We’re so quick to throw that word around, but how many of us really know what it means? Many of the great classics in literature have been banned or challenged for obscenity (think Lolita and Tropic of Cancer), but what actually made people think they were obscene?
I took a course in publishing law this semester, and it gave me a lot of food for thought. There is actually a legal definition for obscenity, especially in relation to media. To be classified as ‘obscene,’ the piece in question has to meet a three-part standard:
- The material appeals predominantly to the prurient interest (in layman’s terms, it makes you horny).
- It is offensive or morally objectionable to the community standard.
- It is utterly without any social or artistic value.
Yup, this really is the standard, and it couldn’t be more vague if it tried. Who is “the community”? A town, a religious group, the whole state? And who sets the standard? And how do you decide if a book has any social importance or not? Maybe those anti-porn crusaders think that porn has no social importance, but there are many others who would beg to differ. And my personal favorite is the “prurient interest” criterion. Basically, it’s ok for books to talk about sex, but it’s not ok to make people horny. Huh?! And there’s nothing in there about violence, so violence is pretty much ok but sex isn’t?
Obscenity first became a legal issue in the US in the late nineteenth century, an offshoot of the Temperance Movement. At that time it became illegal to send obscene material through the mail, and specially appointed officers could actually open other people’s mail looking for obscene items. Think about that the next time you get Playboy or Playgirl in your mailbox! The three-part standard I mentioned before was implemented in the 1950s and is still more or less applied today, even though it is still contradictory and almost impossible to define.
And for those of you who are thinking that none of this really matters because of the First Amendment, think again. The First Amendment actually does not protect obscene material. It also does not protect child pornography (duh) or any speech that incites violence. So the next time you’re curled up with a good erotic story, try to think about whether it could be technically classified as obscene material and censored or banned.
Banned Books Week is still six months away, but any time is a good time to appreciate the freedoms and privileges we do have, especially in terms of publishing and speech!