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Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 269

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.

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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.

Erotica and Obscenity

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The only literature to focus on sexuality that critics have found acceptable is usually termed erotica and distinguished from pornography by being thought to be a serious treatment of sexuality, or at least a well-written treatment. Feminist author Erica Jong has said that whereas erotica is literature that celebrates the erotic nature of human beings, probing what is erotic in the human soul and mind artfully and dramatically, pornography has no artistic value, no artistic pretensions, and serves only as an aid to masturbation.

The problem is, however, that not all readers agree on how to distinguish between literature, which probes sexuality in an artful and dramatic way, and pornography, which exists merely to arouse one sexually.

To classify a work as pornography is, by the definition, to suggest that the work’s only purpose is to arouse one to sexual excitement, not to encourage one to contemplate and understand the nature of the universal human experience of sexuality. The original function of such writing (and pictures) on the walls of houses of prostitution in ancient Greece was to put clients in the mood for sexual activity. Thus, pornography has always been a genre of effect rather than one of contemplation. The problem that the courts have always had with such distinctions is how to determine what the author intended and how to identify what reader might be sexually aroused by the work. The most basic fear of the courts is that once a reader is sexually aroused by a written work, he (and it is usually assumed that only males are susceptible to such arousal) will be driven to assault someone sexually.

The word “obscenity,” from the Greek, means “off the scene” and originally referred to an action in classical drama that was presented offstage because of its shocking nature. Oedipus’ blinding himself with the broaches of his wife and mother Jocasta is such an act. The word has taken on a strictly legal meaning, reserved for a work that is, by law, forbidden to be published, distributed, or presented in public. Such banning is primarily typically the result of graphic sexual content. Thus, a written work might be classified as pornography because it may arouse someone sexually, but not obscene because it does not fit the current legal definition of that term. Although some readers may find graphic descriptions of violence obscene, the courts have not usually been concerned with such matters unless the violence involves sex. Depending on one’s point of view, erotica may be serious literature, well-written pornography, or trashy obscenity. The slippery nature of these terms explains why disagreement over what written works deserve First Amendment protection and what ones do not has a tortuous history.

The Feminist Debate on Pornography

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In the 1970’s sexually explicit writing was condemned and its censorship urged by influential feminist critics on the argument that pornography encourages mistreatment of women. Although this gender-specific characterization of pornography had been established earlier by literary critics, it was not until the feminist movement argued that the subject matter of pornography encouraged the abuse of women that it began to take on legal implications. Literary critic Norman Holland, in a study of pornography for the Commission on Obscenity and Pornography in 1968, argued that pornography embodies only two fantasies: male sexual pleasure and male sexual domination. In a well-known study, The Other Victorians (1966), Steven Marcus affirms what has historically always been thought to be the case—that pornography, which Marcus defines as the fantasy world of “pornotopia,” is a male world.

Based on this definition of the genre as gender-specific, feminist objections to pornography ranged from those who wished only to ban works that depict violence against women, to those who suggested that all sex actions between men and women, by nature, are degrading to women. The most vocal spokespersons for the extreme antiporn feminists have been novelist Andrea Dworkin and law professor Catharine A. MacKinnon, who have argued that pornography should be suppressed even if it does have serious literary or artistic value because of its focus on male domination of women. Dworkin and MacKinnon helped draft ordinances that defined pornography as “the graphic sexually explicit subordination of women.” However, the U.S. Supreme Court held an ordinance that the two feminists drafted as unconstitutional. Richard Posner, an appellate judge, argued that much of the world’s great literature portrays the subordination, often by force, of women by men, citing examples from the Bible, the Iliad (c. 800 b.c.), Paradise Lost (1667), and William Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew (c. 1593-1594). Posner argued that since literature is writing that survives over time, older literature may present values that modern readers may find offensive. Although the values in some works of literature may become so repulsive that the works will disappear from the body of literature, Posner argued, such a process should be left to the literary marketplace, not politicians, prosecutors, judges, and jurors. Posner concluded that if the only expression that the First Amendment protects is the expression of ideas and opinion, then much of literature would be left unprotected—a state of affairs that would be “a shocking contradiction of the First Amendment as it has come to be understood.”

Literature and Ideas and Feelings

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The effect on a reader of a so-called obscene passage is no different in its mechanism than the effect of a sublime or a sentimental passage. All three have the ability to break down critical detachment and directly involve the reader. Approval of one and disapproval of the other is based on a cultural distinction between those manifestations of desire that are given cultural approval and those that are not—not on an aesthetic distinction. Moreover, as Judge Posner reminded his readers in striking down the feminist-inspired ordinance against pornography, literature exists for other purposes than the expression of an opinion. It expresses hopes, fears, dreams, wishes, anxieties—in short, all that the human mind is capable of thinking and the human heart is capable of feeling.

Bibliography

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Books that focus on the aesthetic issue of the relationship between literature and pornography include Peter Michelson, The Aesthetics of Pornography (New York: Herder and Herder, 1971); Albert Mordell, The Erotic Motive in Literature (rev. ed. New York: Collier Books, 1962); John Atkins, Sex in Literature (4 vols. London: Calder and Boyars, Ltd., 1970-1982); Steven Marcus, The Other Victorians (New York: Basic Books, 1966); Michael Perkins, The Secret Record: Modern Erotic Literature (New York: William Morrow, 1976); The Perverse Imagination: Sexuality and Literary Culture, edited by Irving Buchen (New York: New York University Press, 1970); and Morse Peckham, Art and Pornography: An Experiment in Explanation (New York: Basic Books, 1969). Books that deal with the relationship between literature and the law include Felice Flanery Lewis, Literature, Obscenity, and Law (Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1976); Edward de Grazia, Girls Lean Back Everywhere: The Law of Obscenity and the Assault on Genius (New York: Random House, 1992); Richard Posner, Law and Literature: A Misunderstood Relation (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1988); and Charles Rembar, The End of Obscenity (New York: Random House, 1968). Books that deal with women and pornography include Angela Carter, The Sadeian Woman: And the Ideology of Pornography (New York: Pantheon Books, 1978); Susan Griffin, Pornography and Silence (New York: Harper & Row, 1981); Susanne Kappeler, The Pornography of Representation (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1986); Carol Avedon, Nudes, Prudes, and Attitudes: Pornography and Censorship (Cheltenham, England: New Clarion Press, 1994); Andrea Dworkin, Pornography: Men Possessing Women (New York: Perigee Books, 1981); Catharine MacKinnon, Only Words (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1993); Donald Alexander Downs, The New Politics of Pornography (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1989); Betty-Carol Sellen and Patricia A. Young, Feminists, Pornography, and the Law: An Annotated Bibliography of Conflict, 1970-1986 (Hamden, Conn.: Library Professional Publications, 1987); Marcia Pally, Sex and Sensibility: Reflections on Forbidden Mirrors and the Will to Censor (Hopewell, N.J.: Ecco Press, 1994).

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