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the definition of pornography by joseph w. slade

The general litmus test for "pornography" seems to be whether it excites the viewer or the reader. But if that's the case, then how does one distinguish between pornography and "erotica" or "obscenity"? Here's a helpful excerpt from Pornography in America: A Reference Handbook by Joseph W. Slade (ABC-Clio, 2000)

Reprinted with permission of the publisher.

"Pornography" (or "porn") usually refers to representations designed to arouse and give sexual pleasure to those who read, see, hear, or handle them. Although sexual stimulation would seem to be a splendid goal, it is not always so regarded in a society still characterized as puritanical. Opponents often avoid dealing with the benefits of arousal in favor of attributing unflattering motives to makers of pornography, whereas producers of pornography themselves may cloud matters by insisting that their materials are educational rather than deliberately stimulating. Because arguments over sexual expression mask issues of politics, religion, gender, race, class and (above all) sexuality, irrelevant claims and assertions are not merely typical but seemingly essential to any discussion of pornography. At times, the confusion seems a deliberate means of demonizing enemies, achieving political advantage, or making a profit.

what seems pornographic to one person will not necessarily seem so to another.

In a more general sense, the meaning of the term pornographic constantly shifts along a vast continuum moving between two equally slippery concepts, the erotic and the obscene. An erotic representation is usually considered socially acceptable. Associated with upper-class sensibilities, eroticism is primarily esthetic; erotic materials, say many critics, begin by stimulating physical responses, then transcend them, leaving a mildly sexual glow that one can speak of in polite company. Gloria Steinem, among others, claims that the differences between pornographic and erotic are always obvious. Al Goldstein, among others, maintains that such descriptions are biased by gender, class, and factors such as personal preference: "Eroticism," says Goldstein, "is what turns me on. Pornography is what turns you on."

At the other end of the scale are obscene representations, which are considered to be not socially acceptable. In a legal sense, obscenity denotes criminality, and its cultural connotation is lower-class vulgarity. In the United States, obscene material can be prosecuted because of its nastiness, its demeaning "prurience," or its sheer inhumanness. By contrast, pornography is entirely legal. Sexual expression is free to arouse, but only within limits, and those limits, which are set by concepts of obscenity, erode only over time. "I know it when I see it," Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart once said of obscenity. Because Stewart was virtually blind, his comment illustrates the difficulty of deciding what is obscene rather than pornographic. Stewart's remark is also as close as the American judicial system has come to a definitive statement on the issue. If a representation transgresses against sexual norms (that themselves change), courts may judge it obscene; if it does not push against boundaries, however, it may not arouse. In contrast, when a representation once called obscene becomes so widespread that taboos against it weaken, it moves first into the category of the pornographic, then of the erotic. From the domain of the erotic, the representation (a public kiss, for example) can pass into the realm of the commonplace.

The problem, of course, is that not everyone uses the same measurements. Some Americans believe that sex is a necessary evil, sanctioned only by marriage for purposes of reproduction, and condemn sexual representations under any circumstances. At the other extreme, those who concede that sex can and should be recreational may nonetheless find some types of representation disturbing. A reader comfortable with a sexual scene in a novel, for example, may be repelled by the same scene in a movie or on stage. Others attempt to distinguish between degrees of explicitness -- how much flesh is visible, say, or how vulgar a spoken word, or what kind of sexual act is depicted.

For most Americans, pornography means peep shows, striptease, live sex acts, hardcore videos, adult cable programming, sexual aids and devices, explicit telephone and computer messages, adult magazines, and raunchy fiction. Conservatives might add prime-time television programming, soap operas, Music Television (MTV) and rock music, romance novels, fashion magazines, and all R-rated movies. Conflating sexuality and violence leads some critics to think of sexual representations as inherently aggressive. Others, noticing that most sexual representations contain no violence, condemn only those examples that mix the two. As Walter Kendrick has pointed out, pornography is not a thing but an argument.

To avoid contentiousness, some theorists prefer a neutral term such as sexual materials over the charged word pornography. In any case, only a few things seem clear. First, what seems pornographic to one person will not necessarily seem so to another. Second, pornography is not monolithic: representation occurs in many media, and it adopts many forms and genres. Third, no group, gendered or otherwise, has a monopoly on sexual expression or representation. Fourth, our social, esthetic, political, legal, and economic attitudes toward pornography both affect and draw on complex responses to gender and sexuality. Fifth, pornography, an attempt at communication, conveys a host of messages, many of them contradictory. Some of those messages, in fact, are ancient.

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