Dionysus or Aphrodite? The Porn/Erotica Distinction, Prt. 2

In part 1 of this series we firmly established a useful linguistic categorization which well encapsulates and differentiates porn from erotica. Thus, it is now crucial to examine the ways which both forms of sexual expression are treated in contemporary America. Such a investigation cannot be conducted without first mentioning the landmark court case, Jacobellis v. Ohio. The case arose when Nico Jacobellis, a manager at the Cleveland Heights Art Theatre in Ohio, was convicted under state law of possessing and exhibiting a “obscene film.” The film in question was Louis Malle’s Les Amants (The Lovers, 1958), a fairly risque flick for the time which told the story of a young woman in a passionless marriage who seeks affection outside the sacral bonds of matrimony. The two most questionable scenes from the film are, respectively: a scene where the protagonist, whilst coupling with her secret lover gasps with increasing intensity as she climaxes (the camera shows us only her face) and (what was most shocking to 50s Americans) a half-second long female nipple shot. Gasp!

Les-Amants-Los-amantes-Louis-Malle
Poster of the erotic melodrama, Les Amants

Whilst that might sound incredibly tame by today’s standards it was quite the big deal, as was evidenced by the conviction of Mr. Jacobellis. One should recall that the Motion Picture Production Code of 1930 (Hays Code), The Catholic Church and their motion-picture monitoring group, The Legion of Decency, all held considerable social capital at the time (certainly far more than they do today). The Hays Code is far too lengthy to be here included in its entirety, however a sampling of sections relevant to our inquiry will help grant a modern viewer better insight into the social mores of The Fifties.

The Hayes Code as Regards Sexuality in Film:

  • Impure love must not be presented as attractive and beautiful.
  • It must not be the subject of comedy or farce, or treated as material for laughter.
  • It must not be presented in such a way to arouse passion or morbid curiosity on the part of the audience.
  • It must not be made to seem right and permissible.
  • In general, it must not be detailed in method and manner.
  • Dances suggesting or representing sexual actions or indecent passions are forbidden.
  • Sex perversion or any inference to it is forbidden.
  • [Rape and seduction] are never the proper subject for comedy.
  • Complete nudity is never permitted. This includes nudity in fact or in silhouette, or any lecherous or licentious notice thereof by other characters in the picture.
  • Miscegenation (sex relationships between the white and black races) is forbidden
  • The sanctity of the institution of marriage and the home shall be upheld. Pictures shall not infer that low forms of sex relationship are the accepted or common thing.

As one can not fail to observe, religious stricture and racial/tribal in-group loyalty are strongly at work within The Code. Curiously, these strictures failed against Jacobellis and his defender, Justice Potter Stewart who, upon finding the court opposed to censorship but failing to describe precisely why, declared,

“I shall not today attempt further to define the kinds of material I understand to be embraced within that shorthand description; and perhaps I could never succeed in intelligibly doing so. But I know it when I see it, and the motion picture involved in this case is not that.”

The case was subsequently overturned, the film (and Jacobellis) unscathed by proscription and all that follows with it. It was truly a landmark case, one which put the First Amendment front and center of all such related cases proceeding above any and all other prevailing social mores. These trends would only intensify post-Sexual Revolution; that is, both extreme deference to the First Amendment in place of a broader social contextualization and the continued inability to properly define Justice Stewart’s that.

It is precisely the that which Mr. Stewart was referring to that we are here attempting to get to the bottom of. It is, broadly speaking, the point at which a ostensibly public (generally artistic) depiction of sex “goes too far” and transgresses the collective’s moral orthodoxy. The fact that, not just moral orthodoxy, but social standards generally, have fractalized markedly since the sexual revolution (though there are some rollbacks – on that another time) only intensify the confusion surrounding discussions of the subject. However, one thing is quite clear, most American do not consider pornography to be a moral good which numerous studies have shown, such as the 2016 Statistica Poll, Americans’ moral stance towards pornography in 2016. The poll (see graph below) is fascinating; only 34% of Americans find porn morally acceptable, whereas 61 % find it morally wrong with a meager 4 % making up the remaining apathetic or undecided total.

Statistic_2016_StanceOnPornographyUS
Survey from Statistica, 2016

Now there are a plethora of such opinion polls, studies and surveys investigating America’s relationship to pornography but very little committed to erotica. This is primarily because there is very little effort made by most academics to powerfully differentiate the terms. This is a shame because it is absolutely essential to have a embedded descriptor for upward moving sexual art. If the same question would have been asked but in place of “pornography” the words “contemporary romance novels” was inserted (which can be, by and large classed as erotica) instead, I guarantee the results would be far more favorable towards the medium. For one might put a adult romance novel out of sight of ones children but in familiar company one is unlikely to blush (especially woman who make up the vast market share of the romance fiction industry) given the mediums fundamentally Aphroditic qualities. Yet these very same individuals would be aghast to have a friend walk in on them watching the Dionysian displays of “hard-core” pornography; there is a very potent distinction here which bares further elaboration, a inherent impulse, instinctual and deeply rooted understanding of what constitutes a healthy and socially conducive sexual-artistic fabric, even if it is masked by hypocrisy.

What hypocrisy? You might rightly ask. We’ll tackle that in part 3.


Jacobellis v. Ohio

The Hayes Code of 1930

Reviews of Les Amants: [1][2]

America’s Moral Stance Toward’s Pornography (Statistica, 2016)

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