How Canadian Customs Decides Which Porn is Too Hardcore

Yes, the government is watching porn.

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May 30 2018, 2:57pm

Image source: Shutterstock | Art by Noel Ransome

Every three months, the Canada Border Services Agency (CBSA) releases a list of all the obscene material and hate speech it blocked from entering the country over the previous 90 days. During the first quarter of 2018, no “hate propaganda” (CBSA’s official term) was intercepted at Canadian ports of entry, but plenty of porn was.

The Canadian “community standard of tolerance” says anything depicting or describing sex “with degradation or dehumanization” is obscene. According to CBSA guidelines, this includes things like sex with “pain” or “violence.” In addition to bestiality, necrophilia, incest, and “taking of a human life for sexual arousal,” some of the specifics Canada doesn’t allow include:

  • “Situations involving striking, gagging, choking, cutting, burning, branding or similar activities resulting in areas of the body becoming red or bruised, welts being raised or the skin being broken,” in addition to “beating, kicking, extreme limb twisting or asphyxiation.
  • “Actual or implied urination, defecation or vomit onto or into another person, and/or the ingestion of someone else’s urine, feces or vomit, with a sexual purpose, excluding consensual urination onto or into another person or the consensual ingestion of someone else’s urine.
  • “Ridicule and/or humiliation (defined as the practice of mocking, making fun of or belittling an individual for the purpose of sexual arousal)”

It all seems pretty clear-cut, but some of the decisions reported by CBSA don’t make much sense at first glance. The film Taboo Handjobs 2: admissible. Taboo Handjobs 3: denied. Or, why was Daddy I’m a Big Girl Now! barred, while Daddy Made me a Mommy was OK? Other allowable titles included Don’t Let Grandpa Babysit Your Daughter 3, My Niece is my Bae, and Brothers Fucking Their Stepsister 10. At the same time, Exercise in Domination, Bitches of Cruel Intent, and Pain Train (along with a dozen or so others) were turned away.

“Sometimes you know it when you see it; other times, you don’t know what you’re watching,” Toronto trade lawyer Cyndee Todgham Cherniak told VICE.

If a particular title is not found in the CBSA database of previously rejected material, and an officer isn’t sure whether something crosses the line, they seize it and forward it on to a specialized squad for review, explained Cherniak.

Border services officers are trained to intercept “prohibited material in all forms – including printed material, digital material or video format that could constitute obscenity, hate propaganda or child pornography,” CBSA spokesperson Jayden Robertson told VICE.

Here’s what this process looks like in actual practice:

Who makes these determinations? Is somebody at CBSA headquarters spending their days viewing confiscated smut, deciding what’s too hardcore for the citizenry to handle?

As a matter of fact, yes.

“My first job as a customs officer in 1992 was actually to sit in this little room and watch porn,” retired CBSA officer Kelly Sundberg told VICE.

It was usually a two-person job, and for expediency’s sake they’d usually go through the films on fast-forward, explained Sundberg, who is now an associate professor at Mount Royal University in Calgary. Closing the door only invited brutal hazing and wisecracks, so Sundberg always made sure to keep it open. He occasionally worked with female officers, which he said could get quite awkward.

After watching the film (or reading the magazine, book, or manga comic), the officer makes a determination. If he or she feels the material is obscene, they contact the owner or intended recipient with an explanation of why their property was seized.

“I would have to write the person a form letter, ‘Dear Mr. and Mrs. Smith, on this date, at this time, this videotape was seized at the Port of Whatever by Officer Jones,” Sundberg recalled. “I have reviewed the contents of that video and at 14 minutes and 23 seconds, there was ‘excessive ejaculate on face’ under such-and-such provision of tariff item so-and-so. If you’d like to appeal, you have 30 days.’ There was only one time I had someone argue a decision.”

The PIU is responsible for policy and process development with respect to obscenity and hate propaganda in addition to reviewing suspect material referred from across Canada, said CBSA spokesperson Robertson. PIU Officers are specifically trained to determine obscenity and hate propaganda “by reviewing goods in their entirety, keeping in mind factors such as artistic, literary, historical and other merit.”

Those details can mean the difference between winning and losing an appeal, which are sometimes successful. When Canada Border Services stopped the three-volume graphic novel Lost Girls (from The Watchmen’s Alan Moore) from entering the country in 2006, the publisher pushed back and won.

In his findings at the time, Shawn Ewart of CBSA’s Prohibited Importations Unit determined that even though the work contained depictions of incest and bestiality—both indicators of obscenity under CBSA guidelines—these portrayals were “necessary to a wider artistic and literary purpose.” The underage sex in the book was also found to “serve a legitimate purpose related to art and to the very detailed story about the sexual awakening and development of the three main female characters.”

As a result, it was determined that Lost Girls did not constitute obscenity or child pornography.

Figuring out what’s tolerable to the broader Canadian community means taking the spectrum of past decisions and rulings into account. Although they are slightly less detailed now, the Ontario Film Review Board has laid out some incredibly specific obscenity guidelines in the past.

Scenes including “physical or verbal adverse reactions to the insertion of foreign objects (such as dildos) or appendages (‘fisting’) into body cavities (i.e. vagina, anus)” would not be approved for release, the board declared in 2003.

“Fisting occurs when a person has all five digits, including the knuckles, completely inside a body cavity,” the board’s guidance explained.

Sundberg is all-too familiar with the ins-and-outs of, well, just about everything you can imagine and some things you probably can’t. He said approvals and denials really boil down to an individual officer’s discretion.

“I had to sit there and say, ‘Well, did he get his whole hand up there, or did he maybe just get four fingers in?’” said Sundberg. “Then you’d have to rewind it and watch it again to make sure. Just imagine, my job as a young man was to sit down with those guidelines, watch porn videos, and then write Mr. and Mrs. Jones, who got their video recorder seized by an officer at the airport coming home from their Vegas vacation or whatever, that, as per D memorandum whatever, it is depicted that a man’s hand appears to be inserted into the anal cavity, which is contrary to...that was my job, six months of my life. I couldn’t believe it.”

Of course, things have changed somewhat over the years. People still watch porn on DVD, but a lot of the really bad stuff is also found on travelers’ laptops. The review process has become more centralized as well, with specialized offices in Montreal, Toronto, and Vancouver. And although they do still intercept adult films at the border, CBSA is more concerned these days with the truly harmful, like hate speech and child pornography.

For his part, Sundberg says there is simply nothing that shocks him anymore:

“I would say that watching so much porn as a young customs officer ruined it for me. I’ve seen it all.”

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