Being an illustrated reflection on erotica, pornography and obscenity as applied to modern photographic genres.
por·nog·ra·phy: movies, pictures, magazines, etc., that show or describe naked people or sex in a very open and direct way in order to cause sexual excitement.
1: the depiction of erotic behavior (as in pictures or writing) intended to cause sexual excitement
2: material (as books or a photograph) that depicts erotic behavior and is intended to cause sexual excitement
3: the depiction of acts in a sensational manner so as to arouse a quick intense emotional reaction <the pornography of violence>
1: the quality or state of being obscene
2: something (as an utterance or act) that is obscene
In the United States pornography has been regulated by the legal
standards that govern the concept of Obscenity, which refers to things
society may consider disgusting, foul, or immoral, and may include material that is blasphemous. Pornography is limited to depictions of sexual behavior and may not be obscene.
The U.S. Supreme Court has established that obscenity is not protected
by the First Amendment. In the landmark 1957 case Roth v. United States
(354 U.S. 476) the U.S. Supreme Court stated that obscenity
is “utterly without redeeming social importance” and not
protected by the First Amendment. The well known “Roth test” for obscenity is
“whether to the average person, applying contemporary community
standards, the dominant theme of the material taken as a whole appeals
to a prurient [lewd or lustful] interest.“
The problem with the
Roth test is that every term used eluded a conclusive definition. Who
is “average”? Who defines “contemporary community standards”? And
something that “appeals to a prurient interest” in one context may
simply be a medical illustration in another.
In a 1966 case (383 U.S. 413) the Court concluded that
to establish obscenity, the material must not only appeal to the
prurient interest, but it must be “utterly without redeeming social value” and
“patently offensive because it affronts contemporary community standards
relating to the description of sexual matters.” This allowed some protection for pornography, erotica and basically any classical art that included depictions of uncovered breasts. Finally, a modern legal standard for “pornography” was established in 1973 with Miller v. California (413 U.S. 15) when Chief Justice Warren Burger determined that pornographic material would be classified as obscene if it met three criteria:
- the work, taken as a whole by an average person applying contemporary community standards, appeals to the prurient interest;
- the work depicts sexual conduct in a patently offensive way; and
- the work, when taken as a whole, lacks serious literary, artistic, political, or scientific value.
Burger went further, listing examples of “patently offensive descriptions or representations”
including representations of “ultimate sex acts, masturbation,
excretory functions and lewd exhibition of the genitals.” This came to define “hardcore” pornography and Burger determined that only hardcore porn could be designated as patently offensive. This also defined soft-core pornography by default as depictions of nudity and limited and simulated sexual conduct.
Effectively; if it is not as graphic or explicit as hard-core pornography, it is protected under the First Amendment. But there is still a lot of legal grey area: even though the printing, publication, sale and distribution of “hard core”
pornography is a either a felony or misdemeanor in most states,
determination of “hard core”is still subject to contemporary community standards, i.e. judges, juries and law enforcement officials. Nonetheless, we have the working legal structure defined.
So: in essence we have defined porn as any media  intended to cause sexual excitement irregardless of artistic merit. We have determined that pornography may or may not be obscene, and have further officially divided it into the two categories of “hardcore” and “softcore” more or less based on its degree of obscenity. I know it’s a bunch of dry humping but I’m now going to delve into some more philosophical and opinionated prose so it’s important to have a foundation in place. Some “safe words”, if you will.
To begin with, we all have our own definitions of what is and isn’t obscene. And I can respect that to a degree: child pornography, as a relatively universal obscenity, is and certainly should be banned and prosecuted based on the fact that children cannot grasp the fundamental concepts of sexuality and require protection from abuse and exploitation. As frequently explained by columnist and writer Dan Savage, non-consensual sex is simply wrong. I’m going with that. And I draw my own lines at various -even legal- content such as violence. But putting the extremes where they belong on the scales of obscene material, we should also recognize that we all have breasts, half of us have penises and half of us have vaginas. If we didn’t have sex, we wouldn’t be here so it’s unarguably a natural function. And it’s such an important function- driving our very existence and taking up far more of our consciousness than most people care to admit- that attempting to remove visual representation of sexuality from our social record is ludicrous.
Personally I would offer some slightly differing subcategories of
sexually themed visual media, based on my interpretations of aesthetics;
primarily being a separation of Pornography from Erotica. This line essentially crosses the boundaries of hardcore and softcore; offering a definition based not on the actual content per se, but rather on the degree of creativity involved in depicting that content. Art, basically. I think there has been a distinction for a very long time along these lines, but with the advent of electronic media and specifically the internet it has become less blurred and defined as sharply as a Eurotrash pornstar with a shaved crotch grinding away under 500 watt halogens. I’m not sure it’s obscene, but it’s ugly. It doesn’t leave any unanswered questions. It’s a video with 60 seconds of uninterrupted close ups of a flesh piston in a flesh cylinder and it’s somehow become a standard of what I will define as Pornography.
I am going to make the unabashed statement that I am thoroughly enamored with the visual representation of the female body; all of it, from the toes to the vagina to the breasts to the corners of the eyes. Vaginas are beautiful things and I like looking at them. I have spent some considerable time photographing them, and judging by the historical record of art a very large number of people have done the same with varying degrees of aesthetic achievement. And while I personally don’t have the same affinity for penises, (perhaps because hey, I’m a heterosexual male and I see one every day) I have noted a marked movement away from mainstream, “industrialized” pornography into the realms of erotica simply by utilizing a creative approach. The content may be the same, but it’s moved far away from the realms of obscenity.
As the internet becomes less and less of a free space populated by various incarnations of the good, the bad and the ugly and more of a regulated program divided up between the mega corporations such as Google and Facebook, the regulation of sexually themed media is being undertaken by those corporations themselves rather than by government entities. “Depictions of nudity” is verboten by the corporate TOS in many cases, and while that may be fine for protecting impressionable young minds (their parent’s job in the first place) or self righteous zealots (shouldn’t be online in the first place) you eventually reach a point of censorship that can’t be overcome. That would suck.
thanks, rambling over.
 Pornography by definition generally excludes live exhibitions such as sex shows or erotic dancing.
Legal definition of Pornography (USA)
Legal definition of Obscenity (USA)
Photography (in no particular order, many photos anonymous):