I read the results of a survey the other day and in the comments section a man said he was first introduced to pornography through HBO. Another said Victoria’s Secret catalogs. My first reaction was, “Hey! That’s not porn!” But if they think it is, am I really in any position to argue?
Throughout my recovery, dealings with the law, writing my book and the vast amount of research I’ve done on the topic in general, I’ve only seen textbook definitions of the word pornography. I have come to the conclusion that pornography is not a “thing” – it’s a concept.
It’s a grand idea that can be delineated 100 different ways. For instance, when I say the word “vehicle” what does that mean to you? We can all agree it has to do with transportation, but our individual definitions lay in the details.
We can probably all agree that pornography involves the depiction of sexual behavior. Beyond that, it gets tricky.
The Miller Test
First, let’s see what the folks in Washington have to say…
Based on past rulings, the federal government and our courts have a very strict interpretation of pornography, which makes almost everything NOT pornography. For something to deemed pornographic, it has to be labeled as obscene.
Obscenity was defined in the 1973 case of Miller v. California. A guy named Miller who ran a porn video business sent out brochures in 1971 that depicted sex acts. A man and his mother got a few in the mail and called the police. After losing by a jury in California, the Supreme Court of the United States ruled in his favor 5-4.
What has largely now been accepted as the standard for obscenity is:
- Whether “the average person, applying contemporary community standards”, would find that the work, taken as a whole, appeals to the prurient interest,
- Whether the work depicts or describes, in a patently offensive way, sexual conduct or excretory functions specifically defined by applicable state law,
- Whether the work, taken as a whole, lacks serious literary, artistic, political, or scientific value.
Have you ever seen anything more broadly defined? All this really says to me is that illegal forms of sex – bestiality, underage, necrophilia, etc. – are patently obscene, but you could make an argument for almost anything else not being obscene. When does a smutty romance novel become literature? When does an adult movie become an artsy, independent film?
Much like health care and taxes, the government clearly isn’t going to help us figure out what “pornography” really means.
Put On Your Clothes
Since I was a kid, I always associated sex with nudity. I thought there were only three reasons to be nude: A medical examination, taking a shower or having sex. I was raised in a conservative home where people didn’t walk around naked. My mom would castigate my father for simply making the trek across the hall from their bedroom to the shower in his t-shirt and underwear. We didn’t talk about sex, we didn’t display nudity – and my mom’s reaction to both were the same – so there had to be a connection.
I think my young mind came to the conclusion that if an instance of “real life” nudity didn’t involve a medical exam or taking a shower, then it must fall into the “sex” category.
I think we can agree a strip club has certain sexual connotations. Is it the same thing with a nude beach? Many strip clubs aren’t allowed to go bottomless. So are completely nude people at the beach more sexual because they are displaying their sex organs? Are either of these instances actually pornographic since it’s “real life”?
I bring this up because there is a lot of interpretation that has to take place when one discerns what is or isn’t sexual. I remember watching a film in sixth grade that actually showed the tip of a man’s penis from inside the vagina at the time of ejaculation. Aside from still wondering how they got a tiny camera there, I don’t remember it as particularly sexy. It was clinical, yet it was technically more intimate than any adult film I’ve ever seen.
‘But I Know It When I See It’
In 1964, Justice Potter Stewart uttered that oft-used line when declining to define obscenity in a case before the Supreme Court. I think it’s the standard most of us use, but I think in this increasingly complex world, a better definition might need to be created
Some would say that there are levels like “softcore porn” or “hardcore porn” but those are also largely concepts. To me, softcore features either the act or simulated act of intercourse, without showing the actual genital interaction. But, if you’re watching someone lead a naked man and naked woman who are wearing fetish gear on a leash while another man and woman ride their back…is that softcore or hardcore? No actual sex is being depicted, just an alternative sexual behavior. So is it actually pornography? It seems way more explicit in some ways than people dry-humping on a late-night Cinemax movie, doesn’t it?
I go back to the survey I read the other day. It was conducted by a Christian group, so I expected more conservatism in the answers, but the men who provided comments really opened my eyes to what some consider pornography. Like the nude beach, Cinemax movie or whips-and-chains scenarios, it caused me to really think about what it is when I use the term “pornography.”
Can I just say, “I know it when I see it”? If some guy thinks a Victoria’s Secret catalog is porn, but I think it’s more just a nuisance on my end table…who is right? Penthouse Magazine is more explicit than Playboy, but which one is porn? Both? Neither? Am I indulging in pornography sitting at a strip club, or do I have to be watching on TV or a computer? Does the medium matter? Is it porn if it’s real life vs. digital or printed?
I’ve learned in recovery, the answers to questions that start with Who, What, When, Where or How can give you clues, but the real depth is found in questions that start with Why. Instead of asking myself “What is the definition of pornography?” I started to wonder “Why do I feel the need to define it?”
Then I realized the real answer: It isn’t important. If somebody is an alcoholic, what they had to drink is just a detail. If somebody is a gambling addict, it doesn’t matter if they lost it all on slot machines or sports betting. The kind of pornography – and if it reached the point that it met my eventual definition – somebody is addicted to has nothing to do with whether they should be given help.
Pornography addicts need help. By that point, what they looked at to reach addict status isn’t important (unless it is illegal). Further, only they can determine what they must stay away from in the future. I can’t go into online chatrooms, but you can fill my house with Victoria’s Secret catalogs. The opposite may be true of the guy who took that survey. We both identify as having a problem and have sought help.
If you think you’re an addict but are unsure, I hope the hesitancy is more about the effects on your life and not what it is you’re consuming. In rehab, I heard stories from some men that curled my toes and others that made me wonder what they were doing there. It was wrong to judge like that. We were all pornography addicts, regardless of what the definition is of “pornography.”
I’d be interested in hearing what other people think. Do you have a hard-and-fast definition?