Friday, October 14, 2016

Context, Culture and Other C Words

Carrying on from points made earlier in the week by others here, I find myself contemplating on those differences which separate the obscene from the decent.

This was actually an element we discussed briefly on a web video show I took part in recently, Spilling Ink. Our discussion was more about what constitutes “romance” and how it differs from “erotica”. (Spoiler alert if you do choose to watch the video… my shorthand definition is “whether it’s visual or verbal, if he has to hold her hair out of the way so we can see what’s happening… it’s erotica.”) Also note, we discussed a ton of stuff OTHER than that. It runs for around an hour. And I look tired all the way through!

Anyway, back to the discussion itself… While obscenity has a dictionary definition which could indicate there’s a clear and universal line which separates the obscene from the decent, clearly that’s only a theoretical line. What’s obscene to one person is as delightful as hell to another, and there are so many elements which contribute to that. Far more than I could even attempt to tackle.

So I’ll look at it briefly from a cultural and geographical point of view.

I’ve recently returned from a three-week family vacation in the United States. What possessed us to travel during the increasingly fervent buildup to an election I can’t really say (and there’s more than enough material in any country’s election season to fuel a blog about obscenity, for sure!)

I bring up the vacation, though, because it reminded me of how different Australia and the US are in some aspects. I noticed the same phenomenon twenty years ago when traveling through the UK and Europe. Essentially, free-to-air TV shows us where different cultures draw that line which marks “abandon decency all ye who enter here… and especially here”.

Back in 1995-96, there were two words you simply couldn’t say on Australian TV without at least throwing up massive warnings before the show aired. Of course, they were “fuck” and “cunt”, which are, to me, the two most effective swearies in existence. They have a visceral quality due to their brevity and the guts-deep release you can get from shouting either, or both, of them. I find neither word to be obscene, but of course, many others do. We could also bang on at length about context (I have no problem hearing or saying the words when I’m with friends, but I would never say them to my kids, for example). But I digress, as is my wont.

Anyway, back then in the mid-90s, we could see pretty much all the rude bits on Aussie TV. Even an occasion peen (soft serve, of course). But we couldn’t hear those two words. Of course, we could see all kinds of violence, because we all know that axes in heads is nowhere near as dangerous as nipples on breasts…

I found the opposite to be true at that time of British TV. We could hear every word under the sun but in the time I was there, not a single butt crack or boobie, from memory. And never the peen shall meet.

My recent trip to the States yielded a strange blend of those two. Well, not so much a strange blend, as the absolute safest version of both parts. We couldn’t hear many swearies, and we couldn’t see any nudies. I hasten to add that we were staying in hotels for the most part, where I figure it’s entirely possible they only play selected (and censored) channels. When I stayed with Katie Salidas at her house in Vegas, we barely watched TV, so I don’t pretend to be an all-knowing, all-seeing oracle on this matter. I just found it interesting how limited the general access was to potentially obscene material. Nowadays, here in Australia, you can hear all the words. Even the instance of the word “cunt” from Silence of the Lambs was allowed through. And we can still see all the glorious bits.

Another part of the discussion in our video up there, and which has some bearing here, is the separation of “nudity” from “sexuality”. I’ve been a tad silly and playful about butts, boobies and peepees in here, of course, but we all know it’s entirely possible to be naked without it having anything to do with sex at all. Most of our Western cultures now seem to equate one with the other, and allow for nothing in between. If you’re naked, or even if you’re merely showing a little flesh, then the ONLY answer is that you’re trying to seduce. Look at the furore over public breast-feeding in recent years. If ever there’s a time a boobie is non-sexual, that really has to be it. Yet folks still find it obscene.

Oh, and then there’s France… 


  1. Ever notice how many of our 'off color' words are 'U' or 'oo' sounds. Fuck, cunt, boob, hump, nude, tush, tool, butt, huuuuge, ubiquitous.

    Just kidding about that last one. ;>)

  2. On the subject of nakedness, I recall reading a statement somewhere a long time ago that the performers in, say, burlesque or Las Vegas acts who were more or less clothed were paid more than those who were pretty much naked, because it took more talent to be sexy clothed.

  3. Your assessment is right, Willsin. Outside of paid TV (like HBO and showtime), US TV is very restricted as far as both words and images.

    One note, though, is that I think the relative significance of certain curse words varies by country.

    For example, I get the sense that British people say "cunt" fairly casually as a curse word.

    On the other hand, while I say "cunt" in my erotica to refer to female anatomy, and I say it aloud for the same purpose, I have never, and I don't think I would ever, call anyone that—it just seems too horrible as an insult. I don't think that's an unusual way for an American woman to feel. On the other hand, that seems different from the way British people see the word.

  4. The US has never really escaped its Puritan roots. It's rather sad. The Brits, on the other hand, seem to have a rather playful attitude toward sex and smut, as personified by Victoria Blisse's "Smut by the Sea" and similar events. I remember a discussion we had on the TotallyBound author list, years ago, about the word "raunchy". TB (which is a British company) wanted to use the label as part of a rating system. Some American authors objected strenuously, saying the word had a really negative connotation in American English. For the British authors, it was a much more light-hearted word.

    As for Australians... well I have no experience!


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