Historicist: Ross Whicher's Porn Kerfuffle | news | Torontoist
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Historicist: Ross Whicher’s Porn Kerfuffle

How one MPP tried (and failed) to get bawdy magazines banned from Toronto newsstands.

toronto rogue magazine

Rogue, a popular “girlie magazine” from the 1950s. Rogue magazine, Feb 1957, published by William Hamling.

First-term MPP Ross Whicher hated seeing pornography on the shelves of Toronto convenience stores.

The Liberal member of provincial parliament for Bruce would often find magazines such as Kuties Kontinental, Line and Form, Lovlies, and Rogue on magazine racks of cigar stores and newsstands—an apparent violation of the country’s obscenity laws.

March 18, 1959, was the final straw. Whicher, accompanied by a Toronto Star photographer, went on a store-by-store crusade along Bloor Street West, handing out citations to store owners he believed were selling obscene material.

Retailers stocking so-called “girlie magazines” were prime targets. The MPP believed photographs of bare-breasted or scantily clad women lowered the public morality and posed a risk to children and teenagers.

“I wouldn’t sell such trash,” declared the owner of Barnes’ cigar store when the impromptu morality squad visited.

At Singer Cigar Store near Bloor and Bathurst, Whicher and his team found what they were looking for.

The store owner, 57-year-old Morris Singer, had shelves lined with risqué magazines. “I try to staple most of the magazines together so kids can’t read them,” Singer protested as Whicher issued a citation.

To illustrate the danger of the magazines, Whicher covered the front pages with newspaper in the photographs accompanying the resulting Toronto Star story.

toronto porn ross whicher

The Toronto Daily Star the day after Ross Whicher’s anti-porn crusade. March 19, 1959.

Whicher’s crackdown on bawdy literature began the day before in the Ontario legislature when he and Liberal leader John Wintermeyer brought a stack of smutty magazines purchased at Toronto newsstands into the chamber at Queen’s Park.

The pair were responding to a challenge by Attorney General Kelso Roberts to help lay charges against retailers of girlie magazines.

Wintermeyer and Whicher passed the stack of magazines to Roberts, who said it wouldn’t be fair for him to lay charges directly. He also didn’t think much of their findings. “You want to close off all the bathing beaches in Ontario because I’ve seen worse there,” he said.

The attorney general advised the magazine-wielding duo to go to the local Crown attorney where the offending publications were purchased if they were truly sincere about pursuing charges.

“You’ve challenged the wrong man,” Whicher said. “Don’t you question my sincerity.”

The next day, Whicher hit the street, laying four charges against the unfortunate Morris Singer himself.

“Three magazines—Line and Form, a photoform publication, Kuties and Lovlies—both published by Universal Publicity—are involved in the complaint,” the Globe and Mail reported.

“Magazines like this shouldn’t be allowed to circulate,” Whicher said.

The charge against Singer of selling obscene literature was due to be heard April 1, 1959, at Old City Hall.

toronto porn censorship

Editorial cartoon on the horrors of censorship. Toronto Daily Star, August 10, 1959.

The vagaries of Canada’s obscenity laws were part of the reason Whicher’s hunt was able to happen.

In 1892, the Canadian Criminal Code made it an offence to publish material that led to the corruption of public morals, but there was no clear definition of what exactly constituted an “obscenity” in the law.

For a publication to be deemed legally obscene, prosecutors generally had to prove it had a tendency to deprave or corrupt the public, and that’s what they attempted to do in the Singer case.

The cigar store owned appeared before a magistrate at Old City Hall in April 1959 to face four counts of selling obscene literature resulting from Whicher’s raid.

“All the way through the emphasis is on the breasts of the person being photographed,” Crown counsel Lloyd Graburn told the court.

The most shocking image among the selection of British publications, Graburn said, appeared in Kuties Kontinental and showed a woman climbing into the front seat of car that was littered with clothing.

“It’s impossible to tell whether the clothing is that of a woman or man,” Graburn said. “Bald-faced smut!”

Singer’s defence counsel, Pat Hartt, argued the images were provocative and suggestive, sure, but not obscene. His client pleaded not guilty to the charges.

The magistrate disagreed, however. He found Singer guilty and fined him $100.

toronto porn obscenity

Toronto police cracked down on obscene magazines after Whicher’s successful conviction. Globe and Mail, April 30, 1959.

The Singer case inspired Toronto police to go after other newsstand owners. Metro police chairman C. O. Bick told the Globe and Mail in April 1959 his force would be cracking down on retailers and “the distributors better keep their heads up, too,” he said.

A survey of local stores conducted by the paper showed most owners had removed British girlie magazines but kept those printed in America, like Playboy, which was about five years old at the time.

Not everyone agreed pornography was harmful.

During a May 1959 panel discussion, Toronto psychiatrist and director of the Thistletown hospital for emotionally disturbed children, Dr. John Rich, argued reading smutty magazines was better than the alternative: young men peeping in girls’ windows.

“I have examined hundreds of sexual offenders and I am not convinced that the cause of any of their acts was the reading of a publication,” he said. “Sex did not begin with ‘girlie magazines.'”

The discussion was titled “obscenity and your child” and was organized by the Parents’ Action League, a group devoted to upholding traditional community values.

Dave Humphrey, a former Crown prosecutor who was also on the panel, predicted the kerfuffle over the magazines would die a swift death. “These prosecutions are a momentary passion of the public. Six months from now this will be a dead issue.”

Police chairman Bick moderated the talk and reiterated his force’s dedication to stamping out porn mags in Toronto.

“We will not shirk out duty,” he said. “You can’t put a law on the books and tell police to close their eyes to it. If the public doesn’t want that section in the Criminal Code, it is up to the public to get it out.”

20160317 Porn PeepingHed

A psychologist told concerned parents “girlie magazines” were safe for young men. Toronto Daily Star, May 12, 1959.

Unfortunately, the opposite happened. In July 1959, the federal government approved a change to the Criminal Code that broadened the legal definition of obscenity.

The tweak shifted the focus from the old question of whether or not the material had a tendency to “deprave” or “corrupt” to what it termed the “undue exploitation” of sex, or sex and crime, cruelty, horror, and violence.

“All three [federal political] parties were quite happy to provide the government with a legal instrument whereby it can seize sexy pulps and girlie magazines and keep them off Canadian news-stands,” the Globe and Mail reported.

The law was designed to snare “trash” magazines but leave alone works about which there was room for “genuine controversy,” such as Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita, Ulysses by James Joyce, and the 1956 novel Peyton Place by Grace Metalious, the paper reported.

toronto porn obscenity

“Bunion” cartoon on obscenity. Toronto Daily Star, May 19, 1960.

Meanwhile, Morris Singer, the cigar store owner convicted of obscenity under the previous definition in the Criminal Code, launched an successful appeal in December 1959.

The magistrate who heard the case, Judge Ian Macdonnell, said the magazines were “highly disgusting” but fell short of being obscene. “What I have seen so far makes it difficult for me to believe that any person of mature mind could be corrupted,” he said.

Clearly pleased by the outcome, Singer told the press he only sold what the distributors sent him.

“Magazines come to me on consignment,” he said. “I don’t read them any more than I read the daily newspapers and magazines from cover to cover…I’m not going to set myself up as a judge of what is right or wrong to sell.”

toronto lady chatterley obscene

Lady Chatterley’s Lover fell foul of censors in Quebec. Globe and Mail, June 11, 1960.

The amendments to the Criminal Code still produced deeply conservative rulings. Lady Chatterley’s Lover by D. H. Lawrence was ruled obscene by a judge in Montreal in June 1960, despite testimony to the contrary by Toronto author Morley Callaghan.

That same month, another Montreal judge ruled several magazines “consisting entirely of photographs of women in the nude” were also obscene.

In Ontario, Attorney General Roberts formed a four-man advisory panel to investigate obscenity claims submitted by members of the public.

Member David A. Coon, a Stouffville lawyer, outlined what the group deemed outside the bounds of obscenity in January 1961.

“I do not think nudity is obscenity,” he said. “We don’t think a bare bosom obscenity per se. Nor is the odd story that pertains to sex…we would not consider a legitimate [news] story on rape obscene.”

“A picture of a fully clothed girl lying on a floor with her arms tied behind her back and a man standing over her with a whip would be frowned upon by the panel because it would appeal to those with sadistic natures and would exploit perverted sex,” the Globe and Mail reported.

“Perverts are stimulated by pictures of girls with their wrists and ankles ties or bodies bound in some other fashion,” the newspaper explained.

toronto porn obscenity panel

The province established a four-man panel to judge what was legally obscene. Toronto Daily Star, May 19, 1960.

In 1962, Coon’s panel found bawdy Toronto burlesque posters displayed outside the Luxe and Victory theatres to be in bad taste and “an unfortunate eyesore,” but not obscene.

53 magazines owned by Cosburn Avenue resident Jacobus Van Dam, which included titles such as Femina, Venus, and Nude Living, were likewise dismissed as not obscene by a Toronto judge the same year.

However, in 1965, a magistrate controversially convicted Toronto gallery owner Dorothy Cameron of exhibiting obscene objects at her Yonge Streeet space. The offending items were drawings by artists Robert Markle, Lawrence Chaplin, and Fred Ross, which were presented under the title “Eros 65.”

toronto porn obscenity rogue

A young man reads Rogue, a popular American “girlie magazine.” Toronto Daily Star, September 25, 1959.

Broadly speaking, the furor over smutty magazines died down through the 1960s and 1970s as community standards became more liberal.

In 1983, an Ontario court decision nudged legal thinking further away from fears about corrupting public morality toward concern over the potential for harm to women and children in the making of pornography.

Later, erotica was legally defined as “positive and affectionate human sexual interaction between consenting individuals participating on the basis of equality.” Erotica could be explicit without being obscene, the law stated.

On the other hand, dangerous and likely illegal pornography was defined as depictions of violent sex that degrades and dehumanizes its subjects.

Today, the word “pornography” only appears in the Criminal Code in relation to child pornography. According to a paper published the Parliamentary Information and Research Service, which is part of the Library of Parliament, porn made by consenting adults is legal in Canada, provided it’s not obscene.

Obscenity—still legally the “undue exploitation” of sex, or sex and crime, cruelty, horror, and violence”—is illegal.

What constitutes “undue exploitation” is decided by something called the community standards test: Basically, whether or not the Canadian population in general would find the material unacceptable.

“The community standards test is concerned not with what Canadians would not tolerate being exposed to themselves, but with what they would not tolerate other Canadians being exposed to,” the paper explains.

One-time porn crusader Ross Whicher retired from politics in 1974 and he died in 2002 aged 84. After his girlie magazine crusade in 1959, it appears he lost interest in policing public morality.

Porn is still available in convenience stores.

Additional material from the Mar 18, 1959; Mar 19, 1959; Apr 30, 1959; 1959, May 2, 1959; May 12, 1959; Jul 4, 1959; Jul 7, 1959, Dec 3, 1959; May 19, 1960; Jun 11, 1960; Jun 21, 1960; Jan 04, 1961; Aug 9, 1962; Dec 21, 1962; Feb 19, 1963; and Sep 20, 2002 editions of the Globe and Mail; the Mar 19, 1959; Apr 22, 1959; May 12, 1959; May 14, 1959; Jul 8, 1959; Aug 10, 1959; Dec 12, 1959; May 19, 1960; and Nov 26, 1965 editions of the Toronto Daily Star; “The Evolution of Pornography Law in Canada,” Lyne Casavant and James R. Robertson, Parliament of Canada, 25 October 2007.

Every Saturday, Historicist looks back at the events, places, and characters that have shaped Toronto into the city we know today.


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