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.

Sexuality and guilt

I was raised a Christian and most of my values are congruent with Judeo-Christian values, but one concept I’ve never bought into was Original Sin. Many Christians believe that we’re born into Sin and therefore require divine Redemption. I tend to distrust organized religions, as most of them seem to me to be rigid patriarchal hierarchies that claim the authority to be the only authentic interpreters of the ancient texts on which they’re based. Most teach that any sexual activity not sanctified (usually in heterosexual marriage) by their religion or sect is innately sinful. I believe that such teachings have fostered widespread sexual repression and shame in many cultures and have damaged a lot of lives. As a psychotherapist I worked with a lot of people who’d been taught that their sexual feelings were somehow innately sinful, and who felt guilty for perfectly normal sexual thoughts, especially if they acted on them.

“Normal” is a statistical concept, not a moral one. Homosexuality is only “abnormal” in the statistical sense. It’s a sexual variation, not a deviation, and occurs in every known culture. Among the people I worked with on sexual issues were people who thought they might be gay and were terrified by the prospect. Because of their education by homophobic role models in a sexually-repressed society, they didn’t want to be gay; but they felt what they felt. Sexual orientation isn’t a matter of choice. I’m happily heterosexual, but it’s not because I chose to be. It’s just  part of who I am. My brother is gay, and his sexual orientation wasn’t a matter of choice for him any more than mine was for me. I don’t think God condemns anyone for who they’re sexually attracted to.

Masturbation is undeniably a normal behavior. In fact, it’s quite popular. I believe that what somebody fantasizes about when he or she masturbates is their own business and nothing to feel guilty about – as long as it doesn’t lead to irresponsible, exploitive, coercive or violent sexual behavior. (For some sex offenders, masturbation can be a mental rehearsal for things they intend to do; and part of sex offender treatment involves their learning not to indulge in fantasies of criminal or exploitive sexual behavior.) And yet many good, decent people feel terribly guilty for sexual thoughts and fantasies that they would never act out, or even want to act out. The only bad thing about masturbation, as one of my cousins told his son after his ex-wife caught the boy in the act, is getting caught doing it.

Despite outward appearances we live in a sexually-repressed culture, where erotica is a guilty pleasure, nudity is inevitably sexualized, and the display of breasts is okay in advertising and commercial TV shows, as long as no nipples are exposed. I’m concerned about the effects of the widespread availability of porn to young people online; but it might be the inevitable backlash of societal sexual repression, enabled by capitalism and modern technology. I consider “reality TV” shows that attract viewers with the lure of nudity, but blur out the breasts and genitalia, to be more obscene than outright porn – because of their hypocrisy.

In my career I had to educate many people about the normality of their sexual thoughts and behaviors because few of them had received any meaningful sex education, either from their parents or at school. Many women told me that when they had their first period, they didn’t know what was happening. Gay, bisexual and transgender people were often in despair because society had labeled them as “deviants.” Sexual fetishes such as cross-dressing may not be normal in the statistical sense, but as long as such activities involve consensual acts, and nobody is coerced or violated, they aren’t blame-worthy.

One of my “standard raps” to clients who were fearful or guilt-ridden about their sexual predispositions went something like this: “I get it. You don’t want to be gay (bi/trans, etc.), but you feel what you feel. For the time being, there’s no pressing need for you to put a prefix on your sexuality. What we know is that you’re a sexual person, just like everyone else, and that’s okay. Maybe someday you’ll be able to identify a prefix that fits; but when you do that is up to you, not other people. Only you can know what’s in your heart of hearts. What’s important now is that you’re a sexually responsible person. That means you don’t take advantage of other people sexually, don’t have sex with children or other people incapable of giving consent, don’t coerce anybody to do things they don’t want to do, and practice safe sex. Nobody can put a label on your sexuality unless you give them that power. As long as you’re sexually responsible, you don’t have to justify your sexual identity to anyone.”

For me, the next stage of therapy with a person who responded, “But I can’t be gay!” was teaching rational thinking: “I know it’s tough being gay in this society, so I can understand your resistance to considering that you might be gay. But I invite you not to catastrophize. Good things still happen to gay people, things that couldn’t have happened without their knowing who they are. Being gay isn’t awful or terrible unless you make it awful or terrible by your thinking. And it’s better than living a lie.”

It’s my belief that people shouldn’t be judged or condemned for what they think and feel, but only for what they do. And yet a lot of sexually responsible people feel guilty about sexual feelings or fantasies they’ve had. My behavioral prescription for this, as with other self-judgments, is “Learn to distinguish your rational thoughts from your irrational thoughts.” As long as nobody was exploited or hurt, such guilty thoughts are almost always irrational.