was, to me, a very radical thing.”
Hollett’s “Mother of the Earth” argument is a simpleminded arid irresponsible excuse, says Harris. It’s no justification for running such an ad; the connection to the degradation surrounding mud wrestling is far too easy to make. Alison Kerr, coordinator of Resources Against Pornography (RAP), made a similar connection. “The ad gave me a sinking feeling in my stomach. The mud was degrading and there was no dignity involved. It just looked so much like the pornography I see all the time.” Kerr, who arranged the demonstration at NOW in response to complaints she had received, enlisted eight other women’s groups to endorse a press release to various media, including NOW The Toronto Rape Crisis Centre, the Toronto Women’s Bookstore and the YWCA of Metropolitan Toronto were among the groups that signed the release.
But despite pressure to pull the “Breeder Bar” ad, Hollett refused. The nude, pregnant woman appeared again the following week. And this time, the nude woman in the ad was larger than in the previous issue. Hollett says he’s serving democracy by not limiting advertisers’ access to his paper. “We would rather accept advertising than not accept it.. It’s a fundamental concept.” And the money’s not bad either. The Lizard Lounge was one of NOW’s regular customers. So are prostitutes. Hollett hates to even consider limiting access to NOW classifieds. “I’m not going to be the sex cop that tells someone their particular way of seeking pleasure is more twisted than mine. I don’t believe in it.” But most publishers do. Although The Toronto Star, the Toronto Sun and even the Yellow Pages carry escort service ads, which some speculate are fronts for prostitution, police say they acted on a complaint they received specifically about a NOW classified. They would not say how many complaints they got nor would they divulge which ad was the subject of the complaint. Perhaps this was the type of ad they were after:
Although he would not permit such an ad in his paper, David Jolley, publisher of The Toronto Stat says, “I thought the charge was preposterous. The law is meant. to stop harassment of innocent people on the street. But nobody’s being harassed through an advertisement.” When it comes to sexist advertising, everyone has an opinion and draws the line at some point. But the players don’t agree on what constitutes a sexually exploitive image and where to draw the line.
In 1981, NOW’s first year, Hollett pulled an ad campaign for Maxell, in which a woman wearing next to nothing was selling stereo items. The ad ran once, but after letters to the editor, Hollett apologized to the readership and withdrew the ad. Looking back, he says he would call the same shot today. Relevance has a lot to do with it. The images in the ad have to be relevant to the product that’s being sold. “If you’re selling a Pontiac Firebird, it’s not acceptable to have a woman lying on the hood of a car to sell it,” Hollett says. Women’s groups are not willing to make such distinctions about images they regard as obtrusive and which perpetuate sexually stereotypical and degrading attitudes towards women. Whether it’s a bikini-clad woman posing on the hood of a car to sell cars or a nude, pregnant woman covered in mud to sell a bar, it all contributes to the same unhealthy attitude that says it’s okay to treat women like sexual objects, says Harris. “And such attitudes lead to both physical and emotional violence against women. The ramifications are quite staggering.” A negative image is a negative image.
Standards of morality and taste govern the advertising decisions at many newspapers and magazines and some have written policies on classified and display advertising. At The Toronto Star, a comprehensive written ad policy taking into account the paper’s mass audience is intended to exclude offensive material. Jolley says the Star is a family paper and the ad content must reflect good taste and appeal to all members of a family.
If The Toronto Star contains any so-called sex ads, they are camouflaged in the Companions section of the classifieds, and are so tame that anyone can read them:
According to Hollett, anyone can read NOW classifieds too. “Mine’s the family newspaper, not the Star, because my family newspaper really talks of issues concerning families.” Hollett’s family presumably discusses this type of ad in an up-front, open manner:.
“My family’s not afraid of this information,” he says. “So, what family what archetypal, hermetically-sealed family living in a jar somewhere-is Jolley talking about? At NOW; we don’t run things because of theoretical people. We make our decisions about real people.”
Some women’s groups like MediaWatch, which consider the promotion of positive images of women in the Canadian media high on their agendas, don’t object to Hollett’s commitment to the sex trade. But they say his decision to run ads because of real people is a tad faulty. For a publication which claims to be non-sexist, it’s a contradiction to run display ads which pigeonhole all women into one category and degrade them, says Harris, who has yet to see a nude, mud-covered pregnant woman stalking any bar-even the Lizard Lounge.
Nothing’s clear-cut when dealing with the dilemma of sexually exploitive ads and the press’s ability to screen and regulate them. It’s hard to be prescriptive.
At Chatelaine, all ads are vetted by publisher Lee Simpson. “The buck stops here,” she says. “But frankly, some ads get run up the flagpole to see who salutes.” If Simpson doesn’t trust her own opinion on a controversial ad, she will run it by her colle2gues and make a decision based on their views. Simpson also relies heavily on readers’ comments. “Chatelaine readership is very involved in the publication. And the publication has changed along with the women who read it.” Women’s groups say that passing the buck to readers isn’t going to solve anything. They say media people who claim to be concerned about the way women are shown in ads should practice what they preach.
Some women’s groups even say censorship is the only way to force the press to act responsibly where images of women are concerned. “The journalism industry has clearly shown it’s not willing to be self-regulating because the profit motive is so compelling,” says RAP’s Kerr. “So in the best interests of society and the greater rights of the collective, I think we need to impose government regulations, as we would on any other industry that’s producing a harmful product.”
The publishing industry is appalled at the mere thought of censorship and government intervention threatening freedom of the press. People are less and less willing to see institutional solutions to problems because they have lost faith in them to effect change, says David Nitkin, president of EthicScan Canada, a group which has a data base on 1,500 Canadian corporations. He believes the answer lies not in censorship, but in the composition of the work force: “Many decisions at newspapers and magazines are still being made by middle-aged men.” And when women do try to speak out against ads which they find harmful and degrading, they are often silenced.
When NOW ran the ad of the nude, pregnant woman, Hollett says he consulted the more articulate feminists on staff. But Kerr says that consulting employees is useless, since they have a vested interest in pleasing the boss. “If the press is really concerned about serving the community, then it’s the press’s responsibility to give us voice, to invite the disadvantaged groups to participate in the decision making.” At MediaWatch, Harris echoes Kerr’s thoughts. Newspapers and magazines should either contact women’s groups before they run controversial ads or they should be more conscious of the images depicted in the ads they receive, says Harris. And for the press to decide what is and isn’t appropriate is not censorship.
Hollett says NOW ads couldn’t be more appropriate for the publication. But he admits it was nerve-racking the day the police stepped in. “It was very chilling. I was suddenly dropped into the maw of the police state. The state went from being this nice place that gives us OHIP to one that throws people in jail for what they believe in.” And Hollett will adamantly defend every ad he runs. He believes the front page coverage that The Toronto Star gave to the death of Andrea Atkinson was far more exploitive than NOW’s business/personal classifieds. “I just find it very interesting how Jolley can be so ‘moral’ about what goes onto the back pages and so ‘immoral’ about what goes on in the front,” he says. “The hearts and minds [of readers] are won on the front pages, not the back.”
Anastasia Silva was the Visuals Editor for the Spring 1991 issue of the Ryerson Review of Journalism.