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Pornography


Pornography is broadly defined as written or visual material that stimulates sexual feelings whose primary purpose is to arouse the observer or reader. It is also referred to as porn, smut and obscene material.

The term "pornography" comes from porneia, the Greek word for prostitute, and means "the writings of and about prostitutes".

Defining the type of material that qualifies as pornography is more difficult. It is a relative term, subject to interpretation based on people's opinions. Standards of obscenity have been defined legally in a consistent way.

Technically, pornography is not illegal. Sexually explicit material that is judged in violation of the penal code is defined as obscene. These works are often called "hard core pornography", but even that is not illegal unless tested by the courts and found to be obscene.

The U.S. Supreme Court arrived at a definition of obscenity in the 1957 case of Roth vs. United States, and a number of lower courts have added their definitions since.

Pornography — Defining Erotic Material

Broadly speaking, erotic material is legally obscene if, for the average person:

  • Its predominant appeal is to a prurient interest in sex
  • It is contrary to the contemporary standards of the community
  • It is without social value, or judged to be without artistic, literary, or scientific value

These standards may be helpful to an extent, but they are extremely difficult to apply in any objective way.

For one thing, standards vary from community to community and judgments about the artistic or literary value of material cannot be made by the use of a simple formula.

Whereas hard core pornography is understood to be strictly for commercial use, with no pretense to artistic merit, works of art are sometimes claimed to be obscene despite the defense of artistic value.

Concerns About Pornography

Sex Crimes

Much of the controversy surrounding pornography is related to society's concern about how pornography affects people. One common worry is that the use of pornography promotes sex crimes and that sex offenders are avid consumers of obscene material.

Research, however, does not show any consistent pattern. Data from studies conducted in the 1970s and 1980s have consistently shown that the use of pornography is not related to an increase in sex crimes and that sex offenders in general have had significantly less exposure to pornography than non-offenders. Some later work in this area has not agreed with these earlier findings.

Another popular belief is that only perverted individuals would be interested in pornography. Findings from the historic Kinsey study showed that between 14 and 60 percent of females and between 36 and 77 percent of males were stimulated by viewing sexy movies, reading and hearing erotic stories, and viewing pictures, drawings or other portrayals of sexual activity. The Redbook survey (1974) reported that 60 percent of the 100,000 married women they surveyed had seen a pornographic movie, and 42 percent of these women had used pornography in their sexual practices at least occasionally.

When the magazine Psychology Today asked 20,000 readers whether they had ever used erotic material for arousal, 92 percent of the male respondents and 72 percent of the females reported that they had.

Exploting Women

Another important concern about pornography is that some types portray women in a degrading, dehumanizing and exploitive manner. And, in fact, men are done a disservice when they are portrayed as interested only in sex (the more unusual the better), always ready for sex (with extraordinary anatomy and endurance), but incapable of sensitivity and tenderness.

Some men may not object to this characterization, but most women do not appreciate the way some pornography depicts their gender as objects serving men.

Perhaps one reason why some pornography exploits women is because, throughout history, it has mainly been created by men for men. Erotic works from the Stone Age on reveal typical male sexual interests and fantasies, and depict various interpretations of the idealized woman.

It is principally for this reason that pornography has been assumed to arouse women less than it does men. But with the contemporary phenomenon of women creating pornography, the question arose of whether men and women respond differently to pornographic material.

Pornography Use

Pornography Materials Widely Used

In 1970, the U.S. Commission on Obscenity and Pornography conducted one of the few scientific interviews of adults in the U.S. regarding pornography. Eighty-four percent of the men and 69 percent of the women indicated that they had used such material at some time.

Finally, the tremendous popularity of magazines such as Playboy, Penthouse and Hustler provides undeniable testimony to the widespread use of erotica.

Furthermore, the U.S. Commission on Obscenity and Pornography reported that ordinary people did not change their types of sexual practice or values about what was acceptable as a result of viewing pornography.

It also reported that there was a general increase in sexual activity within the 24-hour period after viewing pornography, but it was generally with the regular partner, or in the case of those without a partner, masturbation.

It is noteworthy, however, that neither the Commission nor the authors of the other studies observed the effects of continuing exposure to pornography over a period of years. Thus it is not known what, if any, differences would be evidenced in the long run.

Male/Female Response to Pornography Comparable

Kinsey speculated that there could be some neurophysiological reason for a difference, but a West German research team studied the responses of men and women to pornography and found them to be comparable emotionally, physically and behaviorally.

Psychologist Julia Heiman's work found that there are both sex differences and other differences in responses, but women are not inherently less capable of responding to pornography. Women and men, she found, respond more to that which they like.

As with many issues, our society is not in agreement about the topic of pornography. Pornography is mass produced and widely available, yet is just as widely distrusted and condemned. We have laws against obscenity but cannot define it. We believe that somehow pornography is harmful, yet can find no evidence of harm.

On the one hand, our culture seems unable to satisfy its demand for pornography; on the other hand, many people believe it should be controlled in some way for the general good. It would most likely require a major cultural shift for society to feel comfortable about repealing all legislation against pornography. Equally, it would take as large a shift to enforce total prohibition. Ultimately, it is an individual's personal beliefs that determine what is acceptable and what is obscene.

Copyright 2002 Sinclair Intimacy Institute

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