A taste for porn shaped 'ordinary' sexual sadist

September 2, 2021
Toronto Star
By Judy Steed

In the world of pornography, he's a stock character: a sexual sadist who developed an appetite for porn as a teenager, whose behaviour escalated from using it to doing it.

That's perhaps the most frightening realization to come out of Paul Bernardo's four-month murder trial: He is not a freak from outer space.  He is one of us, a product of this culture, conditioned in the shadowy underworld of porn, where the dark side of the human psyche emerges in sadomasochism and sexual torture, in heroes who are rapists and serial killers.

Bernardo's trial was, in part, a trial about pornography.

For the first time in Canadian history, the public was exposed to violent pornographic videotapes through the aegis of the judicial system and the media, despite the efforts of the families of his victims to prevent the tapes from being disseminated outside the courtroom.

The media argues that the public had the right to know.

the families of Kristen French and Leslie Mahaffy argued that, apart from judge and jury, no one else needed to know the horrendous details of how Bernardo tortured their daughters.

Produced and directed by Bernardo, starring Bernardo the "king", as he liked to be called, the videos documented acts of sexual violence and degradation that included urinating on victims.

"They were just props," he said coolly in court of the two teenage girls he abducted, raped, tortured, videotaped -- and for whose deaths he was ultimately convicted of first-degree murder.  All in pursuit of violent sex and pornography.

Bernardo, 31, has been characterized as a monster, yet his behaviour -- so revolting in the eyes of the world -- is ordinary stuff in terms of hard-core pornography.

The dog collars, the death threats, the ropes around the throats of his victims; the excitement he experienced inflicting pain, videotaping his victims' suffering so he could relive it afterward; the grotesqueries of his machinations to dominate, to be sexually violent -- these are the common themes of the sexual sadists who represent the "leading edge" of the multi-billion-dollar porn industry.

For former Federal Bureau of Investigation agent Gregg McCrary, who "profiled" Bernardo for Ontario police before a suspect was identified, there's no doubt that "the pairing of violence and sexuality in pornography is dangerous.  There's an escalation in the behaviour of some men who use it."

McCrary predicted that the then-unknown rapist and killer of French and Mahaffy would be a white, middle-class male in his late 20s or earl 30s who appeared normal, hid his deviancy from the outside world, used porn, probably abused his wife or girlfriend and recorded his sexually sadistic behaviour.

"I was wrong about one thing: I said he'd probably have been in prison," McCrary says.  "I thought he would have a history of sexually violent behaviour -- but as we now know, Bernardo had never been caught.

"Offenders who do this don't just wake up and start abducting, raping and murdering.  It's a kind of pathological decomposition that takes place over time."

Seen through the lends of McCrary's expertise, Bernardo is chillingly predictable, unoriginal, ordinary.

He based his homemade movies on dominance dynamics and torture scenarios from basic porn plots that are so prevalent in mainstream culture that "they've become almost 'normal'", McCrary says.

Sexual sadists may appear to be high-functioning, charming people, but they are consumed with deeply repressed feelings of inadequacy.

They are psychopaths, unable to experience intimacy with their peers, incapable of feeling empathy for their victims, filled with megalomaniacal ambitions, grandiose notions and deep wells of self-pity.

Again, Bernardo is typical of the breed, his route to notoriety predictable.

He grew up in a bitterly dysfunctional, middle-class family; his father is a convicted child molester.

As his "career" in sexual sadism progressed, Bernardo sought out younger and younger victims and towards the end pressured his wife Karla Homolka to help him abduct 12-year-old girls.

He was obsessed with virgins, an obsession that led to the death of Homolka's youngest sister, Tammy.

Bernardo started using porn as a teenager, during what McCrary terms "those vulnerable adolescent years when males are trying to establish a sexual identity," In McCrary's view, it's a particularly dangerous time if teenagers get hooked on porn -- which Bernardo did.

Pornography didn't make Bernardo what he is, but it stimulated and conditioned him, while he struggled with his sexual orientation.

According to one source, a teenage Bernardo flirted with homosexuality before turning himself into a "ladies' man". Working briefly in downtown Toronto, he was known as "Goldilocks" where he sold himself to older men.

Bernardo evolved through predictable stages, as do most child molesters and rapists.

"There's a parallel between the two groups," McCrary says.  "Some pedophiles don't actually molest children, They use the child porn, they get their sexual satisfaction from the fantasies, and that's as far as it goes.

"For other pedophiles, the porn won't be enough. They search out more violent imagery involving children, and soon that won't satisfy them.  They feel they have to actually do it."

And so they start hunting victims.

"It's clear to me that violent porn has a powerful effect on these guys," McCrary says.

"It conditions them into thinking there's a natural link between violence and sexuality.  It gives them permission, says it's okay to be sexually violent."

If it seems revolting to consider Bernardo's behaviour as ordinary, consider the world in which he operated -- which Detective Staff Sergeant Bob Matthews of the Ontario Provincial Police has spent many years investigating.  He heads Project P, the OPP agency set up in 1975 to investigate pornography.

"Since I took over Project P in 1988," Matthews says, "there's been an explosion of violence and degradation in porn videos and on the Internet, where they can show more explicit stuff (than in magazines).

"There's a huge market for this stuff.  You can buy it in most places in Canada; it's not hard to find and very difficult to regulate.  With a stroke of a (computer) key, it's in the country."

And the more violent, the more valuable.  Bernardo's tapes -- if they were commercially available -- would soar in price when porn consumers found out that the girls he tortured eventually died.  (The Star followed tips about Bernardo's tapes being sold in underground markets and sent a reporter to Florida to investigate, but no hard evidence was found.)

In Matthews' experience, "the guys who get into the violent, degrading porn get addicted, they think of nothing else, it dominates their lives.  They spend all their money on it, and some of them start doing what they see.  They learn what to do from what they see."

In the United States, porn revenues are estimated to exceed $10 billion a year -- making it the largest "entertainment" industry in America, if not the world.

Canada's hard-core porn king, Randy Jorgensen, operates a business -- Adults Only Video -- that has expanded during the recession into a chain of 80 stores across Canada, with annual sales of $25 million.

Even to read about Bernardo's pornographic activity is to enter a twilight zone of human depravity that is sickening.

An experienced police transcription officer, assigned to make the transcript of the tapes, collapsed, weeping, and couldn't continue.

The impact on the community has been insidious -- "like an infection that remains dormant," says lawyer Marilou McPhedran, board chair of the Metro Action Committee on Public Violence Against Women and Children.

"The Bernardo case has been played out as a titillating drama, and we've failed to understand what it's done to us."

Calls to rape crisis centres and the Assaulted Women's Helpline went up 30% over the period of Bernardo's trial.  Dr. Gail Robinson, director of the women's mental health program at Toronto Hospital, encountered scores of patients who experienced post-traumatic stress syndrome, with nightmares and flashbacks plunging them into past agonies of abuse and rape, triggered by the Bernardo media coverage.

Civil libertarians continue to argue there's no proof pornography causes sexually violent crime or directly hurts anyone.

The vast majority of men who look at Playboy magazine do not become consumers of violent porn or commit sexual crimes -- just as the vast majority of people who have smoked marijuana do not become heroin addicts who rob banks.

However, a minority who try drugs develop a taste for the "hard stuff", as do a minority who try porn, and they are the ones who are potentially dangerous.

Dr. Bill Marshall, former director of Kingston's Sexual Behaviour Clinic, interviewed 120 men who had sexually assaulted women or children and found that, in 25% of the cases, the use of pornography played a significant role in the commitment of the crime.

Offenders told him they used the porn with the intention of masturbating, but got so excited they had to "go out and assault a woman or a child".

Marshall believes that not all users of violent pornography are moved to take violent action, "but some vulnerable people will be".

A study by University of California professor Neil Malamuth showed that men exposed to images of sexual violence "were more accepting of violence against women".

McPhedran says: "Not everyone gets lung cancer from smoking cigarettes, but enough do to make tobacco a hazard to public health." She sees porn as creating a similar public health hazard, but in broader, more threatening terms.

"This is a high-growth industry that involves trafficking in human beings who are violated, hurt or killed in the manufacture of a product. Even if it's only a small percentage of porn users who become addicted or dangerous, like Bernardo, you're talking about thousands, if not millions, of people who are ticking time bombs.  We don't know how many of them are out there."

And that has practical implications "such as the spread of HIV globally". She cites the situation in Thailand and the Philippines, where HIV is "spreading like wildfire", according to the New York Times, fuelled by the explosion of the sex trade.

"With porn, people are not just consuming images; they're also consuming human flesh and human souls," McPhedran says.

The OPP's Matthews believes images of violent porn inundate mainstream culture to such an extent that we don't see it.

"This is dangerous stuff; it conditions people's behaviour in powerful ways, but there's still a lot of denial about its impact."

He cites Madonna's book, Sex, as an example of sadomasochistic porn "crossing over" into the so-called straight world -- and fuelling the twisted fantasies of people like Bernardo.

In Toronto, there are fetish bars and S&M clubs where it's hip to wear dog collars, flick whips and act out pornographic fantasies with fellow torture addicts. These folks may think they're only play-acting, but they're on the violent-sex continuum -- a slippery slope that can end in nightmarish places.

Their numbers are growing.

"In the 80s, it was rare to find extremely violent sex, degradation and defecation (on victims)," Matthews says. "Now it's common.  We find it in seizure after seizure.

The porn producers are pushing the boundaries, going after more and more deviant acts, and they're doing it to make money."

If anything good can come out of such evil, Pat Marshall hopes the Bernardo case "will provide us with the momentum to deal with abused children, to intervene in families where children are being hurt."

Marshall, who co-chaired the federal government's panel on violence against women, says money must be spent on the care and healing of victims rather than on criminals like Bernardo -- whose defence and court case cost taxpayers millions.

She recalls with anger the days she spent in court with the French and Mahaffy families, and the horror they felt at seeing Bernardo, cocky and fully funded by the state, while they, the parents of his victims, had to act alone in seeking to prevent the hellish record of their daughters' last days on Earth being played for the world.

"In a society so saturated by pornography, were pornography is regarded as acceptable sexual stimulation," Marshall says, "it is a fact of life that there were people inside and outside the courtroom who were titillated by the content of those tapes."

McPhedran says: "The media argued they needed to see those tapes to be able to interpret them for the public at large, but what we got was coverage that amounted to state-funded pornography available for cheap thrills."

Lou Clancy, The Star's managing editor, agrees that "the tapes are horrific". But he stands behind the media argument.

"It's surely important that we, as a society, don't pretend such hideous things don't exist. We're opposed, on principle, to the courts being closed to the public. In order to deal with this kind of horror, we've got to confront it."

Perhaps the coverage will force us to examine the dangers of violent porn -- and do something about it.

That's the hope of the action committee's Robinson, who says the group is looking to bring these issues to the attention of the federal government, to push for legislative changes that could prevent another Bernardo from acting out his virulent fantasies.

Ironically, yesterday -- the days of the verdict -- was marked by totally unexpected news: Canada's renowned Institute for the Prevention of Child Abuse announced to stunned agencies and professionals in the field that it was forced to close immediately due to cutbacks in funding from the Ontario government.

And what of Bernardo?

McCrary, who profiled Bernardo for the FBI, thinks he is a suicide risk.

"Sexually sadistic offenders have a higher rate of suicide than other offenders," McCrary says.

"They can dish it out -- they love to punish others -- but they can't take it.  They're very averse to being punished themselves."