By Kelsey Sizemore
- The Capitol Hill Times -
It’s difficult to define “pornography” in our Western culture. Advertising and media constantly push the limits of socially acceptable sexual dialog, innuendo, and imagery to boost ratings and sales. It’s not a new strategy. In America, semi-nude, buxom beauties have appeared on things like cigarette boxes and soap labels since the 1800s. Where is the line drawn between harmless flaunting of sexuality for marketing’s sake and pornography?
The United States Supreme Court defines pornography as a thing that is utterly without redeeming social, literary, artistic, political, or scientific value, is explicitly for enticing through prurient appeal, and is not in compliance with local and federal obscenity laws. That may provide a starting point for categorization, but how can one determine what is of lewd or lustful appeal when people’s sensibilities vary?
Prior to the 1973 ruling, during the Jacobellis v. Ohio trials, (during which a theatre owner was being prosecuted for showing a foreign film that was believed to be of a pornographic nature due to its title), Justice Potter Stewart was famously quoted as saying, “I shall not today attempt further to define the kinds of material I understand to be embraced with in that shorthand description [of hard-core pornography], and perhaps I could never succeed in intelligibly doing so. But I know it when I see it.”
Writer Scott Russell Sanders called pornography, “making flesh into a commodity, flaunting it like any other merchandise, divorcing bodies from selves.” He acknowledged that actual human beings are involved in the trade. The American legal system could never turn this description into law since it’s too all-encompassing.
To create one’s own opinion on the matter, the spirit and letter of the law must be considered as we walk through Sanders’ sentiment. The true definition should lie in a mixture of these ideas.
Let’s start with the first qualifier that the Supreme Court provides. Porn is “a thing that is utterly without redeeming social, literary, artistic, political, or scientific value.” Simply put, sex for the sake of novelty. According to Sanders, we must remember the humans involved in the creation of this “novelty.” In making the images or videos, we remove the interaction and discard the hopes and dreams of the subject. What’s left is an empty act that’s manufactured solely for the viewing pleasure of strangers.
Sanders described the strange interactions with centerfolds in his college dorm as “If not extinguished, however, their humanity was severely reduce.”
We recognize this by-product of the sex trade industry and, yet, there is nothing that can be done to rectify the captured ghost with its fleshy host. But if this were the only criteria, more than half of mainstream movies and advertising would be considered pornography.
The Miller v. California ruling goes on to say that for an effigy to be considered salacious, it must have been created with that explicit purpose in mind. Its sole reason for being must be to bring about feelings of lust. In other words, it must turn flesh into commodity, a thing to be desired. Sanders compares how women are judged simply walking down the street to livestock being auctioned. We know that sexual objectification happens all the time, not just in print and on film.
Obviously, we cannot do anything about ogling, and there is little to be done about harassment and abuse until it’s too late.
Does turning people’s bodies and sexuality into things, flaunting these new, strangely alien forms as goods created just for the incitement of lewd thoughts and actions, and, what is being portrayed, fall within the bounds of the law?
Legality is a huge issue for Supreme Court Justices. According to the final component to their evaluation of the legal aspect of erotic material, the material must be in the limits of local and federal limits of obscenity. Sanders doesn’t comment on his views of the law or how he feels about advertising. What he has to say focuses on the women who he encounters in his day-to-day, in print and in the flesh.
What we learn from these opinions is that, although they are similar, there are vast differences in their underlying message. A simple, clear definition that works in all situations for all peoples cannot be reached. The law may say one thing is pornography or not, but a community or individual may feel entirely different. Justice Stewart’s “Duck Test” may be the only personally accurate way to know if what the subject of the photo or video is obscene or not. Today, I can’t articulate what pornography is, it may change from moment to moment, but I will surely know it when I see it.