The 900-pound gorilla is the thing you can't see. It's usually just out of sight, an intimidating presence, like the propriety of a dead grandmother, or the pious dicta of a longer-dead Christian saint. I was first introduced to the gorilla while sitting in sex crusader John Ince's 13th-floor West End apartment. The 13th floor is always a good place to discuss irony. I knew that were I to Google the word sex I'd get 220,000,000 hits and the 20th one would be Ince's own B.C. Sex Party. I knew that the last eight pages of this publication contain wall-to-wall sex ads (364 by my count): I could have an appointment with Mr. Baldnutz, were I so inclined, or seek employment in the city's booming porn industry. Sex opportunities seem limitless.
But it is 53-year-old Ince's contention that this abundance of sex is a smoke screen hiding a monster. He calls it erotophobia. Ince believes that running amok through the North American psyche-like a deranged yet invisible King Kong-are deeper antisex attitudes that produce stale marriages, antiprostitution legislation, laws against public nudity, government classification of pornography, cautionary-not positive-sex-education classes, media censorship, homophobia, and the biggest bugaboo of all: guilt. This is why he wants me to meet sex activist Phoenix Nonstop, 30, a local male porn star; Vancouver's Scarlett Lake, the city's longest-serving madam; Little Sister's Book and Art Emporium cofounder Jim Deva, who continues his 20-year fight with Canada Customs over the importation of erotic materials; and Marissa Fischer, a future Sex Party candidate who promises to campaign in the nude as "a politician with nothing to hide". A lawyer by profession and self-proclaimed "shit disturber" by inclination, Ince's goal is to challenge society's remaining erotic taboos by committing acts of open sexual defiance and by promoting a positive view of human sexuality. He wants to make the gorilla visible.
Ince grew up in a Burnaby household where issues of social justice were regular dinner-table fare but discussions of sex were not. Like millions of young North American males, his greatest fear was being discovered masturbating. In his mind, eroticism and anxiety were silently fused. Along with many of his generation, it took the sexual rebellion of the late '60s-free-love communes, nudity at Wreck Beach-to first alert him to less puritanical possibilities.
But it was in 1977 in central India that he had an epiphany. While viewing the 10th-century erotic temples of Khajuraho-with their carved-stone depictions of every sex act imaginable-Ince saw that spirituality and sexuality, seen in the West as inimical, were, in fact, two halves of human wholeness. He read Alan Watts's monumental 1958 book Nature, Man, and Woman and felt the doors of erotic possibilities open. Ince says today of these two linked events: "I woke up. I saw western society's sex negativity. Lust was suspect. People had to repress their natural instincts. Guilt was normal. I believe all of us have an erotic wound; it has caused a lot of misery. I wasn't prepared to let that repression…that adversity, get in the way of living life fully."
In the ancient Minoan culture of Crete, at times of Taoist nature worship in China, during the period of India's tantric cults 1,000 years ago, humankind embraced its sexuality. Unlike the pervasive, 2,000-year-old Christian message, sex wasn't something sinful. He came to believe that western society is in the grip of what he calls a mass irration?ality, a phobia. Propelled by the church, legislated by politicians, enforced by tradition and a compliant, conservative media, it is, to his mind, as dangerous as heart disease. Ince became a crusading lawyer, opened a small office in Vancouver's Dominion Building, and built a reputation for taking cases involving legal principles and civil liberties.
Then one day in 1982, a man named Tom Luscher walked in and said: "The government's opening my mail."
Ince thought the man was paranoid: The government doesn't open private mail. "How do you know?" he asked skeptically.
Luscher pointed to the Canada Customs label on an empty envelope that verified his mail had, indeed, been opened and its contents seized in a search for "immoral and indecent material". Ince was shocked, but he was also impressed that a man would not only admit he was mad that the federal government had legally confiscated his Swiss porn magazines but that he wanted to take the government to court over the policy. That day, Ince's life changed. At Ince's instigation, Luscher agreed to drive down to Blaine, Washington, where he purchased Flying High, an explicit porn magazine, which he then declared to customs authorities at the border. It was confiscated. In the trial and subsequent Federal Court appeal in 1985, Ince made national headlines by arguing that the 1867 law had been applied against Luscher was ridiculously vague-how does one determine what is "immoral and indecent"?-and that Customs had no authority to control the entry of images of normal heterosexual sex. He won.
That case had barely been resolved when Ince got a call in 1985 from Vancouver's Jim Deva, the co-owner of Little Sister's Book and Art Emporium. Deva's entire shipment of gay books had been seized by Canada Customs, which had-after its setback at Ince's hands-shifted its attack to anal sex. Although some counselled Little Sister's to import using a less conspicuous address, Deva-another crusader-sought out Ince because he was a lawyer who'd fight over principles. Ince loved the idea of another case questioning state censorship but he realized that, given Customs' intransigence, it would likely be a long fight and take the better part of $1 million to bring to the Supreme Court of Canada. Instead, the B.C. Civil Liberties Association volunteered for the task. Today, 20 years later, the issue of what constitutes obscenity in Canada is still unresolved. Canada Customs still acts as the country's censor. No one argues that images of child sex or violent sex should be allowed in. But it's currently illegal in Canada to import images depicting female ejaculation, spanking that causes redness, "water sports", anal penetration with subsequent fellatio, excessive ejaculation, and bootlicking. (On November 16, in an announcement that will affect legal cases that Ince-now a nonpractising lawyer-is pursuing, the Supreme Court of Canada gave Little Sister's permission to seek advance funding for a court challenge to the government's ongoing restrictions against nonviolent, adult sexual material.)
Sitting in his cluttered Davie St. office, surrounded by boxes of sex paraphernalia, the 55-year-old Deva says of Ince: "John's absolutely correct. He sees the broad picture. Why should politicians and bureaucrats have anything to say about our sexuality? Why should they control our sexual adventures or consensual fantasies? It's part of the widespread sexual repression within society. Our sexuality should be as free as our spirituality. We can't have world peace without freeing our sexuality. I think," he adds, reaching behind him, "that women can fuck war out of their men. And I have just the dildo for them to do it!" Deva grins, then shows me a purple, strap-on silicone dildo, which he parades in front of me like an erect, wiggly soldier. He talks about the virtues of regular, stress-reducing sex, and he laughs at the idea of battalions of dildos marching off to peace.
THESE EARLY BATTLES with the courts prompted Ince to begin a 15-year-long investigation into the history and Machiavellian purposes of North America's erotophobia. His self-published book The Politics of Lust (Pivotal Press, 2003) explored the covert operations of what he sees as a sort of unconscious sexual dictatorship. It all begins, Ince says, with genitals in Genesis. In the first biblical reference to humanity, Adam and Eve ate the apple, knew they were naked, and "sewed fig leaves together and made themselves aprons". At that moment, western sex and guilt commenced their unhappy, millennia-long affair. Those few fig leaves, Ince believes, became magnified over the centuries by powerful forces-far beyond the church-which saw that erotophobia could be turned to their advantage. Sexual prohibitions, Ince argues, became a tool of control. Why is it that the mass media titillates society with sex-on magazine covers or in cleavage shots in Malcolm Parry's Vancouver Sun column-but covers a streaker's exposed penis with a black modesty bar or refuses to spell out the word fuck in print? Why is it that a glimpse of Janet Jackson's nipple on TV can cause outrage? Why is it that in North America-but not, by and large, in Europe-conflicts around abortion, public nudity, prostitution, and the morning-after pill reach such levels of hysteria? And closer to home, why have more than 70 street prostitutes in Vancouver been murdered? Because, in a word, sex-deep down-is not considered good.
Ince is the first to admit the legal changes that have occurred in the past few decades in North America have been monumental. In 1960, in many jurisdictions in both Canada and the States, one could-and would-face imprisonment for consensual anal intercourse, distributing explicit sexual images, selling birth control pills, marrying someone of a different race, having heterosexual premarital relations, performing an abortion, or selling sex toys "for the pursuit of orgasm by artificial means". The victories that removed these "crimes" did not, Ince believes, seriously alter the fundamental political perspective that viewed sex with a jaundiced eye. The government, through legislation and the courts, continues to take upon itself the role of arbiter of private, consensual, noninjurious sexual behaviour. Churches, schools, and obliging parents then reinforce these attitudes and codes of behaviour until sex fear, in Ince's analysis, becomes second nature. Children's natural sexuality becomes a taboo subject. Nudity is linked with lust. Young women learn not to look "down there". Adolescents masturbate. Meanwhile, the North American mass media, which daily celebrates all that's new and wonderful in fashion, food, movies, travel, wine, books, computer gizmos, and vacuous personalities, finds little space-columnist Dan Savage and TV commentator Sue Johansen excepted-for stories that celebrate the virtues of the erotic life.
From his office window, Murray Mollard, the executive director of the B.C. Civil Liberties Association, can survey downtown Vancouver and reflect on the philosophical and legal issues that Ince is raising. As a civil libertarian, Mollard knows as well as Ince that the courts can get very conservative around the word sex. Both also know there's little tangible reward in fighting the powers that be. But Mollard acknowledges that Ince is a dedicated, if sometimes humourless, advocate for sex. Ince enjoys the fight. Mollard conjures up the ghost of the late Pierre Trudeau by repeating his famous 1969 dictum: "The state has no business in the bedrooms of the nation." Then he adds, "It's safe to say Ince is pushing the issues well beyond the privacy of the bedroom: his B.C. Sex Party political fundraiser last spring…with a live sex performance, his fighting the liquor control board over their refusal to let him hold the event?, because of the sex, in a licensed club. He's a real activist. Ince argues that you should be free to do what you want to do if you're not harming others. Anything less is less than democracy."
INCE USES AS A base for this pro-sex campaign his Art of Loving store in Kitsilano, which he co-owns with his partner, Vera Zyla. On the shelves are the usual sex-shop ointments, dildos, and bondage gear, and on the walls is erotic art, including the red imprint of two body-painted lovers whose public, in-store embrace on a panel of white canvas records an image of mutual oral sex. On the bulletin board is an ad for Langley's Paradise Chalet, which caters to some of this region's 10,000 swingers, and a notice about a gathering of some of the city's 2,000 fetishists. Most importantly, from Ince's perspective, is the monthly listing of in-store seminars he and others give on topics like "The G-Spot and Female Ejaculation", "Meet the Madam", or the popular (women-only) course "Giving Good Head". During an evening session on "The Art of Erotic Ceremony", I listen as Ince-with his shaved head, gold earring, and the logical manner of a prosecution lawyer-argues the case, based on his own exploration of virtually every sex situation imaginable, that it's essential for happiness (and the vitality of long-term relationships) that the sensual is freed by playfulness from the repetitions and inhibitions produced by erotophobia. He talks about the politically inconvenient fact that most males eroticize newness, and probably have since well before primates climbed down from the trees. So, if sex were to be viewed in the same manner, Ince says, as a good restaurant meal or exotic holiday, it should on occasion contain surprise, adventure, and fantasy and not be seen as a couple's 1,001st return trip to McDonald's or Maui. He invites men to investigate the tantric arts of withholding their climax for women's sake and women to take control of sex through romantic rituals involving the entire sensory spectrum.
This kind of shift in personal attitudes will, Ince tells me after the class, gradually open doors to new public attitudes in other erotic areas. He imagines how prostitution, as it was once practised by the tantric sects of India almost a millennium ago, could again be seen as an art form, not as he says today's feminists would prefer, a provocation for argument about female victimization. He's amused by the fact that Heidi Fleiss, the famous Hollywood madam, has just opened a Nevada brothel with male prostitutes for women. And he encourages me to interview Scarlett Lake, his West End neighbour, one of his sex-crusade allies, and-at 20 years-the city's longest-operating madam.
In her Scarlett's House living room, with its Vargas nudes and a view of Stanley Park, the 53-year-old Lake admits that it was Ince who lured her out of the necessary rectitude of her profession and into the spotlight as a public advocate for prostitute rights. In 2003, she performed, under the threat of Vancouver police intervention, in Ince's scripted Public Sex: Art and Democracy skit, in which a naked couple created the "69" body print that currently hangs on the Art of Loving's wall. She has made four evening presentations at the store's "Meet the Madam" class, and she spoke last spring to the federal government's parliamentary committee looking into reforming the country's antiprostitution laws. She has lost count of the times her clients have told her they don't want to leave their wives but the sex has grown stale and they want a little tenderness. Her words on the virtues of sensuality and lusty bacchanalia echo Ince's. She believes, as Ince does, that the current laws that make the operation of Scarlett's House-and its stable of 20 women-illegal should be changed so that brothels can operate openly, as now occurs in New Zealand and in most of Europe, without women on the street being put in the path of potential psychopaths. This argument will soon become all the more poignant when the public finally hears what allegedly took place at Willie Pickton's pig farm.
The 900-pound gorilla is, Ince knows, out there. Its presence is revealed in the mass arrest a few years ago of swingers at a Montreal lifestyles club, and in the 2004 bust of Toronto-area massage parlours/brothels, and in Canada Post's refusal to distribute Ince's unaddressed ad-mail flyers because they contain these prohibited words: penis and vagina. He sees himself as part of a larger movement, not unlike the ones of decades past when blacks, women, and gays fought for their civil rights. He calls erotophobia "the last great taboo".
AT A COFFEE SHOP on Main Street, Ince introduces me to two people who have become part of his campaign to bring together, at least philosophically, the forces of positive sex-the women of Womyns' Ware, the civil libertarians, the sex workers, the East Van Porn Collective, Little Sister's Deva, the Options for Sexual Health (formerly Planned Parenthood) chapters-under the umbrella of his newly formed Sex Party. Like the Marijuana Party, the goal is public attention to the issues, not election victories. And sex, of course, draws the media.
Sitting across from me is Vancouver porn star Phoenix Nonstop, who has 100 videos to his credit and who performed during the Sex Party's well-publicized fundraiser last May by receiving a prolonged public blow job. "I like the idea of a sex-positive society," Nonstop says. "Sex is normal. But a lot of people feel shy. There are so many things you can do sexually. People are afraid to try new things out." The police threatened the event and the media dutifully appeared: neither could resist Ince's bait. But no arrests were made. Sitting to my right is Marissa Fischer, 22, who would be running-naked-as a Sex Party candidate in the upcoming federal election had the government not fallen before the Sex Party's election paperwork was done. Ince cautions her at this meeting that it's a criminal offence to appear nude in public so she has to be prepared for arrest. An admitted exhibitionist, she greets this possibility with amusement. But, Ince says, "Getting arrested means you become a martyr…and that brings the sex-positive issues into the press."
It is, Ince realizes, a struggle to raise the issues of erotophobia. People take their inhibitions personally. In the province's 2005 election, the B.C. Sex Party's three candidates, including Ince running in Vancouver-Burrard, got a total of 268 votes-right near the bottom, between Social Credit (455) and the Communists (232). But Ince confesses that he's optimistic. The young, by and large, do not carry the freight of the older generation. They are less fearful, less prone to sex guilt. The tide in Canada-if not the States-is moving, he believes, toward change.
It took many years before Ince saw the gorilla. It came to him in little bits. He compares himself to a Kalahari bushman who first uncovers an aerial protruding from the sand, and then follows it down to a fender, a chassis, wheels, and finally discovers that the thing actually rolls. Before Ince fully understood the nature of the beast, he'd already observed that, as he tells me: "Anxiety is a more powerful motivator than tolerance. Anxiety produces an unconscious reaction-an irrationality-that people can surrender to."
He'd seen, as well, how this fear could claim millions of minds and make bad something as wonderful as sex. For years, however, he'd focused on the pieces-the antiprostitution laws, the Canada Customs censorship, the hypocrisy of the media toward sex, his own unhappiness and guilt-and not gotten the big picture. Then, one day in the late '90s while writing his book, all the pieces came together: he saw in its entirety the pervasive negativity-the erotophobia-that shapes the law and darkens North America's attitudes toward sex.
"There was this big 'aha' moment," Ince says, laughing. "There was this 900-pound gorilla sitting right beside me, and…I saw it! It's only when you see it that it goes away."