“I shall not today attempt further to define [obscenity]; and perhaps I could never succeed in intelligibly doing so. But I know it when I see it….”

That famous statement, uttered by the late Justice Potter Stewart in 1973 when faced with a case involving obscenity, illustrates the difficulty of trying to determine what constitutes obscene or pornographic content. The term “pornography” has no well-defined meaning, certainly no legal definition. And if a Supreme Court justice had trouble defining the nature of sexually explicit material, how easy is it for the rest of us—each of whom looks at the world in a different way? Lack of consensus is one reason the subject of pornography is such a contentious legal issue.

You Must Decide for Yourself
When it comes to judging content, your definition of what’s unacceptable, pornographic, or even damaging to your children might well differ from someone else’s. One parent might feel that exposure to violence is much more harmful to children than exposure to sexually explicit material. Another might believe that sexually explicit material poses a moral danger. Some feel it’s a matter of degree, others remain unsure. Furthermore, not everyone agrees on what material is sexually explicit.* A line drawing of a sexual organ in a medical textbook might be regarded differently than a photograph of the same organ in an adult magazine.

Even if the distinction were made between extremely sexually explicit imagery and, say, responsible information on sexual health, there are ambiguous areas that are often the center of parental, school, church, and civic debate. These include: sex education, dimensions of sexual desire, sexual orientation, sexually suggestive advertisements, content from mainstream art and science, and celibacy sicussions.

Topics of Contention
  • Sex education: This is a highly contentious subject that some public schools avoid teaching because parents have such different perspectives on what information is appropriate for young people. The idea of providing educational material about sexuality often incites debate. back to top

  • Dimensions of sexual desire: Opinions differ on how people should behave romantically and sexually. The traditional “script” depicts romantic heterosexuality, in which the male is active and powerful, both in pursuit of a female partner and in sexual activity. The female is often portrayed as passive and coy, whose power lies in luring men. Materials that explore nontraditional roles, thereby broadening choices that people make about their sexuality, often cause controversy. back to top

  • Sexual orientation: Some materials depict or describe what it means to be lesbian or gay in sexual orientation. What for some people is a description of positive feelings about one’s orientation might for others be an endorsement of an unacceptable lifestyle. Some parents, however, find such material useful in helping their children explore aspects of their own sexuality. back to top

  • Sexually suggestive advertisements: Mainstream media have grown more sexually suggestive. Materials such as Victoria’s Secret ads and Sports Illustrated’s swimsuit issues, for example, make some parents uneasy and others angry about what they consider inappropriate material. Others consider this material to be completely harmless, or they aren’t offended by how it depicts women. back to top

  • Content from mainstream art and science: Some people might consider some graphic elements used in these disciplines pornographic. For example, a plaque carried on Pioneer 10, the first space probe to leave the solar system, was called pornographic by some because it included nude human figures. Others object to images of classical Greek and Roman statues or other depictions of nudity; for example, Leonardo da Vinci’s Vitruvian Man. And there are parents who don’t consider any of this improper. back to top

  • Celibacy discussions: Underage adolescents wishing to remain celibate might engage in sexually explicit discussions with like-minded others in order to deal with questions and feelings associated with managing their sexual desire and dealing with peer and media pressure. back to top

*On this Web site, NetSafeKids uses the term “sexually explicit material” to mean material—text-based, visual, or audio—that depicts sexual behavior or acts, or that exposes the reproductive organs of the human body. From common usage, “pornography” can be seen as usually involving sexually explicit materials.

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