"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.)