Monday, October 17, 2016

Obscenity Is a Mote in the Eye of the Beholder

Sacchi Green

"Obscene: offensive or outrageous to accepted standards of decency or modesty.”

I don’t believe in obscenity. I mean, I don’t believe it actually exists. How can you take seriously a concept that can only be defined by using other nebulous terms? “Offensive,” “outrageous,” “decency,” “modesty”—even “accepted standards”—are all imprecise concepts dependent on the fluctuating perceptions of individuals and groups. What’s considered obscene changes over time and differs with different cultures. We might as well say that obscenity is whatever we happen to think is “icky,” especially as it pertains to sex or, interestingly, to wealth. Once in a while the term is applied to unusually violent and bloody crime as well, but sex has by far the highest ‘ick” rating, with money a distant though substantial second. Food, in unusual abundance, merits the term occasionally, as an indulgence that like sex and wealth can be perceived as being greatly overdone.

Imprecise as it is, the term “obscene” has its uses. The legal use, in penalizing sexual art, literature, performance, etc., faces the difficulty of determining just what the “accepted” standards are at any given time in any given community, but that doesn’t stop the practice, which boils down to citing the standards of the most assertive and influential members of a community, or at least the standards they claim to support. The term is also useful for those who consider some levels of wealth to be obscene, but oddly enough there doesn’t seem to be any legal objection to obscene wealth.

For we erotica writers, the concept of obscenity is both a burden and a benefit. The burden is that our work may be denounced and suppressed if it’s judged to be obscene. The benefit is that there is, of course, always a fascination with over-the-top indulgence, and our fictional portrayals of what the stodgier elements of the population consider “icky” and even evil are relatively safe ways to indulge in sexual overindulgence. This fascination seems to extend to obscene levels of wealth, too, so much so that sex plus wealth seems to be a genre of its own these days, the most popular form of erotica, which makes sense since both sex (often) and wealth (always) are associated with power differentials. This is too bad for those of us who find immense wealth somewhat on the icky side, bit it’s certainly understandable.

There’s another side to this. Obscenity in both the legal sense and the seductively transgressive sense tends to focus on the lower levels of society which erotica writers are assumed to inhabit. Henry Miller wrote Tropic of Cancer based on his experiences in the struggling Bohemian culture of 1920s-1930s Paris, the book that brought the question of obscenity to the Supreme Court of the US in 1964, where it was eventually ruled not to be obscene. Literary worth aside, many readers prefer erotica to portray sex as earthy, crude, rough, down-and-dirty or however they imagine it to be in the lower reaches of society. If it’s called obscene, so much the better.

We middle-ground erotica writers may be at a disadvantage, but we take up the challenge of finding different ways to make sex as intense and fantasy-fulfilling as anything that might be called obscene. I wouldn’t mind having my writing called obscene, except, of course, if that would limit readers’ access to it, which does happen to far too many writers in spite of that 1964 Supreme Court decision. Of course few of us have Henry Miller’s talent, but the legality of erotic or pornographic writing doesn’t seem to obsess the courts these days. Suppressing it is now the pursuit of booksellers, chiefly Amazon, who do it so randomly that  there’s just no telling which works they’ll come down on, or why.

In fact, randomness has always been involved in classifying books or anything else as obscene, which makes sense, in a way, since how can there be any consistency in a concept  so subjective that it can’t even be defined without using terms just as imprecise? There is no “there” there, which is why I don’t believe that obscenity really exists, except in the eye of the beholder, and even then it can change with a blink of that eye.

(I tried to think of some excerpt from my own work that might come close to what most people would think of as obscenity, but I suspect that the only shock value my writing has is when I do public readings. I love it when I get to a particularly, shall we say, earthy passage, and there’s a collective gasp at hearing someone of my age and mundane appearance delivering words and images like that.)    

10 comments:

  1. One of the jobs of an erotica writer is to make the unacceptable acceptable.

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    1. On the other hand, sometimes our job is to ramp up the acceptable so that it satisfies those with a taste for the unacceptable.

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  2. I've seen a couple of contracts where I was asked to sign to certify that my work was not obscene, to which I said, WTF? I mean, I know there's a legal definition, but damned if I'm certain how my work fits into that.

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    1. I've seen that in contracts as well, and I interpret it as being part of a suite of CYA clauses: The author asserts that the work is not plagiarized. The author asserts that (s)he has the right to offer the work for publication. The author asserts that it isn't libelous. The author asserts that it isn't "obscene" (whatever that might mean). My sense, basically, is that all these things boil down to the publisher trying to establish that if any legal challenge should arise, the blame can be passed to the author.

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    2. But the difference, of course, is that it should be the publisher's job to know the content of what it's publishing, understand the legal lay of the land, and stand ready to defend a book against an unjust legal challenge by "obscenity" censors—rather than just saying, "Tell us your book isn't obscene, so we can blame you if someone says it is." I mean, it's not the same kind of thing as "the author has the right to offer the work for publication," where it's reasonable to put the burden of legality on the author, because how is the publisher supposed to determine that, other than by taking the author's word? But I do suspect these things just get lumped all together sometimes by the CYA inclined.

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  3. By the way, Sacchi, I neglected to say how much I loved your witty post title!

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    1. Jeremy, I always think of you when I'm searching my mind for titles for these posts, even though I usually come up empty.

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  4. Hi, Sacchi,

    Your post got me thinking about a speculative fiction tale in which obscene wealth really was viewed as obscene, from a legal perspective.

    Nobody would buy it, though. After all, without billionaires, who'd deflower the virgins? ;^)

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  5. Very true that obscenity is subjectively-defined. And certain sexual pairings (same-gender OR different-race or culture) that used to be considered unmentionable are now more-or-less mainstream.

    Yesterday a glimpse of stocking was looked at as something shocking, now heaven knows anything goes (from the song Anything Goes, Cole Porter).

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