The word "pornography" means "the writing of prostitutes." The word comes from the way prostitutes advertised their services by writing their names and addresses on walls in ancient Rome and Greece. Pornography refers to any picture or writing that is meant to be sexually arousing. To many people, pornography is offensive and indecent. However, some people distinguish between pornography and erotica, which are sexually arousing pictures or writings that do not offend the average consumer.
"Soft-core" pornography is also distinguished from "hard-core" pornography. Soft-core pornography depicts naked bodies, including genitals, and limited sexual activity. Hard-core pornography depicts sexual intercourse and sex organs more graphically and more exclusively. It may also include violent sexual acts or other unusual behavior, such as sex with animals. Hard-core pornography is more likely to be considered obscene.
Although the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution protects the right of free speech, the U.S. Supreme Court has always stated that obscenity is not protected because obscenity is not speech. Over the years, the Supreme Court has struggled to define obscenity.
In the 1973 case of Miller v. California, the U.S. Supreme Court issued a legal definition of obscenity, which is the standard still used today. The court found that a writing or picture, when taken as a whole, is legally obscene if:
• it appeals to a prurient—lascivious or lustful—interest in sex
• it offends the standards of the community in which it appears
• it has no serious literary, artistic, political, educational, or scientific value
If materials are legally obscene, then laws that ban their sale can be constitutionally upheld. In 1969, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that a person could privately possess obscene material without committing a crime. But in 1990, the court ruled that private possession of child pornography is illegal and is not protected by the US. Constitution. Child pornography depicts children in sexual poses or engaged in sexual activity.
This controversy concerning whether sexually explicit material can be banned grows out of the 1873 Comstock Act that made it illegal to transmit any "obscene, lewd, lascivious, indecently filthy, or vile article" through the U.S. mail. The censorship that Anthony Comstock imposed on American society has had long-lasting and far-reaching effects.
The Supreme Court definition of obscenity remains vague in many ways. It continues to be challenged by people who advocate complete, unrestricted freedom of speech, and it is challenged by people who want greater restrictions.
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