Short form: I don't know what "pornography" is. And you don't, either."Pornography" and the use of value-laden words
What is "pornography?" I think I've seen a thousand threads on DeviantArt and ModelMayhem purporting to resolve the "art VS porn" discussion and, after reading many of them, I'm just as unenlightened as when I started. One might ask, as many have, "who cares?" but the obvious answer is that we're dealing with value-laden words and the people who are using them care - and care deeply. If the words "art" and "pornography" were interchangeable then we'd probably just call everything "art": it's shorter.
Value-laden words are the material from which propaganda is made; they are used to label things, and the labels' purpose is to obscure realities. Let me illustrate to you, briefly, why this is important. We are individuals; no two of us are alike or have ever existed that are completely alike. We each hold beliefs and opinions that are the result of our experiences, cultural influences, parenting, and education. Each of us comes fully-equipped with opinions of our own. Now, suppose that you and I are walking through a large art gallery - say The Louvre or The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York - would we both like the same things? If we were to make, each of us, a list of the 50 best pieces in those museums, do you think they would be exactly the same? Now, imagine that some group of anonymous critics out there made up a list of the 50 best pieces and called it "great art", do you think it would exactly match yours? Of course it wouldn't.
The reason I say value-laden words are propaganda is that they don't add any information when they're used. Re-consider the hypothetical list of "great art" we were discussing a moment ago; does the idea that some bunch of strangers called it "great" make it more meaningful to you? How can it? Only if your turn off your own critical faculties and just accept what someone else says - which would be a rather strange thing: how can you accept someone else's opinion
as your own? Example: I think Picasso's cubist works are garbage. First off, I doubt that everyone reading this accepted my opinion without reservations - but, more importantly, what did my use of the term "garbage" add to your understanding of Picasso? Nothing! I just put it there to manipulate you.
It seems to me that a great deal of political discourse consists of going around slapping labels on things, as an alternative to coming to grips with the fine nuances of reality. In the case of politics, labelling is used for broad-scale manipulation - who cares what 'weak on crime' really means if you can tag someone with a killer label like that? It's a lot of hard work to tunnel through the storm of labels once people start throwing them around, but if you do, you'll discover that everything is vastly more complicated than the labellers are trying to make it seem."I know what is when I see it"
The complete quote is: "I cannot clearly define pornography — but I know what it is when I see it.
U.S. Justice Potter Stewart. (I feel obligated, in fairness, to point out that the rest of Justice Stewart's comment was "...and this isn't pornography")
The problem with Justice Stewart's oft-quoted quip is that when you're placing someone at jeopardy from the law, you need to be objective; justice can't be based solely on Justice Stewart's opinion. Indeed, Justice Steward said that in 1964 and it's quite likely that whatever he considered to be pornography might be quite different, today. He was also being provincial; prevailing attitudes in The United States are different from those in Europe or the Middle East. So, here is one problem, already - someone saying a particular thing is "pornography" might mean something completely different from the person who nods and agrees. In the case Justice Stewart was commenting on, Jacobellis v. Ohio, a French film, The Lovers
which had resulted in the conviction on obscenity charges, of a theater manager for showing the film. What's obscene about it? It depicts (make sure you're sitting down!) adultery.
Obviously, cultural values depend a great deal on where, and when, you are. The US Supreme Court later tried to come to grips with this in the landmark 1974 case Miller v. California, Chief Justice Warren Burger writing:The basic guidelines for the trier of fact must be: (a) whether 'the average person, applying contemporary community standards would find that the work, taken as a whole, appeals to the prurient interest, (b) whether the work depicts or describes, in a patently offensive way, sexual conduct specifically defined by the applicable state law; and (c) whether the work, taken as a whole, lacks serious literary, artistic, political, or scientific value.
As I showed you earlier, the 'average person' does not exist. Nor does "patently offensive" or "community standards." Unlike "murder" or "exceeding the speed limit" which can be fairly clearly defined, we are presented with the ugly spectacle of a Supreme Court decision that waves its hands in the air and appeals to an abstraction. Unfortunately, justice cannot deal comfortably with abstractions: a justice system that places people in personal jeopardy based on interpretation of an abstraction is not a justice system, it's subjective, arbitrary power. Above, I jokingly offered "exceeding the speed limit" as a fairly well defined crime - imagine if our notion of "speeding" were written something like:The basic guidelines for the trier of fact must be: (a) whether the 'average person' applying contemporary community standards, felt that excessive speed was manifested. (b) whether excessive speed, as defined by state law, was manifested; and (c) whether the speed manifested was deemed appropriate under the circumstances, or there was a good excuse."
Obviously, that's ridiculous. Because too many people would have to agree about too many intangibles, and different courts would have tremendous leeway in interpretation.
Justice systems, in principle, exist to protect us from eachother. Their purpose is not simply to pass laws because they are bored; "pornography" (and obscenity) laws in the US go back to the 1850s, with the Lord Campbell's Act in England; it was the first law that restricted the sale of "obscene" material. (The English were not the first: in Japan, in the 17/18th century, making erotic woodblock prints was punishable by execution) The Obscene Publications Act outdid the US Supreme Court for vagueness: they didn't even try to define "obscene" - they merely criminalized it. Imagine if you made speeding illegal without explaining what a "speed limit" was! It was, however, the English who offered the first justification
for banning "obscene" material, in 1860:"the tendency of the matter charged as obscenity is to deprave and corrupt those whose minds are open to such immoral influences [such as small children], and into whose hands a publication of this sort may fall."
In other words, the potential victims are (as they so often seem to be!) the innocent little children.
US law regarding obscenity sort of evolved willy-nilly from English common law. One of the ways it evolved was by dodging the question of defining "pornography" or "obscenity" - presumably English common law knows it when it sees it. It wasn't until Roth v. United States that the US Supreme Court first attempted to define "obscenity" as:"utterly without redeeming social importance"
"whether to the average person, applying contemporary community standards, the dominant theme of the material taken as a whole appeals to the prurient interest."
It is to this "prurient interest" we will now turn.Prurient Interest
I recommend that you take a break from reading this and search some legal dictionaries online for definitions of "obscene" and "pornography." They may be instructive. If you're really lucky, you'll find a circular definition; one in which the term is used in its own definition. Circular definitions are generally a pretty good sign that someone has no idea what they're talking about - imagine if I was trying to describe "red" as "a really dark shade of pink." In a legal context, of course, such a definition would be completely unacceptable since it is impossible to know what it means without already knowing what it means. If you search for definitions of "pornography" you may find the word "obscene" featured prominently - then search for "obscene" and see what you get. One that I found included:causing uncontrollable sexual desire.
And prurient interest is:A morbid, degrading and unhealthy interest in sex
("Morbid" is often defined as "pathologically unhealthy" which makes its use here redundant)
At this point a rational person would say to themself something like this: "Oh, so if this is all about preventing me from suffering from uncontrollable urges, what's the big deal?" And, you'd be perfectly right to ask. But we haven't even begun to scratch the surface of this bizzare topic, yet. Let us now consider the producer/consumer question.
(Rembrant Van Rijn)
We'll use the term "producer" to refer to someone who creates an artwork or an artifact. And let's use the term "consumer" for the person who looks at it, reads it, or otherwise uses it. So, consider Rembrandt's "The Night Watch": Rembrandt was the producer, and I (and now, you) are the consumer. Rembrandt created this complex scene with some ideas in mind; it didn't happen by accident. But we have no idea what he was thinking, anymore, because he's been dead for a long time. The consumer of the image might see many things: brilliant use of lighting, militarism on parade, good examples of primitive arquebuses (the forerunners of today's rifles), or a bunch of good-looking guys dressed up for a parade. It should be pretty obvious that Rembrandt can't control what the consumer sees in his painting; other than what he originally painted into it, he's unable to communicate with the consumer at all. So what if the consumer happens to be an arquebus fetishist, with a prurient interest - shall we say - in ancient musketry? Can we hold Rembrandt blameless for any prurient interest this image might arouse?
That was, perhaps, a bit too easy.
Consider another image. In this photo we see - a shoe. We know nothing about the photographer, Helmut Newton's intent in creating this image. Can we say anything about Newton's intent? What if this photo was shot with intent
to appeal to the "prurient interest" of shoe fetishists? Is it "obscene"? This is a serious question; if the reason we have laws against "obscenity" is to keep people from being exposed to things that excite prurient interest - especially of the "morbid" and "pathologically unhealthy" kind - we need to exonerate or condemn the artist. Or, do we? In the case of a living artist, they might provide some information about their intent; we might see this image differently if it had been shot to be the cover-photo of an erotic shoe fetish site. But that wouldn't change the image one iota, only our perception of it.
To amplify this idea, consider some of the photos I've posted in my gallery. Many of them are nudes of females, in a variety of states of dress and undress. Were a homosexual man to view them, he might be quite uninterested (other than to, hopefully, enjoy my technique) a photo can hardly be said to have "prurient interest" if you're not interested in its contents! Thus, if we look at "obscenity" and "pornography" from the producer-only view, we'd need to take into account the orientation of the producer vis-a-vis their expected consumer. Of course that's silly; on the internet (or in books) the producer has no way of knowing who or what the consumer is, or wants. I suppose we might hypothesize that all images might be "obscene" that excite prurient interest in any of their hypothetical viewers, but the problem then becomes a matter of finding an image that isn't
potentially exciting of prurient interest.
What if the interpretation lies solely with the consumer? After all, it's the consumer's prurient interest that is being aroused. That line of reasoning would account for all
various flavors of sexual preference - each of us might be aroused (or offended) according to our own orientation. The image of the shoe, above, which holds no fetish significance for me, does not risk setting off my uncontrollable desires. The problem, then, is the question of what might
set off someone's uncontrollable desires. Suppose one of the consumers of an image site like DeviantArt is a puppy fetishist whose uncontrollable desires are sparked by photos of big-eyed flop-eared puppies? Are the photos of puppies now "obscene"?
Obviously, sometimes a producer will deliberately create an image designed to instill feelings in the consumer. How is society to fairly determine that agenda?
Considering "obscenity" in the light of agendaless producers and unknown consumers, you can see that there are huge problems with the entire concept if it's based solely on the relative content and/or its impact on the consumer. This is why I subtitled this article "...and neither do you." At this point, there's not much we can conclude other than that the terms "obscenity" and "pornography" are meaningless except for as value-laden terms suitable for use by propagandists.Some Worthy Attempts
When writing rules, you don't always have to be precise or fair. Obviously, we expect a US Supreme Court judge to be concerned with fairness and constitutionality of law, but not everyone needs to be. For example a web site like DeviantArt can promulgate its own rules according to (basically) whatever criteria it likes, as long as it's subject to national law, etc. DeviantArt, for example, has its own definition of "pornographic" here: [link]
and it's a fairly good one, except for where it fails miserably.There should be no use of imagery depicting a male erection that a reasonable person would believe is intended to elicit a sexual response.
One hardly needs to comment on that, other than to ask, "Who is that intended to protect? And from what?" I, for one, am not gripped with uncontrollable sexual urges at the sight of an erection. Nor am I filled with revulsion. Your mileage, of course, may vary but one might reasonably ask why erect nipples are OK if erect penises are not. If the problem is that DeviantArt wants no overt displays of sexual excitement, a better and more rational rule is necessary. Of course, under the "it's our site, we make our rules!" doctrine, rationality is not a requirement - mere authority suffices. Perhaps DA's founders have a horror of erections; their personal phobias are now something we all need to take into account.Adult toys" consisting of dildos, strap-ons, vibrators, etc. are not allowed.
What about a screwdriver? Or a banana? What about fingers?Subjects should not be depicted in a clear display of sexual intercourse.
Your reaction, upon reading my comments, might be "that's ridiculous!" but - well - that's the point, isn't it?Ridiculousness Compounded
In the US (thanks in part to the trial of Max Hardcore) The Supreme Court decided that it is unconstitutional to consider an image "child pornography" if it doesn't have any actual children in it. That's probably some sort of minor triumph for rationality, because it saves us from having to see drawings that disclaim: "the character represented in this drawing is over 18" but some countries are struggling with the problem of representational thought-crime. In the European Union, simulated "underage" content is treated as actual child "porn"; what's next? If you play Grand Theft Auto and shoot a police officer in the game, is it the same thing as if you'd assaulted a police officer in real life?
The UK's "Extreme Pornography" law makes it illegal to produce representations of, e.g: "an act which threatens a person's life." I hope someone tells The Church of England to take down all their crucifixes! I've written before about USC 2257a, which has similar problems: [link]
, of course they don't mean that
but - aren't we back to the question that laws need to be clear, fair, and fairly enforced?
In all questions of law, we need to consider that for there to be a crime there must be both a victim and a criminal. What if they are the same person? Take the following thought-experiment:Timmy, a 17-year-old male, steps out of the shower and catches a glimpse of himself in the mirror. He has an erection.
(a) Arrest Timmy: he saw child porn
(b) Arrest Timmy: he starred in child porn
(c) Let Timmy dry off and get on with his life
Timmy might, conceivably, be gripped with prurient interest by what he sees in the mirror (any of you who have been teen-aged boys will understand) and the situation can get dramatically more complicated if Timmy prefers boys.
What are we protecting Timmy from? How are we protecting him? Perhaps, after enough thinking, we might ask the all-important question of whether Timmy wants to be protected, or just left alone. But, if there are to be laws protecting Timmy, they should be fair, objective, and based on preventing some kind of bad thing from happening to him.
There are definitely cases where "pornography" has been involved in victimization, i.e.: child abuse. What we must not do is lose focus and forget that child abuse is already illegal, and like most personal crimes is fairly well-defined and understood. That there is a victim, and a perpetrator is clear - unlike in the situation with Timmy.
The English Common Law notion of "obscenity" appears to argue that viewers of obscenity will be victimized by it
; i.e.: that they will succumb and become unhealthily sexualized as a result. Holding that notion up to the light for a moment makes us begin to doubt: "where is the evidence of that?" and "what, exactly, does that even mean
?" The entire argument begins to fall apart because, basically, nobody really knows what "normal" sexuality is. Worse, if you try to determine what that is by examination, one is engaged in circular logic: "abnormal" is just a statistical outlier but sexuality isn't a single-axis thing - not by a long shot. Is it "abnormal" to want lots of partners? Biology says "no" and so do some popular cultures. What exactly
do people mean by unhealthily sexualized? It turns out that, well, nobody knows. So how can we worry about protecting someone from a problem we don't even understand? Shouldn't we be asking whether there's even a problem at all? Before putting the weight of the legal system behind something, it's a good idea to make sure that that "something" even exists.Conclusion
As I said at the beginning: "I don't know what pornography is, and you don't either." By now, hopefully, you've had a chance to think about it and realize that, in the absence of a workable notion for what is (and therefore isn't) "obscene" or "pornographic" the words are meaningless.
There is another angle to the whole topic, which I have not gone into here, because I'm trying to deal with the topic rationally: religion. Followers of the abrahamic faiths (Judaism, Christianity, and Islam) all share a common deeply-rooted anti-nudity taboo. The question "where does that come from?" is really interesting and provokes some fascinating (and often mixed!) responses. Since, ultimately, religion's answers are based on "a little man in my head told me" it's hard to avoid the trap of circular argument. In a future journal entry, I may deconstruct a few examples of how religious ideologues treat the topic of "pornography" as an invitation to lie for jesus.
In a future journal entry, I may offer an adaptationist view of human attitudes toward "pornography" with a possible explanation of why it's such a hot topic. I'm not an adaptationist; it'll be a thought-experiment only. Ultimately, however, my aim will be to further deconstruct the notion that "pornography" is relevant to anyone except the emotional cripples who worry too much about what other people do with their time on earth.