Nudity, Obscenity and Censorship

Policing nudity encourages a perverse relationship to the body, self and sexuality. Those who advocate censorship of the naked body, even in its most innocent forms such a breastfeeding or tasteful depictions of the body, should question the origin of their impulse to censor. Do they feel they have to take the world to task for urges they cannot reconcile within themselves?

I pick this thread up again today because of an article about Facebook’s ridiculous community standards and the Gawker post that preceded it. I encourage to all read and see how the social networking site we trust out daily ditherings to thinks the world should look. Note the reference to community standards. “Community standards” is not an arbitrary phrase, it is the way in which obscenity is classified as per the Miller Test (taken from Wikipedia):

The question before the court was whether the sale and distribution of obscene material was protected under the First Amendment’s guarantee of Freedom of Speech. The Court ruled that it was not. It indicated that “obscene material is not protected by the First Amendment”, specially that of hardcore pornography, thereby reaffirming part ofRoth. However, the Court acknowledged “the inherent dangers of undertaking to regulate any form of expression,” and said that “State statutes designed to regulate obscene materials must be carefully limited.”[3] The Court, in an attempt to set such limits devised a set of three criteria which must be met in order for a work to be legitimately subject to state regulation:

  1. whether the average person, applying contemporary community standards (not national standards, as some prior tests required), would find that the work, taken as a whole, appeals to the prurient interest;
  2. whether the work depicts or describes, in a patently offensive way, sexual conduct or excretory functions[4] specifically defined by applicable state law; and
  3. “whether the work, taken as a whole, lacks serious literary, artistic, political, or scientific value.”[5]

This obscenity test overturns the definition of obscenity set out in the Memoirs decision, which held that “all ideas having even the slightest redeeming social importance . . . have the full protection of the guaranties [of the First Amendment]” and that obscenity was that which was “utterly without redeeming social importance.”

But who actually talks to their neighbours about what turns them on and which adult materials they consume? How often do the courts actually go out and find out what the community standards are? At AVN in the legal new there was always a story about a politician trying to shut down local adult businesses, citing Community Standards as the justification. In one case, Arizona, I think, the store rallied and polled the community, only to discover that the having an adult novelty and video story in the neighbourhood was totally kosher with the community’s standards. The shop stayed.

As far as Facebook goes, with hundreds of millions of Facebook users, surely images of proud mothers breastfeeding are within the community standards. Surely nipples, ‘coin slots’ (though perhaps not tasteful…), and many forms of nudity are a-OK in the Facebook community, particularly within private groups and among an individual’s friends. And, what about private pages? Surely the porn stars on Facebook with private profiles and those who friend them should be able to share whatever they want within the walls of a private community? Facebook is built in a way that lets us curate a community. Don’t our standards matter? It’s a phrase that keeps being repeated in so many of the vital battles that are being fought today, but just as keeping abortion legal or choosing soy milk over cow milk, if you don’t want to participate in something, then don’t.

Full disclosure: My webhost also enforces strict community standards, and I stay because I’m curious to see where they’ll draw the line. They’ve shut my site down several times because of obscene imagery. In one case, it was an image of a woman looking like the Lady of Shalott and wearing as much clothing (in fact, it was an even higher neckline) exposing a nipple. Imagine the obscenity.

Here’s a copy of Facebook’s internal document that kicked up such a fuss. And let’s not forget that the worker who leaked this document did it in protest of what he feels (and sounds like they are) are Facebook’s exploitative labor practices.

Check out:

Time article in Facebook’s War on Nipples

Feminists Against Censorship

Internet Freedom

American Civil Liberties Union – Internet Free Speech

1 comment for “Nudity, Obscenity and Censorship

  1. Tom
    March 8, 2012 at 19:18

    Entirely agree. Can we tempt you to come on the London Naked Bike Ride 0n June 9th 2012?

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