I know it when I see it.
— Justice Potter Stewart, concurring opinion in Jacobellis v. Ohio 378 U.S. 184 (1964), regarding possible obscenity in the 1958 film The Lovers.
The film in question, The Lovers (1958) is rated at 100% on Rotten Tomatoes and is described in Wikipedia as:
The Lovers (Les Amants) is a 1958 French film about adultery and rediscovering human love, directed by Louis Malle and starring Jeanne Moreau. It was Malle's second feature film, made when he was 25 years old. The film was a box office hit in France when released theatrically gaining 2,594,160 Admissions in France alone. The film was highly controversial for its depiction of allegedly obscene material when released in America.
The complete quote of Justine Stewart made during this 1964 trial was:
I shall not today attempt further to define the kinds of material I understand to be embraced within that shorthand description ["hard-core pornography"]; and perhaps I could never succeed in intelligibly doing so. But I know it when I see it, and the motion picture involved in this case is not that.
What is pornography?
Wikipedia defines the word pornography as:
Pornography or porn is the portrayal of explicit sexual subject matter for the purposes of sexual excitement and erotic satisfaction.
Wikipedia defines the word erotica as:
Erotica are works of art, including literature, photography, film, sculpture and painting, that deal substantively with erotically stimulating or sexually arousing descriptions. The term is a modern word that describes the portrayal of the human anatomy and sexuality with high-art aspirations, differentiating such work from commercial pornography.
Princeton University's WordNet gives the same definition for both pornography and erotica:
pornography, porno, porn, erotica, smut:
creative activity (writing or pictures or films etc.) of no literary or artistic value other than to stimulate sexual desire
PBS: Frontline: American Porn
PBS produced a investigative television series on pornography in 2002. On the web site, you find the TV show and various related source materials including the following:
The Definition of Pornography by Joseph W. Slade
excerpted from Pornography in America: A Reference Handbook by Joseph W. Slade (2000)
Pornography" (or "porn") usually refers to representations designed to arouse and give sexual pleasure to those who read, see, hear, or handle them. Although sexual stimulation would seem to be a splendid goal, it is not always so regarded in a society still characterized as puritanical... the confusion [of misinformation] seems a deliberate means of demonizing enemies, achieving political advantage...
...the meaning of the term pornographic constantly shifts along a vast continuum moving between two equally slippery concepts, the erotic and the obscene. An erotic representation is usually considered socially acceptable... "Eroticism," says [Al] Goldstein, "is what turns me on. Pornography is what turns you on."
The problem, of course, is that not everyone uses the same measurements. Some Americans believe that sex is a necessary evil, sanctioned only by marriage for purposes of reproduction, and condemn sexual representations under any circumstances.
For most Americans, pornography means peep shows, striptease, live sex acts, hardcore videos, adult cable programming, sexual aids and devices, explicit telephone and computer messages, adult magazines, and raunchy fiction. Conservatives might add prime-time television programming, soap operas, Music Television (MTV) and rock music, romance novels, fashion magazines, and all R-rated movies. Conflating sexuality and violence leads some critics to think of sexual representations as inherently aggressive. Others, noticing that most sexual representations contain no violence, condemn only those examples that mix the two. As Walter Kendrick has pointed out, pornography is not a thing but an argument.
To avoid contentiousness, some theorists prefer a neutral term such as sexual materials over the charged word pornography. In any case, only a few things seem clear. First, what seems pornographic to one person will not necessarily seem so to another. Second, pornography is not monolithic: representation occurs in many media, and it adopts many forms and genres. Third, no group, gendered or otherwise, has a monopoly on sexual expression or representation. Fourth, our social, esthetic, political, legal, and economic attitudes toward pornography both affect and draw on complex responses to gender and sexuality. Fifth, pornography, an attempt at communication, conveys a host of messages, many of them contradictory. Some of those messages, in fact, are ancient.
It's not that simple
I know it when I see it. It may seem that simple at first glance but the further one delves into the question of defining what is acceptable and what is not acceptable, one realises that the subjective nature of the assessment is very much tied to the individual doing the defining. One man's pornography is another man's art... or innocuous pleasure.
Tied to this whole question of defining what's acceptable and what's not acceptable is censorship: who gets to decide what we can see or not see. Who's in power: a liberal or a conservative? What we are permitted to see is very much a part of who governs us. Censorship is a slippery slope. Once you start, where do you stop? As someone so aptly pointed out, if you don't like it, turn off your television. Speaking about television, in my blog Censorship: Kill me but no sex please I point out the unbelievable amount of violence that children see on television.
The average child will watch 8,000 murders on TV before finishing elementary school. By age eighteen, the average American has seen 200,000 acts of violence on TV, including 40,000 murders.
- Norman Herr, Professor of Science Education, California State University
It is odd that so many feel anything relating to sex is harmful but seem unconcerned with the above statistics. In the film The Expendables, I watched a man get covered in gasoline then set on fire. In the film Machete, I watched a man be decapitated. Gawd forbid I should see a cumshot.
The word pornography
Joseph Slade said quite rightly that some theorists prefer a neutral term such as sexual materials over the charged word pornography. The word itself is imbued with so many negative connotations just as with many things sexual that the mere use of the word is to immediately condemn any such material. We have another obstacle to dealing both with the issue of pornography and the issue of our own sexuality.
The quick fix
If we ban pornography, it will go away. Ah, but will it? Prohibition failed to rid us of alcohol. Stopping smoking in public places hasn't done away with cigarettes. Outlawing abortions in some countries has not stopped people seeking them. It is obvious that banning something doesn't stop it, it merely pushes it underground. Have we therefore dealt with the underlying issue?
Feminists for Free Expression
The Advisory Board included such names as Betty Friedan (1921-2006), Erica Jong and Nadine Strossen.
Feminists for Free Expression, a not-for-profit organization, was founded in January 1992 in response to the many efforts to solve society's problems by book, movie or music banning. FFE believes such efforts divert attention from the substantive causes of social ills and offer a cosmetic, dangerous "quick fix."
What is acceptable and what is not acceptable is subjective; very subjective. History gives us a list of literary works which were considered bad if not pornographic at one time. Lady Chatterley's Lover by D. H. Lawrence was banned until 1960 in Great Britain and until 1959 in the United States. The Catcher in the Rye by J. D. Salinger has had its ups and downs. Even a modern work like the Harry Potter series has come under fire (Christian Censorship of Harry Potter). Where do you stop?
We as a society, as a culture are so "hung up" about sex; we are puritanical. We can't talk about it; we can't face up to it. We hide it. As a consequence we do not deal with the issue; we sweep it under the rug in the hopes it will just go away. However the issue of pornography will not go away as the issue of pornography is actually the issue of our own sexuality. Until we come to terms with that part of our being; we will always be faced with this issue.
Pornography? I know it when I see it. Well, that depends on who's talking.
Pornography: My investigative series
Wikipedia: Internet Pornography
PBS: Frontline: American Porn
investigative report 2002
PBS: video of the above