Porn, Erotica, and the Mystery of ‘Community Standards’

The government wants to ban porn. But does it even know how to define the ‘problem’?

Updated
Lifestyle
3 min read
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Before the government sets about trying to ban pornography, they need to figure something out.

What is pornography?

Does an explicit scene in Game of Thrones qualify? Do novels by great writers Haruki Murakami or Philip Roth with explicit, sometimes even disturbing descriptions of sex qualify?

Then there is the vast amount of acceptable ‘erotica’, from Fifty Shades of Grey to Penthouse Letters.

The standard definition of porn vis-a-vis erotica is that while the former is acceptable by community standards, the latter is not.

Sounds simple, right? Not so much.

When the British first saw the temples at Khajuraho, their pre-Victorian prudishness couldn’t deal with it. ‘Immoral heathens!’, they cried.

Erotic sculptures at the temple in Khajuraho. (Photo: iStock)
Erotic sculptures at the temple in Khajuraho. (Photo: iStock)

Don’t even get me started on what they thought of the shivalingam.

Sex, nudity and arousal have been depicted across cultures for the better part of human history. In ancient Greece and Rome, depictions of sex of all kinds, including orgies have found mention in religious texts, treatise and even in public art.

Pottery from Ancient Greece depicting a homosexual encounter. (Photo Courtesy: Wikimedia Commons)
Pottery from Ancient Greece depicting a homosexual encounter. (Photo Courtesy: Wikimedia Commons)

The Kamasutra, now popular around the world gives vivd descriptions (and instructions) of sexual intercourse.

So by the ‘community standards’ definition, people were pretty chilled out about the human body and all that you can get up to with it.

Things got a little more complicated around the French Revolution. The Marquis De Sade (that’s where ‘sadism’ comes from) wrote The 120 Days of Sodom, or the School of Libertinism in 1785. Other than being the first novel of its kind that delineated extremely deviant sexual escapades, it also blurred the lines between erotica and pornography.

Anti-aristocratic elements also began using porn to show ‘humiliating’ depictions of nobility.

With the invention of tools of mass production like the printing press, photographs and eventually film, pornography could now be mass produced. During World War I, soldiers resorted to pornographic photographs for sexual recreation and such photographs came into circulation majorly.

Governments though have continued to try and ban them on ’moral’ grounds.

Has mass media and the internet made porn a free for all? (Photo: iStock)
Has mass media and the internet made porn a free for all? (Photo: iStock)

Fast forward to the 20th century. Hugh Hefner (of Playboy) and perhaps more significantly, Larry Flynt (of Hustler) won cases in the US supreme court paving the way for the open and mass consumption of ‘adult content’.

And then came the internet and anyone could access porn privately, anonymously and for free.

So, does that mean that it’s a free for all now? Not at all. How many of us would look at porn at work, or even admit to it to our parents? Then of course, there are women and men who don’t find contemporary pornography all that appealing.

There are still ‘community standards’ when it comes to pornography. The question though, is whether the government should try and enforce them.

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