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Red Hot Video, the Wimmin’s Fire Brigade and the Struggle Against Pornography

By Lee Lakeman

Listen to the audio recording by Média Recherche Action


Red Hot Video was a series of stores, five I think, in the lower mainland. They were franchised owned stores which were introducing a line of videos from the United States. Previously men who wanted to buy video pornography had to do it in a special order, they could place an ad in the Globe and Mail. But this was a moment when the technology was changing and instead of film, we were going to video and the video were being shipped up from the United States. And within months, they were also being produced here, copied here rather than creatively produced, but our upset was that there were suddenly five stores in the lower mainland that were offering boys and men a large range of violent, up to and including, violent pornography as though it was normal entertainment. And that alarmed us, and frightened us, and enraged us, and we came together as women’s groups under the BC Federation of Women, so Rape Relief sent two or three delegates to that committee. I can remember that both Nicole and Regina were part of that working committee.

And that committee of five or six women from different women’s groups, met regularly and decided to examine what was in these videos and was it as bad as we feared. Cause they were videos that had names like “virgin sluts”, “black whores”, you know, overtly racist, sexist, miserable, violent, degrading crap. And so we wanted to see was that big talk or were they in fact that ugly. And they came to the conclusion they were that ugly and they decided to do several things. They did as much education in the lower mainland as they could do, but they also educated us as part of the collective. We saw some of these videos and decided what we thought of it, and in our campaigns I know that they talked to a number of the owners of those shops, because one owner became so upset that he handed us a whole bunch of those tapes so we in fact never had to buy them or rent them. He gave us a bunch of the tapes and we kept those for years, to have a record of how hideous they were.

And we continued a fairly strong public education campaign I know that there were several days where there were information pickets outside each of the shops and at a certain point there was a twenty four hour information picket at our store on Main street. I can’t remember now whether each women’s groups took a different store or whether we were all at all them. I can’t quite remember how the technicality of it worked but it was a lot of effort and a serious effort. We invited men to join us on the picket line and a number of men did but mostly it was women and women’s groups that tried to convince the public that these businesses should not be supported.

And partly we were trying to model for ourselves, if we don’t totally cooperate with censorship or we don’t totally rely on censorship because it’s important to remember that the Canadian case of Little Sisters was going on almost simultaneously. Little Sisters was an important case in which Canadian law was being reconsidered, and the feminists had taken a position through the LEAF organization and certainly we had considered that position too, that we needed to ask, to insist, that the government stop thinking about obscenity and start thinking about the harm to women. And that’s the legal position that feminists took in that case. And we still hold to that, that there is an obligation of government to interfere with this kind of hate literature against women and to not consider this a matter of morality or obscenity but a matter of propaganda against women and that real harm is done by it.

But at the same time, if we weren’t going to rely totally on government then we needed to figure out strategies ourselves to create direct actions and public education practices that would interfere with pornography. So we were having many theoretical talks about that and many experiments about how to work in that situation. So the information pickets against Red Hot Video were our attempts to say ok, there are real owners, this is a business, at that point it was an international business, because there was certainly collusion with the American producers and we had to hope we could educate the public and cost these businesses some money, so it would be less in their interest to invade our communities and proliferate this propaganda.

So the biggest action I think was the twenty four hour one and overall it was a success in that we got coverage and it was a pretty good public education campaign. But it was not totally satisfying of course, we still had to walk up the street everyday going to the rape crisis center, going past this hate machine on our block. And then the night of the bombings happened, and the announcement was that the Wimmin’s Fire Brigade had bombed the stores in the lower mainland. And at that point I was part of a committee of the BC Federation of Women and my job was as media spokesperson, and so I was called in the middle of the night, early morning and told to show up at the TV station and be ready with a position. And so many women’s groups were invited, I think there was probably 10 or 12 of us in a circle at the Jack Webster’s Show. It was either CBC or CTV. It was probably the most popular show in the province, new public affairs show, and Mr. Webster asked us repeatedly “do you support this violence”? And so I didn’t have much time to negotiate with the rest of the members of the BC Federation of Women, so some people were displeased with me for not slowing it down and not consulting first, but I decided it was important to take a position, and what I did was take a position that I would not denounce the actions or the people involved.

A number of us were already very frightened for the consequences that would happen, and we knew that if there was such a thing as the Wimmins’s Fire Brigade it would probably involve women we knew, and women we cared about, and women who were enraged with our inability to stop this hate mongering. So what I think I said that morning, I think you can get the tapes, but I’m aware that I refused to denounce it. I said I thought there was a difference between property crime and harm to people and that I thought that property crime was in the tradition of feminist activism all the way back to the suffragettes, and that I could well understand the rage behind such an action. And I was glad that no one was hurt and I was not sorry that these stores were cost money and were interfered with. Not a bit sorry.

I would say that it slow down the inundation in some ways. At the same time it became an excuse for government repression. I’d think it split the movement considerably. So it was mixed. I think that the fact that it had some good impact as Ann Hansen said, in her book is partly because a lot of public education had already been done by the feminist organizations.

But you know I’m sad to admit that it’s a moment where pornography proliferated, where the intrusion of the new technology overwhelmed us. I think violent pornography is available everywhere now. The new technologies have introduced new levels of pornography every time the new technologies have been invented so it was one of those moments. And I think that in a way, the startle after the firebombings and the fright of it all, meant that most of the organizing against pornography stopped at that point.

And we were at a point in our analysis, because feminism is so much our praxis, in that moment we were just coming to terms with the fact that the pornography was actually the portrayal of real women. Real harm being done to real women. And so, in some ways I think there’s a direct line between that moment and how much we were knocked back on our heels by the government repression and by the interference in our debates that we got stuck there.

And now when we’re trying to pick up again we find ourselves with new levels of intrusion in the movement and intrusion in the community. We have the globalization now of prostitution at a level that just didn’t exist in those days. And the pornography fight that should have been going on through these 30 years has not been as active as it should have been. So in many ways, we have to pick up again where we left off in understanding what is the harm that’s being done, and to whom is it being done and how will we interfere with it.

And the men of the left, I have to say, completely abandoned us in that struggle. I think you will find very little response to all the work that women did on pornography in those days, and very little response now. There’s very little help from men of the left in our fight against the global prostitution of women.

I don’t think the firebombings made us less effective. I do think that in the moment of government repression that happened after the firebombing we were not shown the solidarity of a wider left. All of a sudden if that repression happens to women, there doesn’t seem to be a need for an uprising on the part of the men. Surely that should have been the moment when anarchos, when Marxists, when union organizers would rise, recognize that women were under attack. At least recognize that women were under attack by the State. I mean we were under attack by much more than that but at least by the State they could have seen that and risen and they didn’t.

It’s emblematic that even in the trial of the [Squamish] five, when they were being held responsible for Red Hot Video as well as the other actions, the left was nowhere to be seen.”

Read Also

Our campaign against Red Hot Video was initiated at an annual convention of the British Columbia Federation of Women in 1982. B.C.F.W. is an umbrella organization of 36 women’s liberation groups. A motion was passed at convention to close down Red Hot Video (porn video chain) in one year, and a committee was struck to get the job done.


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