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KNOX – The dilemma of dealing with porn in public

IT WASN’T JUST that the guy was watching porn on his phone, in public.

It’s that the porn was of a particularly bizarre and graphic nature, the kind where the average person might need a copy of Gray’s Anatomy and a consulting chiropractor to keep up.

Making things worse, the other people in the Victoria coffee shop — or, at least, those who were waiting in line, right next to where Porn Man was seated — had no choice but to watch, as the fellow had positioned his phone in such away that it was impossible to ignore. He viewed the device casually, while half-paying attention to the conversation of the others at his table. It was at 10:30 on Thursday morning.

This tale was passed to me by a buddy who was among those treated (?) to this week’s display. He said he considered saying something to the man, but then demurred. The guy A) didn’t look as though he cared what anyone else thought and B) was massive. As they say in the porn business, size matters.

This is the dilemma when confronted with any sort of anti-social behaviour. The question is how to react. If you’re on the bus and one of the other passengers starts spewing racism, do you sit quietly on your hands or do you turn to him, say: “Keep your piehole shut, Jethro” and pray that someone unhinged enough to hurl hate isn’t also violent enough to pop you in the mouth? Same thing goes when Jethro is exposing those around him to the kind of video that would give your mother the vapours.

The thing is, it’s not all that clear when the public viewing of legal porn (that whose content doesn’t, for example, involve children) is actually against the law, and when it’s just, you know, eeeuw.

It’s an area where the rules haven’t necessarily kept pace with technology. Instead of being guided by specific porn-in-public ordinances, authorities are left wondering if there’s an offence under existing laws. This isn’t just a local or Canadian issue. As an Irish Times headline put it: “It’s not illegal to watch porn on public transport. But is it wrong?” (Spoiler alert: the answer was “yes.”) Last year, British MPs called for a porn ban on buses, trains and in other public places.

Victoria police say it’s conceivable that, in a case like the coffee-shop caper, they could hit Porn Man with a mischief charge (though, given their limited resources, don’t expect them to unleash the Emergency Response Team, not with 911 calls queued up waiting for attention).

Not everyone is hot to clamp down, though. Over the past decade many U.S. libraries, citing free speech, have balked at telling patrons what they can view. And in 2017, an Ottawa Public Library user was not only shocked to find a man surfing an adult sex site in front of her 11- and 13-year-old daughters, but was even more surprised when the library’s response was that it was “not in the business of censorship.”

The Ottawa library soon reversed course, though. Increasingly, those American libraries have modified their stances, too, leaning in favour of shielding those who don’t want to have to watch somebody else’s fantasies.

Greater Victoria Public Library policy says computers in its branches may not be used to display overtly sexual images. People who are bothered by what others are looking at can approach library staff, who are trained to address such issues.

The GVPL also says it has “a web-access management system that blocks any pornographic sites from the children’s department computers and also alerts patrons who choose to call up pornographic material on public computers that they are violating their usage agreement.”

Such technological solutions are increasingly common. Starbucks announced in 2018 that it would block users of its free wi-fi from accessing certain sites. Likewise, even if B.C. Ferries’ wi-fi had enough oomph to stream porn, its system filters out such content.

It’s all about protecting fellow passengers from the porn-watchers at their elbows. “We really bill ourselves as a family show,” says B.C. Ferries’ Deborah Marshall. The crossing only takes an hour and 35 minutes. Contain yourself.

Really, should corporations have to deal with this stuff? This week, it was reported that United Airlines, responding to a rise in the number of passengers alarmed by what they see on their seatmates’ personal devices, is training flight attendants how to intervene. Imagine that being in your job description, whether in the air or in a coffee shop.

Jack Knox is a born-and-raised Kamloopsian who once worked at the Kamloops Daily News. He is now a columnist with the Victoria Times Colonist. Since joining the Times Colonist in 1988, Jack has worked as a copy editor, city editor, editorial writer and editorial page editor. Prior to that he was an editor and reporter at newspapers in Campbell River, Regina and Kamloops. He won the Jack Webster Foundation’s City Mike Award for Commentator of the Year in 2015.

© 2020 Copyright Times Colonist
About Mel Rothenburger (7555 Articles)
ArmchairMayor.ca is a forum about Kamloops and the world. It has more than one million views. Mel Rothenburger is the former Editor of The Daily News in Kamloops, B.C. (retiring in 2012), and past mayor of Kamloops (1999-2005). At ArmchairMayor.ca he is the publisher, editor, news editor, city editor, reporter, webmaster, and just about anything else you can think of. He is grateful for the contributions of several local columnists. This blog doesn't require a subscription but gratefully accepts donations to help defray costs.

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