Lean, mean, obscene machine

What place does crudeness have in society?

By Natalie Serafini, Opinions Editor

We live in a vulgar world. Not to sound like an octogenarian, but with the ability to express any opinion, thought, or image comes stupidity, grossness, and obscenity. Recently in the news, stories have popped up about various people facing retribution, and even imprisonment, for having a hand in something shocking. I’m decidedly anti-censorship, but this brings up an interesting question about straight-up dirty obscenity and its place in society.

I won’t be writing here about protest through vulgarity—using shock value to make a point is something I can support pretty unequivocally. For the most part, though, vulgarity doesn’t have a point. There are not that many examples of protest or argument through indecency, so obscenity of the purposeless variety abounds. One could certainly argue that we remove the excess: scrub free some of the profanity, coarseness, and bawdiness, making the world slightly more pleasant. But can anyone really make the argument that perpetrators of obscenity should be imprisoned? And what or who qualifies the difference between permissible indelicacy and punishable smut?

Obscenity seems to be a crime worth fighting all over the place. According to the Japan Times, Singaporean photographer Leslie Kee was recently arrested in Tokyo “on suspicion of selling photo collections containing images of male genitalia.” Laws in Japan prohibit genitals from being exposed in videos and photos without pixelation to protect innocent and bashful eyes, bringing Kee face to face with the long arm of the law.

Similarly to Kee’s arrest, Ira Isaacs was also punished for obscenity. I’m sure most people who had access to some form of media or communication in 2007 can remember Marco Antonia Fiorito’s 2 Girls 1 Cup. Apparently the film’s coprophilia prompted filmmaker Ira Isaacs to distribute films that mimicked those of Fiorito’s, and those distributions recently led to Isaacs being sentenced to four years in federal prison for obscenity.

Although I’ve never seen the films, descriptions are enough to tell me that Isaacs produced some disgusting films; few people would disagree about that. Despite that grossness, I can’t conceive of a reason why Isaacs should go to prison, especially for as weak-sauce a crime as fetish porn, however stomach-churning it is. Compared to Japan’s laws, which make genitalia unfettered by pixelation strictly verboten, there’s a serious point to be made about the subjectivity of obscenity.

Many artists produce art that is at the very least controversial, if not obscene. Georgia O’Keeffe’s paintings provided an abundance of controversy, while Brett Murray’s painting of South African President Jacob Zuma and his penis had critics up in arms (the painting was titled “The Spear”). There are many more vulgarities in-between, and still more to come. Yet there are different degrees of obscenity, and the perception of what is acceptable varies from person to person. Giovanna Plowman’s recent infamy as the Tampon Girl is clearly off-putting (although she hasn’t been arrested yet). Then you get to more controversially “shocking” people: some may think Quentin Tarantino is a genius, while others might think he’s simply sick. Opinions of what is acceptable will differ, and so opinions about obscenity shouldn’t have bearing in the justice system.

Isaacs’ films aren’t exactly oeuvres, Kee’s un-pixelated penises don’t really serve a purpose, and the Tampon Girl is simply inexplicable. But there’s no way for society to regulate what’s appropriately shocking and what’s a punishable offence, and I don’t think its even society’s responsibility. The world is hugely coarse and crude, but it’s important to recognize that coarseness is an inherent part of there being billions of people in the world. Obscenity is certainly unpleasant and generally unnecessary, but we can’t all be “appropriate” all the time. To attempt to regulate action and expression based on something as subjective as a disgust-o-meter, and to go so far as to censor or punish those who are too obscene, is ludicrous. I’d rather put up with the harmless bit of obscenity that is in this world—choosing to shield my eyes from 2 Girls 1 Cup or the Tampon Girl, of course—than put up with limitation of expression, however vile that expression might be.