Pornography as Social Criticism

Sex for Sale

What Constitutes Obscenity?

The 1957 Supreme Court decision defined obscenity in order to implement censorship. It established the following three criteria for evaluating obscenity:

1. The dominant theme of the work as a whole must appeal to prurient interest in sex.

2. The work must be patently offensive to contemporary community standards.

3. The work must be without serious literary, artistic, political, or scientific value (Roth v. United States, 354 U. S. 476 [1957]).

Determining what materials are "obscene" and qualify for censorship has been plagued by ambiguity because the criteria are highly subjective. The subjectivity of these criteria is perhaps best reflected in Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart’s comment regarding obscenity: It is difficult to define intelligently, "but I know it when I see it" (Jacobelis v. Ohio, 379 U. S. 197 [1965]).

In addition, community standards for obscenity vary dramatically from one loca­tion to another. In small, rural communities, magazines such as Playboy have been banned, and the books The Color Purple and Our Bodies, Ourselves and Ms. magazine have been deemed obscene and consequently banned from high school libraries (Klein, 1999). Furthermore, the advent of cable TV, VCRs, DVDs, the Internet, and other wireless technologies has made "community standards" even more nebulous because people use these technologies in the privacy of their homes. In fact, some highly con­servative communities have the highest rates of Internet access to pornography. For example, according to the FBI, Salt Lake City, Utah, ranked number one for Internet searches for adult-related content (Knox, 2006). A nationwide study of 2 years’ worth of credit-card receipts from a major online provider of pornography found that states whose residents consume the most pornography tend to have more conservative and religious populations than states whose residents exhibit lower levels of consumption (Callaway, 2009).

chapter 18

the earlier commission. It claimed that pornography promoted promiscuity and that vio­lent or degrading pornography caused sexually aggressive behavior toward women. It rec­ommended prosecuting pornography vigorously and prohibiting "dial-a-porn" telephone services and sexual cable TV programs. However, leading researchers criticized the Meese Commission report for basing its recommendations on politics instead of science, because it did not produce adequate scientific evidence to support its conclusions (D’Amato, 2006). The recommendations were not implemented, except for one making possession of child pornography a felony (U. S. Attorney General’s Commission on Pornography, 1986).

The Supreme Court continues to address issues of censorship, especially in response to technological developments. For example, in 1997, in Reno v. American Civil Liberties Union et al., the Court gave free-speech protection to material on the Internet (except child pornography). The decision was based on the Courts opinion that the Internet is the most participatory form of communication ever developed and therefore is entitled to the "high­est protection from governmental intrusion" (Beck, 1999, p. 83).