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As I’ve been working my way through my dissertation I have, of course, come across plenty of definitions of pornography and obscenity. I thought one day I ought to start collecting them so, here they are. I am always adding to this list. I think it makes for fascinating reading. A note: the entries in the list are in chronological order, more or less, because that’s how I like to work.

I’m not too sure what I’m doing with this list or what I’m hoping it will show me, but I think it’s interesting nevertheless. It’s just one of those things that we do.

If you’ve got a definition you’d like to suggest, please send me the pertinent details: justin.ohearn@alumni.ubc.ca

“pornography (n.) – The explicit description or exhibition of sexual subjects or activity in literature, painting, films, etc., in a manner intended to stimulate erotic rather than aesthetic feelings; printed or visual material containing this.” (OED)

R. V. Hicklin 1868 ‘test of obscenity’
“I think the test of obscenity is this, whether the tendency of the matter charged as obscenity is to deprave and corrupt those whose minds are open to such immoral influences, and into whose hands a publication of this sort may fall” (Justice Cockburn, as part of the decision of this case)

Definition of obscenity – U.K. ca. 1959. Updated Obscene Publications Act. Argument for artistic merit.
“‘For the purposes of this Act an article shall be deemed to be obscene if its effect or (where the article comprises two or more distinct items) the effect of any one of its items is, if taken as a  whole, such as to tend to deprave and corrupt persons who are likely, having regard to all relevant circumstances, to read, see or hear the matter contained or embodied in it.’…The Act also provided booksellers with the defence of ‘innocent dissemination’ and publishers and authors with the defence of literary or other merit.” (Hyde 196)

“I know it when I see it” U.S. Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart, 1964.

“‘A thing is obscene if, considered as a whole, its predominant appeal is to prurient interests, i.e. a shameful or morbid interest in nudity, sex, or excretion, and if it goes substantially beyond customary limits of candour in description or representation of such matters.’ The Court went on further to define obscene matter as ‘material having a tendency to excite lustful thoughts.’” (Hyde History of Pornography 185) [1964]

“…it is the function of pornography to stun and numb the reader, and the function of erotic writing to wake him up” (Frye The Secular Scripture) [1976]

Definitions of obscenity – U.S. court cases.
“‘A thing is obscene if, considered as a whole, its predominant appeal is to prurient interests, i.e. a shameful or morbid interest in nudity, sex, or excretion, and if it goes substantially beyond customary limits of candour in description or representation of such matters.’ The Court went on further to define obscene matter as ‘material having a tendency to excite lustful thoughts.’” (Hyde 185)

“the written or visual presentation in a realistic form of any genital or sexual behavior with a deliberate violation of existing and widely accepted moral and social taboos.” (Wagner Eros Revived [1988] qtd. in Hunt 25 [1998])

“If we take pornography to be the explicit depiction of sexual organs and sexual practices with the aim of arousing sexual feelings, then pornography was almost always an adjunct to something else until the middle of or end of the eighteenth century” (Hunt Invention of Pornography 10) [1996]

“[Pornography is] not a thing but a concept…and imaginary scenario of danger and rescue.” (Kendrick Secret Museum xiii)

“First, what seems pornographic to one person will not necessarily seem so to another. Second, pornography is not monolithic: representation occurs in many media, and it adopts many forms and genres. Third, no group, gendered or otherwise, has a monopoly on sexual expression or representation. Fourth, our social, esthetic, political, legal, and economic attitudes toward pornography both affect and draw on complex responses to gender and sexuality. Fifth, pornography, an attempt at communication, conveys a host of messages, many of them contradictory. Some of those messages, in fact, are ancient.” (Slade Pornography in America)[2000]

“I use the word pornography as an umbrella term to cover a wide variety of representations including literature, drawings, and photographs…in spit of the single predominant theme, pornography takes a variety of forms and has a wide range of foci and uses; it does more than just titillate. I consider as pornography work that people wrote, published, printed, legislated, and collected as pornography…and varies as a culture and the symbolic meanings in the culture evolve” (Sigel Governing 4) [2002]

“By stipulating a universal definition of pornography, ‘pornography is,’ [Katherine] MacKinnon and [Andrea] Dworkin in effect ignore the historical process through which pornography as we now know it comes into being. In order to create a strong argument for the present, the antipornography feminists flatten pornography into a monolithic history of the oppression of women” (Sigel Governing 6) [2002]

“For clarity, my definition of ‘pornography’ is material that contains graphic description of sexual organs and/or action (for example, detailed descriptions of masturbation, or anal, oral and penetrative sex) written with the prime intention of sexually exciting the reader. Pornography is not merely a series of repetitive scenarios, but a particular way of writing to fulfil a particular function, to create the desired effect of physical pleasure…erotic (rather than erotica) material can therefore be defined as that which is descriptive of amatory or sexual desire made through insinuation. This is generally written to amuse rather than sexually stimulate, unlike pornographic material which is more explicit and carries that intension.” (Peakman Mighty Lewd 6 – 7) [2003]

“Attempts to define pornography, for example, are uniquely destined to fail by becoming an example of the very thing defined. There is no catalog of pornography, no legislation of pornography that is not pornographic in and of itself…the act of taking interest in any object undermines the subject’s difference from that object” (Doyle 9 Sex Objects) [2006]

“In plain language, for something to be pornography, it has to give clear details of people behaving in a sexual manner, especially by emphasizing their genitals (for women in our culture, this includes breasts). Second, it must concentrate on these sexual parts and activities for one main reason: to get people sexually arouse. Third, and most important, pornography should seem ‘dirty.’ Users are supposed to feel that the people who made it knew they were doing something immoral, and that by reading, looking at or listening to porn, consumers are also behaving badly. Pornography is shameful, a secret pleasure to be roped off from the rest of our lives” (Nathan Pornography 15) [2007]

“Whatever else it is, pornography is big business.” (Maes & Levinson Art and Pornography) [2012]

“I don’t think it’s worth defining. It’s that stuff that you find when you put ‘porn’ into Google. Why bother defining it?” (Gail Dines, anti-pornography campaigner, on BBC4 programme “Pornography: What Do We Know?”)

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