The word “literature” holds a respected place in human thought and is usually being reserved for written works that artistically reflect human concerns. If a written work focuses, however, on the human concern of sexuality, and if a work includes sexual acts described in graphic detail, and if a work is not considered artistic (serious or well-written), the work may be denied the honorific term “literature” and called pornography or obscenity instead. Such written works have often been characterized by lawmakers, courts, and law enforcement agencies as a threat to the common good.
A basic reason for legal decisions to prohibit the distribution of a book that focuses on sexuality in graphic detail is the assumption that “literature” and “pornography” are mutually exclusive terms. Literature is thought to be born of detachment and some sort of truth to observable reality; pornography is thought to create obsessive involvement and to appeal to unrestrained fantasy. The view of many psychologists and literary critics is that literature aims at the contemplation of experience and the revelation of its significance, but that the purpose of pornography is to give the reader a vicarious sexual experience. The basic presumption is that if a work of literature arouses one physically, it cannot also appeal to the intellect, the emotions, the spirit—all of which are required for the aesthetic and intellectual response generated by true literature. Underlying the Roth v. United States decision of 1957, which argues that all “ideas having the slightest redeeming social importance” have First Amendment protection, is the assumption that pornography does not contain or embody ideas; therefore, it cannot be literature.