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An Unlikely Alliance Against PornAn Unlikely Alliance Against Porn

An Unlikely Alliance Against Porn

Jonathon Van Maren reports on the teamwork of a socially conservative Alberta MP and liberal feminist senator from Montreal to combat the Canadian-controlled smut giant Pornhub.

Jonathon Van Maren
8 minute read
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For months, the porn industry has received wave after wave of bad news. An Ontario judge decided that Internet companies can be held liable if child porn is hosted on their servers. The New York Times ran an article by Nicholas Kristoff titled “The Children of Pornhub” accompanied by Kristoff calling on Justin Trudeau to investigate Pornhub’s parent company MindGeek, which is based in Montreal.

Days later, the federal government was promising legislation. In a panicked response, Pornhub deleted 10 million videos overnight. An Ontario resident launched a class-action lawsuit against MindGeek in Quebec, accusing the company of profiting from sexual exploitation and assault. The lawsuit, which follows a similar suit filed by 40 Pornhub victims in California, is seeking hundreds of millions of dollars in damages.

The Trudeau government, forced into a response by the New York Times, is late to the game. In Canada, the war against the porn industry has brought together unlikely allies from across party lines. They disagree on many things but stand shoulder to shoulder in their commitment to protect children and uphold the dignity of women. The relationship that has developed between Arnold Viersen, a socially conservative MP from the riding of Peace River-Westlock in northern Alberta, and Independent Quebec Senator Julie Miville-Dechêne is a perfect example of this.

Viersen has been at the forefront of the fight against sexual exploitation since he was elected to Parliament in 2015. For the Alberta MP, the issue is a deeply personal one. After his first daughter was born, he learned about the heartbreaking story of Rehtaeh Parsons, who killed herself in 2013 because images of her alleged rape were circulated by the perpetrators.

“At the time I remember asking myself, ‘What gave these boys the idea that it was okay to objectify and assault a heavily intoxicated young woman, and where were they learning that making and sharing videos of violent sexual acts online was normal?’”

Shortly after his election, Viersen had the opportunity to do something about it.

“I was approached by a diverse group of organizations to take up the issue of violent and degrading sexually explicit online content,” he told me. “They informed me that research was showing the access and availability of violent and degrading pornography was causing serious health impacts on adults and youth. Further, I was told that in many cases the violence in pornography was not an act—it was actual sexual assault, choking, and rape being perpetrated on women and kids. These included victims of trafficking and child abuse as well as those who initially entered into porn as a matter of choice.”

Viersen discovered that although the average age of first exposure to porn is 12 years old, Parliament had not studied the impact of sexually explicit material since 1985—well before the Internet was invented. Porn has become a key component of sex education for Canadian children.

“That is why I drafted a motion to require the Standing Committee on Health to study the public health impact of violent and degrading sexually explicit material on adults and youth,” Viersen said. “Almost 5 years ago, I tabled Motion M-47 in the House of Commons. From there, I worked with stakeholders to build a coalition of over 50 diverse organizations from across Canada representing women’s shelters, child advocacy, and anti-human trafficking organizations.”

Some dismissed his efforts as another moralistic motion by a social conservative, but M-47 was jointly seconded by MPs from all five political parties.

“I have always believed that protecting kids and adults from online and degrading content is a non-partisan issue,” he told me. “I also met with the critics and parliamentary secretaries in each party and created a briefing kit to share the research and data that we’d uncovered.”

During debate on M-47, parliamentarians from each party stood to express concerns about violent pornography and its effect on children and adults. On December 8, 2016, nine months after its introduction, M-47 passed unanimously.

After M-47 was adopted, Viersen set to work building an infrastructure to take on Big Porn.

“I wanted to find an avenue for cross-party efforts to fight sexual exploitation,” he explained. “I built strong relationships with a number of anti-sex trafficking leaders, especially former MP Joy Smith, who was a trailblazer on these issues in previous Parliaments. I also met with leaders of the UK All Party Parliamentary Group on Human Trafficking and Modern Slavery. This cross-party group of MPs and Lords in the UK had been doing impressive work. I went to the seconders of M-47, former NDP MP Christine Moore and former Liberal MP Robert Falcon-Ouellette and suggested we start a similar group in Canada.”

“This led to the launch of Canada’s first All-Party Parliamentary Group on Human Trafficking and Modern Slavery in April 2018. We hold regular meetings for MPs and Senators. My fellow co-chairs all share a history of standing up for vulnerable and exploited populations. It was through the APPG that I connected with Senator Julie Miville-Dechêne. She has an extensive background in working to end violence against women and girls and knew exactly what I was talking about in terms of online exploitation from companies like MindGeek.”

Before becoming a senator, Miville-Dechêne worked as a journalist for 25 years, including as a correspondent for CBC-Radio Canada in Montreal, Toronto, Ottawa, and Washington. She became the first female ombudsman of Radio-Canada in 2007; Chair of the Quebec government’s Conseil du statut de la femme in 2011; and the Quebec representative of the Permanent Delegation of Canada to UNESCO in 2016.

Throughout her career, Miville-Dechêne has been a staunch feminist. Speaking out against sexual violence has been one of her priorities. After being appointed a senator in 2018, she introduced Bill S-211 on modern slavery. Most recently, she put forward Bill S-203, the “Protecting Young Persons from Exposure to Pornography Act,” which would require porn sites to verify the age of users before permitting them access.

“I was the president of the Council on the Status of Women for about five years,” Miville-Dechêne told me. “While I was there, I worked a lot on prostitution, somewhat on pornography because in both issues you have relationship, and human trafficking is at the core of that. I really reflected a lot on those topics, met a lot of victims and survivors. “At the beginning of 2020, I learned from the parliamentary group that there would be a protest in front of Pornhub. I started to do research on MindGeek.”

In the process, she went to Pornhub and was horrified by the violent and degrading material she found. She began to look at what she could do as a legislator to confront the problem.

“We wrote letters to the Prime Minister asking for answers as to why Pornhub was not in the eye of the government. Did we have laws that could prevent what was happening? We never got answers. In the meantime, the pandemic happened.”

Miville-Dechêne decided the best way to tackle the subject was to combat the exposure of children to porn. On that subject, at least, a consensus existed.

“Our children and young people have, for years, been able to access sites like Pornhub and others —there are up to four million porn sites around the world—with no verification of their age. Children should not be able to watch porn.”

Pornhub, Miville-Dechêne told me, has been escaping accountability for far too long. When presented with evidence that minors are being assaulted on their platform, she noted, their response has been to feign concern: “They say: We don’t like that—but they don’t do anything.”

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In her view, MindGeek is “a company that presents rape to the world.” Her bill is triggering discussion on those issues, and she has done many interviews on sexual exploitation and porn in the Quebec media, even though it could take years for her Bill to come up. “I have quite a lot of support in the senate for this Bill,” she told me. “The critic is Linda Frum, and she made a very good speech. Across parties, there is very good support for protecting kids. This is an area where I thought I could make a difference.”

A feminist senator appointed by Justin Trudeau and a Conservative MP from the Prairies might not seem to have much in common at first glance, but their partnership has created mutual respect.

“Arnold Viersen has carried this issue for years,” she told me. “My very good colleague is a Conservative; I am an Independent. I am more ideologically to the Left than he is. But on this, we agree. Arnold and I—it’s been a very interesting relationship.”

It is these relationships, Viersen explained, that are forging a coalition capable of making real progress. The introduction of Miville-Dechêne’s bill is “a major success,” and “finally brings forward the number one recommendation stakeholders testifying at health committee study on M-47. It appears to have broad cross-party support in the Senate and I look forward to sponsoring it when it arrives in the House of Commons.”

Additionally, Viersen noted that the central role of survivors is having an impact: “Survivors have been going public over the past few years about their unending fight to stop videos of their abuse from being repeatedly uploaded to and downloaded from Pornhub. Ultimately, it was the courageous voices of survivors that led myself and eight senators and MPs to write to the prime minister last March urging him to take steps to end exploitation on MindGeek’s websites.”

“This was followed more recently by a second letter signed by 20 parliamentarians from four parties to the Justice Minister on November 25, the International Day to End Violence Against Women, asking for his help to end lack of enforcement of Canada’s laws against exploitation and violence. We shared with him the actual titles of videos on Pornhub.”

But it was Nicholas Kristoff’s New York Times article that finally forced action.

“Following Kristof’s article, I was glad to hear the prime minister indicate he was ‘extremely concerned’ and promise to address this in 2021,” Viersen noted. “And happy to see other parties, including my own, now speaking out on this. Canada must no longer be a tech haven to companies like MindGeek that profit off the exploitation of women and children. I believe it will take cross-party efforts for real, lasting change.”

Miville-Dechêne echoed Viersen’s analysis: “It took the New York Times articles to have the government move, because Justin Trudeau was directly called out as a feminist.”

Both Viersen and Miville-Dechêne hope that the new attention focused on Pornhub and MindGeek will also attract new attention to their work, add new members to their coalition, and finally result in legislation—supported by all parties—that will implement meaningful protections for children. In the meantime, the efforts continue—and their partnership proves that even in our polarized political climate, meaningful common ground can be found and real progress can be made.

Convivium publishes texts that do not necessarily reflect the views held by Cardus, the Convivium team, or its editors. In the spirit of discussion, dialogue, and debate, we ask readers to bear in mind that publication does not equal endorsement. Thanks for reading. Join the conversation! 

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