The examples and perspective in this article deal primarily with the English-speaking world and do not represent a worldwide view of the subject. (June 2012) (Learn how and when to remove this template message)
An obscenity is any utterance or act that strongly offends the prevalent morality of the time. It is derived from the Latin obscaena (offstage) a cognate of the Ancient Greek root skene, because some potentially offensive content, such as murder or sex, was depicted offstage in classical drama. The word can be used to indicate a strong moral repugnance, in expressions such as "obscene profits" or "the obscenity of war".
In the United States of America, issues of obscenity raise issues of limitations on the freedom of speech and of the press, which are otherwise protected by the First Amendment to the Constitution of the United States.
Federal obscenity law in the U.S. is unusual in that there is no uniform national standard. Former Justice Potter Stewart of the Supreme Court of the United States, in attempting to classify what material constituted exactly "what is obscene," famously wrote, "I shall not today attempt further to define the kinds of material I understand to be embraced ... [b]ut I know it when I see it...." In the United States, the 1973 ruling of the Supreme Court of the United States in Miller v. California established a three-tiered test to determine what was obscene--and thus not protected, versus what was merely erotic and thus protected by the First Amendment.
Delivering the opinion of the court, Chief Justice Warren Burger wrote:
While most recent (2016) obscenity cases in the United States have revolved around images and films, the first obscenity cases dealt with textual works.
The classification of "obscene" and thus illegal for production and distribution has been judged on printed text-only stories starting with "Dunlop v. U.S., 165 U.S. 486 (1897)", which upheld a conviction for mailing and delivery of a newspaper called the 'Chicago Dispatch,' containing "obscene, lewd, lascivious, and indecent materials", which was later upheld in several cases. One of these was "A Book Named John Cleland's Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure" v. Attorney General of Com. of Massachusetts, "383 U.S. 413 (1966)" wherein the book "Fanny Hill", written by John Cleland c. 1760, was judged to be obscene in a proceeding that put the book itself on trial rather than its publisher. Another was "Kaplan v. California, 413 U.S. 115 (1973)" whereby the court most famously determined that "Obscene material in book form is not entitled to any First Amendment protection merely because it has no pictorial content."
In 2005, the U.S. Department of Justice formed the Obscenity Prosecution Task Force in a push to prosecute obscenity cases. Red Rose Stories, a site dedicated to text-only fantasy stories, became one of many sites targeted by the FBI for shutdown. The government alleged that Red Rose Stories contained depictions of child rape. The publisher pleaded guilty. Extreme pornographer Max Hardcore served 30 months of a 46-month prison sentence for obscenity.
Many U.S. states have had bans on the sale of sex toys, regulating them as obscene devices. Some states have seen their sex toy bans ruled unconstitutional in the courts. That ruling leaves only Mississippi, Alabama, and Virginia with current bans on the sale of obscene devices.
Literature (non-fiction) communicating contraceptive information was prohibited by several states. The last such prohibition, in Connecticut, was overturned judicially in 1965.
Standards superseded by the Miller Test include:
FCC rules and federal law govern obscenity in broadcast media. Many historically important works have been described as obscene or prosecuted under obscenity laws, including the works of Charles Baudelaire, Lenny Bruce, William S. Burroughs, Allen Ginsberg, James Joyce, D. H. Lawrence, Henry Miller, Samuel Beckett, and the Marquis de Sade.
Obscenity law has been criticized in the following areas:
Obscenity laws remain enforceable under Miller despite these criticisms. Some states have passed laws mandating censorship in schools, universities, and libraries even if they are not receiving government aid that would require censorship in these institutions. These include Arizona, Kentucky, Michigan, Minnesota, South Carolina, and Tennessee. Twenty more states were considering such legislation in 2001-2002.
Child pornography refers to images or films (also known as child abuse images)--or in some cases, writings--that depict sexually explicit activities involving a child; as such, child pornography is a record of child sexual abuse. Abuse of the child occurs during the sexual acts that are recorded in the production of child pornography, and several professors of psychology state that memories of the abuse are maintained as long as visual records exist, are accessed, and are "exploited perversely."
In New York v. Ferber, 458 U.S. 747 (1982), the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that child pornography need not be legally obscene in order to be outlawed. The Court ruled that in contrast to the types of images considered in Miller, images that depicted underlying harm to children need not appeal to "the prurient interest of the average person," portray sexual conduct in "a patently offensive manner," nor be considered holistically, in order to be proscribed. Another difference between U.S. constitutional law concerning obscenity and that governing child pornography is that the Supreme Court ruled in Stanley v. Georgia, 394 U.S. 557 (1969), that possession of obscene material could not be criminalized, while in Osborne v. Ohio, 495 U.S. 103 (1990), the high court ruled that possession of child pornography could be criminalized. The reason was that the motive for criminalizing child pornography possession was "to destroy a market for the exploitative use of children" rather than to prevent the material from poisoning the minds of its viewers. The three dissenting justices in that case argued, "While the sexual exploitation of children is undoubtedly a serious problem, Ohio may employ other weapons to combat it."
This is most notably shown with the "X" rating under which some films are categorized. The most notable films given an "X" rating were Deep Throat (1972) and The Devil in Miss Jones (1973). These films show explicit, non-simulated, penetrative sex that was presented as part of a reasonable plot with respectable production values. Some state authorities issued injunctions against such films to protect "local community standards"; in New York, the print of Deep Throat was seized mid-run, and the film's exhibitors were found guilty of promoting obscenity. According to the documentary This Film Is Not Yet Rated, films that include gay sex (even if implied) or female pleasure have been more harshly censored than their heterosexual, male counterparts. The Motion Picture Association of America> (MPAA) issues ratings for motion pictures exhibited and distributed commercially to the public in the United States; the ratings are issued through the Classification and Rating Administration (CARA). The intent of the rating system is to provide information about the content of motion pictures so parents can determine whether an individual motion picture is suitable for viewing by their children.
In the United Kingdom, the Obscene Publications Acts sets the criteria for what material is allowed to be publicly accessed and distributed.
Sex crime has generated particular concern. In 1976 the BBFC claimed that, in that year, it had viewed 58 films depicting "explicit rape", declaring scenes that glorified it as "obscene". As opposed to questions of "indecency", which have been applied to sexual explicitness, films charged with being obscene have been viewed as having "a tendency to deprave and corrupt" and been liable to prosecution.
Obscenity law in England and Wales is currently governed by the Obscene Publications Act, but obscenity law goes back much further into the English common law. The conviction in 1727 of Edmund Curll for the publication of Venus in the Cloister or the Nun in her Smock under the common law offence of disturbing the peace appears to be the first conviction for obscenity in the United Kingdom, and set a legal precedent for other convictions. These common law ideas of obscenity formed the original basis of obscenity law in other common law countries, such as the United States.
For visual works of art the main obscenity law in England and Wales was, until the 1960s, the Vagrancy Act 1838 which was successfully used in prosecutions against D.H. Lawrence for an exhibition of his paintings at the Warren Gallery, London, in 1929, and in 1966 against the British artist Stass Paraskos for an exhibition of his paintings held that year in the northern English city of Leeds. Parts of the Act were repealed shortly after the Paraskos trial and it has rarely been used since in relation to visual art.
The Obscene Publications act is notoriously vague, defining obscenity as material likely to "deprave and corrupt". The 1959 act was passed just as most Western countries were about to enter a new phase of sexual freedom. The trial of Penguin Books over Lady Chatterley's Lover in 1960 failed to secure a conviction and the conviction in the 1971 trial of Oz magazine was overturned on appeal. An attempt to prosecute the University of Central England in 1997 over a copy of a library book by Robert Mapplethorpe was abandoned amidst derision from academics and the media.
During the 1960s and 1970s most Western countries legalised hardcore pornography. By the 1980s the UK was almost the only liberal democracy where the sale of hardcore pornography was still completely illegal, although ownership was not a criminal offence (except child pornography). Home videotape was a booming market and it was relatively simple for individuals to smuggle hardcore material in from Europe or the United States, where it had been purchased legally, either for personal use or to copy it for distribution. This resulted in a considerable black market of poor quality videotapes. Meanwhile, people attempting to buy pornography legally would often be stuck with heavily censored R18 certificate material.
While the authorities did their best to stay on top of illegal pornography they found that juries, while not particularly liking the material, were reluctant to convict defendants where the material was intended for private use among consenting adults. During the 1990s the advent of the internet made it easier than ever before for British citizens to access hardcore material. Finally, in 2000, following the dismissal of a test case brought by the BBFC, hardcore pornography was effectively legalised, subject to certain conditions and licensing restrictions. It is still an offence to sell obscene material by mail order.
After 1984 videotape sellers were more likely to be prosecuted under the Video Recordings Act rather than the OPA. The VRA requires that all videos must have a certificate from the BBFC. If the BBFC refuses a certificate a video is effectively banned for home viewing, but not necessarily in the cinema. Four films that were originally refused a certificate, The Exorcist, Straw Dogs, The Evil Dead and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre were granted a certificate in the late 1990s and have subsequently been screened on mainstream television.
In New Zealand, screening of Deep Throat (1972) was only cleared in 1986. However, the film has not been screened because the only cinema that has tried to organize a screening was thwarted by the city council that owned the building's lease.
Section 163 of the Canadian Criminal Code provides the country's legal definition of "obscenity". Officially termed as "Offences Tending to Corrupt Morals", the Canadian prohibited class of articles that are to be legally included as "obscene things" is very broad, including text-only written material, pictures, models (including statues), records or "any other thing whatsoever"--that according to Section 163(8)—has "a dominant characteristic of the publication is the undue exploitation of sex, or the combination of sex and at least one of crime, horror, cruelty or violence" is deemed to be "obscene" under the current law. 
The current law states
163. (1) Every one commits an offense who
"Crime comics" are stated to be books that glorify criminal activities and have at least one depiction of such criminal actions of the book's text.
The Canada Border Services Agency seizes items it labels obscene.
In February 2009, citing its Policy On The Classification Of Obscene Material, the CBSA banned two Lucas Entertainment films because they show the "ingestion of someone else's urine... with a sexual purpose".
Ever since 1940, in the Title VI of the Penal Code, naming crimes against sexual dignity (until 2009 crimes against social conventions), the fourth chapter is dedicated to a crime named "public outrage related to modesty" (Portuguese: ultraje público ao pudor, pronounced [uw't?a?i 'publikw aw pu'do?]).
It is composed of two articles, Art. 233 "Obscene Act", "to practice an obscene act in a public place, or open or exposed to the public", punished with arrest of 3 months to 1 year or a fine; and Art. 234 "Obscene Written Piece or Object", to do, import, export, purchase or have in one's property, to ends of trade, distribution or public display, any written, drew, painted, stamped or object piece of obscenity, punished with arrest of 6 months to 1 years or a fine.
Criticism to the legislation have included:
It is often used against people who expose their nude bodies in public environments that were not warranted a license to cater to the demographic interested in such practice (the first such place was the Praia do Abricó in Rio de Janeiro, in 1994), even if no sexual action took place, and it may include for example a double standard for the chest area of women and men in which only women are penalized. Such a thing took place in FEMEN protests in São Paulo, in 2012.
In 2017 the Supreme Court in South Korea ruled that an image of unclothed male genitalia is obscene if not contextualized in a cultural, artistic, medical or educational setting.
Various countries have different standings on the types of materials that they as legal bodies permit their citizens to have access to and disseminate among their local populations. The set of these countries' permissible content vary widely accordingly with some having extreme punishment up to and including execution for members who violate their restrictions, as in the case of Iran where the current laws against pornography now include death sentences for those convicted of producing pornography.
In India the Obscenity law is the same as had been framed by the British Government. Charges of obscenity have been levelled against various writers and poets till date; the law has not yet been revised. The famous trials relate to the Hungryalists who were arrested and prosecuted in the 1960s.
Child pornography is part of the violent continuum of child sexual abuse
'Child pornography is not pornography in any real sense; simply the evidence recorded on film or video tape - of serious sexual assaults on young children' (Tate, 1992, p.203) ... 'Every piece of child pornography, therefore, is a record of the sexual use/abuse of the children involved.' Kelly and Scott (1993, p. 116) ... '...the record of the systematic rape, abuse, and torture of children on film and photograph, and other electronic means.' Edwards(2000, p.1)
Because the children depicted in child pornography are often shown while engaged in sexual activity with adults or other children,they are first and foremost victims of child sexual abuse.
The children portrayed in child pornography are first victimized when their abuse is perpetrated and recorded. They are further victimized each time that record is accessed.
...supplying the material to meet this demand results in the further abuse of children. Pictures, films and videos function as a permanent record of the original sexual abuse. Consequently, memories of the trauma and abuse are maintained as long as the record exists. Victims filmed and photographed many years ago will nevertheless be aware throughout their lifetimes that their childhood victimization continues to be exploited perversely.