What is obscene?

My Webster’s Dictionary uses the following adjectives (among others) to characterize the essence of “obscenity”: foul, filthy, repulsive and disgusting. As a philosopher, I have to ask, “offensive/repulsive/disgusting to whom? Walt Kelly – creator of the Pogo comic strip – wrote, “One man’s obscenity might be another man’s lunch.”

What is obscene to you depends on your values, and perhaps the cultural norms you were raised under. It depends on what offends you as an individual or, some would say, what excites you in a way that makes you feel guilty. It’s been said that obscenity is whatever gives the judge an erection. Traditionally in our culture, obscenity refers to depictions (or descriptions) of sexual acts, but not to violent acts such as beatings, torture, murder, or explosions. This is due to the sexual repression that is deeply-rooted in our society, as exemplified by our collective fetish with  women’s breasts – as long as the nipples are covered. It isn’t like that in Europe. “Reality TV” shows that feature naked people with their “naughty bits” digitally blurred are especially obscene, to me.

Some Americans consider full frontal nudity (aside, perhaps, from the fine arts) to be obscene in itself, and many more consider any explicit depiction of sexual activity to be obscene, or pornographic. This is often rooted in repressive religious traditions that venerate birth, but characterize sexual pleasure as inherently sinful. And the aftermath of female ovulation, to which we all owe our lives, is regarded as “unclean” and/or shameful in many cultures. Clearly, things that are regarded as obscene are things that elicit visceral responses, whether lust or disgust.

When I was a young man, I introduced my parents to the concept of “obscene wealth.” It had never occurred to them that being extremely wealthy, while those around you are starving, could be regarded as an obscenity; but they eventually understood my reasoning. They had a harder time grasping the notion that violence, not sex, should be regarded as obscene. No consensual sexual act is obscene in the way rape and sexual molestation (a subset of rape, not a different thing) are obscene.

The concept of  a “right to privacy” is a fairly recent social innovation. For most of human history, privacy only existed for the privileged few. Most people who have ever lived grew up witnessing sexual acts as a part of daily life. The concept of sexual acts as intrinsically obscene is a culture-bound convention, rooted in patriarchal religious dogma.

Although I honor the soldier’s profession and served in the Army, I consider war to be an obscenity. I consider torture, rape and sexual exploitation obscene. I consider slavery, extreme economic exploitation, race hatred, human trafficking and ethnic cleansing obscene. And I consider some pornography to be obscene, if it normalizes sexual exploitation or degradation. Depictions of sexual and/or violent activity may arouse or disgust us. We don’t have to apologize to anyone for our reflexive visceral responses, only for bad behavior. (As a therapist, I encountered quite a few people who felt frightened or guilty about having felt aroused by something unexpectedly, or by something their religion told them it was sinful to be aroused by.) It’s been said that ugliness is as compelling as beauty; and ugliness, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder.

It was Lenny Bruce who educated me about obscenity. He took standup comedy in new directions, exposing sexual hypocrisy in ways  that no other comedian had ever done. He once tried to  explain his act to his trial judge, who then found him guilty of the crime of obscenity. When I was home, on furlough from the military academy I attended, my mother and I would have late night discussions on a variety of topics – even sex. (Mom was always more comfortable than Dad, talking to her kids about sex.) During one discussion, I made an observation about our society’s sexual repression. Mom said that she thought our society was obsessed with sex, to which I replied that obsession and repression are opposite sides of the same coin. We’re obsessed with breasts, but a woman can be arrested for “indecent exposure” if she exposes her nipples in public.

Then I made the point that there’s no “respectable” action verb in English for the sex act. We use circumlocutions such as “have sexual intercourse with.” She got my point, and we both knew we were talking around “the f-word.” I had recently read The Essential Lenny Bruce, and I talked about how he’d gotten arrested for using the word “fuck” onstage. Having just made the point that there’s no acceptable  word for the sex act, I thought I could actually use the word, in this context. I was wrong. Mom was shocked. End of conversation.

Although my father could be quite profane, he never cursed in front of Mom, and profanity was forbidden in the house. The next morning, I got a stern lecture from Dad, and he made it perfectly clear that I was never to use the f-word in front of my mother again. And I never did.

Flash forward twenty years. The whole family were avid SCRABBLE players, and after we three siblings were on our own, Mom and Dad played even more frequently. Dad joked that SCRABBLE had replaced sex in their marriage. “We do it every Wednesday, and sometimes twice on Saturday!” On one visit to their home, I was sitting at the table with both of them, and Dad asked me if I remembered the night I’d said the f-word in front of Mom. I told him that I did, and assured him that I’d never done it again. He grinned and said, “She used “fuck” playing SCRABBLE recently.” Mom looked sheepish and said, “It was the only way I could get my “k” on a double-letter score!”

Motivation affects perception, and obscenity is in the eye of the beholder.

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