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'Romans during the Decadence,' painting by Thomas Couture, 1847.

Connections: Shades of porn, shades of pleasure, shades of abuse

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By Tuesday, Feb 10, 2015 Life In the Berkshires

About Connections: Love it or hate it, history is a map. Those who hate history think it irrelevant; many who love history think it escapism. In truth, history is the clearest road map to how we got here: America in the twenty-first century.

In two days Fifty Shades of Grey will open in the Berkshires. Those making the announcement sound breathless with anticipation. Female announcers giggle with secret knowledge, and male announcers defer to them. They call Fifty Shades mommy porn — pornography written by a woman for women. While there is nothing new about erotica, it is new for it to be directed at a female audience.

Not everyone is celebrating the release. Some organizations have started a campaign to boycott the movie. Claiming all the tittering and snickering obscures the finer point that Fifty Shades is actually a movie glamorizing abuse. “The $50 campaign” asks: instead of spending money to see Fifty Shades, send 50 dollars to your local women’s shelter. “They need it; Hollywood doesn’t.” While there is nothing new about a campaign against erotica, it is new for the reason to be that porn is about the abuse of women.

The Comstock Laws — An Act for the Suppression of Trade in, and Circulation of, Obscene Literature and Articles of Immoral Use — were passed in1873. In political terms, the laws were intended to “stem physical, psychological, and moral decay.” Specifically the laws were regulatory: “The U.S. Mail will not carry obscene and immoral material and business transactions in such material will be prohibited.”

In order to criminalize it, a definition of pornography was required. Originally the word pornography (from the Greek) meant images of prostitutes. In 1843 the word was re-defined to mean “ancient obscene painting especially in the Temple of Bacchus.” Broadened to include all sexually explicit images, the definition was a key element in supporting the campaign against pornography that culminated in the Comstock Laws. The definition was broadened again and included any form of contraception because “these devises seemed to promote lust and lewdness.” The crusade against obscenity became a crusade against contraception and eventually Comstock was amended to include a ban on “disseminating information on abortions.

Later opponents of Comstock, like Margaret Sanger, would claim that laws against porn were used to suppress women.

Porn has always been with us but it was not always condemned. In Greece and Rome, art depicting sexual acts was incorporated into tapestries and frescos, and used as decoration on ceramics – commonly used objects such as jugs and urns. Sexual behavior was considered a normal part of everyday life. The art simply depicted daily life without any concept of obscenity. What we call pornography was for everyone.

In Egypt, the “Turin Erotic Papyrus” was considered the “men’s magazine” of its time. That may be our interpretation or perhaps sexual images were already being directed at a male audience. There is no question that by the nineteenth century, pornography was considered exclusively a male prerogative.

Unlike the 125 minute extravaganza that Fifty Shades promises to be, the first porn flick, made in 1897, was one minute long. Titled “After the Ball,” a woman disrobes with the help of her maid. She reveals only slightly more than a Victoria’s Secret or Sports Illustrated model does.

In the 21st century, is Fifty Shades porn? Should it be allowed to be a money-making block buster or should it be “banned in Boston”?

Pornography was always about images, and the invention of the camera created an urgent need for legislation. The camera was used for more than images of war; a lucrative business in sordid images developed during the Civil War. Concomitantly the campaign against proliferation of the images sprang up and culminated with the criminalization of porn in 1873. Regulating words followed. Obscenity laws are concerned with both: prohibiting lewd, filthy, or disgusting words or pictures.

The questions are: what is obscene and should the government decide? If it offends some should it be denied to all?

The laws today are state to state. In Virginia obscenity is “… that which, considered as a whole, has as its dominant theme or purpose an appeal to the prurient interest in sex, that is, a shameful or morbid interest in nudity, sexual conduct, sexual excitement, excretory functions or products thereof or sadomasochistic abuse, and which goes substantially beyond customary limits of candor in description or representation of such matters and which, taken as a whole, does not have serious literary, artistic, political or scientific value.”

Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart once stated (in Jacobellis v. Ohio) that he could not define obscenity but “I know it when I see it.”

Gloria Steinem said: “Sex is the Tabasco sauce that an adolescent national palate sprinkles on every dish on the menu.”

So is Fifty Shades a guilty pleasure or a perverse depiction of abuse? Is it seamy or steamy? Is it ugliness all dressed up by Hollywood in designer clothes or is beauty in the eye of the beholder? Is buying a ticket a political statement or merely a mindless evening out? To see it or not to see it: that is the question.


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