A writer and activist, Canadian Robin Sharpe is best known for fighting Canada's expansive child pornography law all the way to the Supreme Court, after he was charged in 1999 in Vancouver for homosexually-themed stories he had written that were seized in a 1996 raid of Sharpe's Vancouver apartment.
Over nine years, often serving as his own lawyer, the retired Vancouver city planner successfully challenged -- and in the end slightly ameliorated -- one of Canada's harshest sex laws, which can put people in prison for ten years for writing in their diaries, doodling in a notebook, or having the wrong novel on their shelves.
Sharpe's troubles began in April 1995 with some marijuana he unwisely had in his luggage as he passed through US Customs in Seattle on a flight back from Amsterdam. US agents found it, and also noticed some photos showing nude teenagers. Sharpe was let go, but the agents passed the word on to Canada Customs, who declared the nudes "kiddie porn" and seized them. A year-and-a-half later, vice cops raided Sharpe's Vancouver apartment taking 14 boxes of manuscripts, books, and photos.
When the cops came calling, there was plenty for them to find that they could add to the list of charges; more porn writings, pictures, and dope (Sharpe had thought to pay his legal bills for the case by growing marijuana in his apartment). "If stupidity were a capital offense," says Sharpe of his second bust, "I would be dead."
When Canadian parliament rushed to pass a kiddie-porn law in 1993, the Canadian Bar Association had criticized the legislation as over-broad. The law makes no distinctions among photographic depictions, stories, political writing, or paintings. Nor does it distinguish between five-year-olds, youths of 17, or 25-year-olds who merely "look like" teenagers: all are criminal to make, exchange, or possess. But it took Sharpe, a retired city planner to effectively challenge the law.
Sharpe had been published in gay magazines such as Passport and Sodomite Invasion Review, a Canadian literary journal. His poems and novellas are variously crude, witty, sharp-edged, and poignant. They are "written with a knife and an edge of wit," declares Shannon Bell, political science professor at York University in Toronto, "the closest one could get to touching de Sade, Bataille, and Burroughs." Whether his erotic stories start in a prairie farmhouse, a Sultan's harem, or the post-Armageddon wastes, they often settle and linger on the theme of teenage boys getting whipped.
Vancouver sex police had another verdict on Sharpe's oeuvre. "The most horrific material I have had to deal with," Detective Noreen Waters declared -- a critical review that Sharpe today posts prominently on his website (Robinsharpe.ca -- see also Robinsharpe.org). Given that Sharpe kept multiple copies of all this vileness, prosecutors added a more serious charge of "intent to distribute."
Unable to find or afford a good lawyer willing to fight the charges, Sharpe made the bold decision to represent himself at trial. He studied the law, other cases, and then formulated his legal strategy. Not only would he argue he wasn't guilty, he would argue the law making possession of child pornography illegal was itself unconstitutional and should be struck down.
Then shocking was result was that, in 1999, British Columbia Supreme Court Justice Duncan Shaw struck down the Canadian kiddie-porn law's possession provisions. What people keep in their homes is "an expression of that person's essential self," Justice Duncan Shaw declared in his decision. "His or her books, diaries, pictures, clothes, and other personal things are intertwined with the person's beliefs, opinions, thoughts, and conscience."
Shaw's decision provoked a huge outcry. Parliament threatened to overturn the ruling by fiat, and anti-porn crusaders collected 300,000 signatures.
In January 2001, Canada's highest court, under extraordinary pressure, mostly reversed Shaw's ruling on possession -- though they ruled that it was not illegal for an individual to produce kiddie porn -- i.e., write a diary entry about themselves having sex as a 16-year- old -- so long as he didn't show it to anybody. As for the question of whether Sharpe's writings were illegal, the high court threw the matter back to British Columbia courts to decide whether they had "artistic merit," a defense under the Canadian kiddie-porn law.
In March 2002, Justice Shaw acquitted Sharpe on two, most serious, charges of possessing pornographic stories with the intention to distribute-- the stories did not "advocate or counsel" illegal activity, and had artistic merit, and so were doubly protected under the Canada's Charter of Rights and Freedoms, he ruled. (Sharpe promptly published some of them online at Robinsharpe.org.) For possessing illegal pictures, Shaw gave Sharpe a slap on the wrist -- four months of home detention between 4 pm and 8 am. And that was a slap in the face to Vancouver Vice, which had obsessively pursued the case.
At the end of August, just before his sentence was up, the crown laid new charges. The evidence for the crime? The very same photos the Vancouver vice cops had held in their possession since 1996, pictures on which they had launched their initial prosecution. The cops wanted to use these photos as evidence that Sharpe was having sex with one particular teenage model.
The only trouble was -- despite years of intense publicity -- they didn't have a complainant. Without a "victim" the case couldn't proceed. So Vancouver Vice put out a press release -- disseminated nationally -- urging the young man who Sharpe had photographed two decades before to come forward with an accusation.
And talk to the cops he did -- in an interview the police videotaped, Sharpe says the man talks fondly about their friendship. He also says that more than 20 years ago, when a few years shy of the age-of-consent, he engaged in mutual masturbation with Sharpe and got blow-jobs. Whether the youth was of legal age was the point in dispute at the trial this March. The crown charged Sharpe under a 1971 law of "indecent assault of a male" and "gross indecency."
Sharpe was convicted in May 2004 in BC Supreme Court of indecent assault under s. 156 and was sentenced to two years' imprisonment, a sentence he served in full.
In response to the Sharpe pornography case, Canada's parliament passed bill C-12 to change the kiddie-porn law to ax the "artistic merit" defense for stories and pictures depicting youth sexuality, and to allow for the prosecution of writers (or their readers) if fictional characters appear to be violating Canadian sex statutes. The law further broadens the kiddie-porn statute to cover all writing "the dominant character of which is the description, for a sexual purpose, of sexual activity with a person under the age of 18 years."
In dictatorships and totalitarian regimes, writers and artists know they're in trouble if the reigning powers decide, after the fact, that a photograph, painting, essay, or story does not -- the phrase might be-- "serve the public good." And that's precisely the standard that bill C-12 proposes, in lieu of artistic merit, for the legality of any discussion or depiction -- real or imaginary-- of child and adolescent sexuality.
The proposed law directly threatens probably thousands of Canadians who perhaps own a copy of 100 Days of Sodom or a tape of Bertolucci's 1900, but its provisions are pointed directly at Sharpe. As author of bawdy, sadistic, scatological, politically razor-edge stories, Sharpe is one part Aristophanes, the scaldingly satiric Greek satiric playwright. As alleged corrupter of youth, questioner of sacred truths, and nettler of moralistic officialdom, he's one part Socrates.
This category has only the following subcategory.