Obscenity (in Latin obscenus, meaning "foul, repulsive, detestable"), is a term that is most often used in a legal context to describe expressions (words, images, actions) that offend the prevalent sexual morality of the time. It is often replaced by the word salaciousness.
Despite its long formal and informal use with a sexual connotation, the word still retains the meanings of "inspiring disgust" and even "inauspicious; ill-omened", as in such uses as "obscene profits", "the obscenity of war", etc. It can simply be used to mean profanity, or it can mean anything that is taboo, indecent, abhorrent, or disgusting.
The definition of obscenity differs from culture to culture, between communities within a single culture, and also between individuals within those communities. Many cultures have produced laws to define what is considered to be obscene, and censorship is often used to try to suppress or control materials that are obscene under these definitions: usually including, but not limited to, pornographic material. As such censorship restricts freedom of expression, crafting a legal definition of obscenity presents a civil liberties issue.
The legal term of obscenity is usually denoted to classify a distinction between socially permitted material and discussions that the public can access versus those that should be denied. There does exist a classification of those acceptable materials and discussions that the public should be allowed to engage in, and the access to that same permitted material—which in the areas of sexual materials ranges between the permitted areas of erotic art (which usually includes "classic nude forms" such as Michelangelo's David statue) and the generally less respected commercial pornography. The legal distinction between artistic nudity, and permitted commercial pornography (which includes sexual penetration) that are deemed as "protected forms of speech" versus "obscene acts", which are illegal acts and separate from those permitted areas, are usually separated by the predominant culture appreciation regarding such. The accepted areas are deemed to fit those sexual acts regarded as "normal", while the obscene areas are considered to be deviant or unworthy of public access. For example, in the United States currently, images of mere human nudity and single couple heterosexual vaginal-only penetration are listed as protected speech, while images showing anal and homosexual penetration are presently not. However, no such specific objective distinction exists outside of legal decisions in federal court cases where a specific action is deemed to fit the classification of obscene and thus illegal. The difference between erotic art and (protected) commercial pornography, vs. that which is legally obscene (and thus not covered by 1st Amendment protection), appears to be subjective to the local federal districts inside the United States and the local moral standards at the time.
In fact, federal obscenity law in the U.S. is highly unusual in that—not only is there no uniform national standard, but rather, there is an explicit legal precedent (the "Miller test", below) that all but guarantees that something that is legally "obscene" in one jurisdiction may not be in another. In effect, the First Amendment protections of free speech vary by location within the U.S., and over time. With the advent of Internet distribution of potentially obscene material, this question of jurisdiction and "community standards" has created significant controversy in the legal community. (See United States v. Thomas, 74 F.3d 701 (6th Cir. 1996))
Even at the federal level, there does NOT exist a specific listing of which exact acts are to be classified as "obscene" outside of the legally determined court cases.
Former Justice Potter Stewart of the Supreme Court of the United States, in attempting to classify what material constituted exactly "what is obscene", famously wrote, "I shall not today attempt further to define the kinds of material I understand to be embraced . . . [b]ut I know it when I see it . . .
However, in the United States, the 1973 ruling of the Supreme Court of the United States in Miller v. California established a three-tiered test to determine what was obscene - and thus not protected, versus what was merely erotic and thus protected by the First Amendment.
Delivering the opinion of the court, Chief Justice Warren Burger wrote,
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.
Justice Douglas wrote a dissenting opinion that eloquently expressed his dissatisfaction with the ruling:
The idea that the First Amendment permits government to ban publications that are "offensive" to some people puts an ominous gloss on freedom of the press. That test would make it possible to ban any paper or any journal or magazine in some benighted place. The First Amendment was designed "to invite dispute," to induce "a condition of unrest," to "create dissatisfaction with conditions as they are," and even to stir "people to anger." The idea that the First Amendment permits punishment for ideas that are "offensive" to the particular judge or jury sitting in judgment is astounding. No greater leveler of speech or literature has ever been designed. To give the power to the censor, as we do today, is to make a sharp and radical break with the traditions of a free society. The First Amendment was not fashioned as a vehicle for dispensing tranquilizers to the people. Its prime function was to keep debate open to "offensive" as well as to "staid" people. The tendency throughout history has been to subdue the individual and to exalt the power of government. The use of the standard "offensive" gives authority to government that cuts the very vitals out of the First Amendment. As is intimated by the Court's opinion, the materials before us may be garbage. But so is much of what is said in political campaigns, in the daily press, on TV, or over the radio. By reason of the First Amendment - and solely because of it - speakers and publishers have not been threatened or subdued because their thoughts and ideas may be "offensive" to some.
In U.S. legal texts, therefore, the question of "obscenity" presently always refers to this "Miller test obscenity". The Supreme Court has ruled that it is constitutional to legally limit the sale, transport for personal use or other transmission of obscenity, but that it is unconstitutional to pass laws concerning the personal possession of obscenity per se. Federal obscenity laws at present apply to inter-state and foreign obscenity issues such as distribution; intrastate issues are for the most part still governed by state law. "Obscene articles... are generally prohibited entry" to the United States by U.S. Customs and Border Protection.
At present, the only legally protected areas of explicit sexual areas of commercial pornography are 1) "mere nudity" as upheld in "Jenkins v. Georgia , 418 U.S. 153 (1974)" whereby the film "Carnal Knowledge" is deemed not to be obscene under the constitutional standards announced in Miller and appellant's conviction therefore contravened the First and Fourteenth Amendments. As declared by the judge at trial "The film shows occasional nudity, but nudity alone does not render material obscene under Miller's standards)." This was upheld time and again in later cases including "Erznoznik v. City of Jacksonville FL, 422 U.S. 205 (1975)" whereby the city of Jackonville stated such film showing was a punishable offense for a drive-in movie theater to exhibit films containing nudity, when the screen is visible from a public street or place. The law was determined to be invalid as it was an infringement of First Amendment rights of the movie producer and theatre owners and 2) single male to female vaginal-only penetration that does NOT show the actual ejaculation of semen, sometimes referred to as "soft-core" pornography wherein the sexual act and its fulfillment (orgasm) are merely implied to happen rather than explicitly shown.
In June 2006, the U.S. Federal government in the district of Arizona brought a case against JM Productions of Chatsworth, Calif. in order to classify commercial pornography that specifically shows actual semen being ejaculated as obscene. The four films that were the subject of the case are entitled "American Bukkake 13", "Gag Factor 15", "Gag Factor 18" and "Filthy Things 6". The case also includes charges of distribution of obscene material (a criminal act under 18 USC § 1465 - "Transportation of obscene matters for sale or distribution") against Five Star DVD for the extra-state commercial distribution of JM Productions' films in question. The case has been advanced to actual trial, which is scheduled to begin on October 16th 2007. At the first date of trial, the US DoJ has decided NOT to pursue the JM obscenity case any further, leaving the matter without resolution, possibly fearing the formal establishment of sperm showing sex films as a nationally legal protected material (declared as "non-obscene") if the trial was decided in favor of JM Productions. While the US DoJ had decided to abandon its legal pursuit of the JM productions, U.S. District Court Judge Roslyn O. Silver has forced the legal case against Five Star DVD distributors to continue, whereby the legal classification of whether "sperm showing through ejaculation" is an obscene act and thus illegal to produce or distribute will be definitely answered in order to convict Five Star of being guilty of "18 USC 1465 - Transportation of obscene matters for sale or distribution". The jury found Five Star Video LC and Five Star Video Outlet LC were guilty of "18 USC 1465 - Transportation of obscene matters for sale or distribution" for having shipped JM Productions' film "Gag Factor 18" However, the specific content in that film that the jury deemed to be actually fulfill the legal qualification of being "obscene" has not been specifically stated at this point.
The classification of "obscene" and thus illegal for production and distribution has been judged on printed text-only stories starting with "Dunlop v. U.S., 165 U.S. 486 (1897)" which upheld a conviction for mailing and delivery of a newspaper called the 'Chicago Dispatch,' containing "obscene, lewd, lascivious, and indecent materials", which was later upheld in both "A Book Named "John Cleland's Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure" v. Attorney General of Com. of Mass., 383 U.S. 413 (1966)" whereby the "Fanny Hill" written by John Cleland about 1760, was judged to be obscene in a proceeding that put on the book itself on trial rather than its publisher and "Kaplan v. California , 413 U.S. 115 (1973)" whereby the court most famously determined that "Obscene material in book form is not entitled to any First Amendment protection merely because it has no pictorial content."
In September 2005 a further attack on the printed text came as an FBI "Anti-Porn Squad" was formed, which has initially targeted for prosecution websites such as Red Rose Stories (www.red-rose-stories.com, now defunct), one of many sites providing text-only fantasy stories.(See ongoing trials below) Other former BDSM lifestyle websites such as BeautyBound.com, run by Midori, a prominent BDSM teacher and author on Japanese bondage, have closed themselves down despite not being targeted, due to these risks and legislative burdens.
These standards were once used to determine exactly what was obscene. All have been invalidated, overturned, or superseded by the Miller Test.
Under FCC rules and federal law, radio stations and over-the-air television channels cannot air obscene material at any time and cannot air indecent material between 6 a.m. and 10 p.m.: language or material that, in context, depicts or describes, in terms patently offensive as measured by contemporary community standards for the broadcast medium, sexual or excretory organs or activities (indecency is less intense than obscenity).
Many historically important works have been described as obscene, or prosecuted under obscenity laws. For example, the works of Charles Baudelaire, Lenny Bruce, William S. Burroughs, James Joyce, D. H. Lawrence, Henry Miller, the words "piss" and "erection" in the UK 1950s premier of Samuel Beckett's play Waiting for Godot, and the Marquis de Sade.
Obscenity law has been criticized in the following areas:.
The Obscene Publications Act basically determines the criteria for what material is allowed to be publicly accessed and distributed within the member countries of the United Kingdom.
The current law states
163. (1) Every one commits an offense who
"Crime comics" are stated to be books that glorify criminal activities and have at least one depiction of such criminal actions of the book's text.