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"As Joan DeJean has demonstrated [in The Reinvention of Obscenity], obscenity emerged as a category during the second half of the seventeenth century, following the 1655 publication of L’École des filles, ou la philosophie des dames, the first obscene prose work to appear in French and the inaugural text of the new genre of erotic “philosophy.” The sexually explicit work was deemed unacceptable."[1]

This page Obscenity is part of the censorship series. Illustration: a close-up of a mouth in the film The Big Swallow (1901)
This page Obscenity is part of the censorship series.
Illustration: a close-up of a mouth in the film The Big Swallow (1901)

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Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.
Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.

Obscenity (in Latin obscenus, meaning "foul, repulsive, detestable", possibly derived from ob caenum, literally "from filth"). The term is most often used in a legal context to describe expressions (words, images, actions) that offend the prevalent sexual morality of the time.

Despite its long formal and informal use with a sexual connotation, the word still retains the meanings of "inspiring disgust" and even "inauspicious; ill-omened", as in such uses as "obscene profits", "the obscenity of war", and the like. It can simply be used to mean profanity, or it can mean anything that is taboo, indecent, abhorrent, or disgusting.

The definition of obscenity differs from culture to culture, between communities within a single culture, and also between individuals within those communities. Many cultures have produced laws to define what is considered to be obscene, and censorship is often used to try to suppress or control materials that are obscene under these definitions, usually including, but not limited to pornographic material. Because the concept of obscenity is often ill-defined, it can be used as a political tool to try to restrict freedom of expression. Thus, the definition of obscenity can be a civil liberties issue.



Numerous sources give something on the lines of: from the Latin word obscenus, meaning "foul, repulsive, detestable", and possibly derived from ob caenum, literally "from filth". The book Obscene: The history of an indignation dedicates several pages exploring the different possibilities regarding its etymology.

The first conviction for "obscenity" can be observed in Great Britaiin in 1725 when The Whitehall Evening Post, claims that Lord Townshend was responsible for having Edmund Curll arrested in 1725 because he published "obscene Books and Pamphlets, tending to encourage Vice and Immorality".

Famous obscenity trials

The book Obscene: The History of an Indignation discusses the obscenity trials of Friedrich Schlegel's Lucinde (Jena, 1799), Gustave Flaubert's Madame Bovary (Paris, 1857), Arthur Schnitzler's Round Dance (Berlin, 1920), D. H. Lawrence's Lady Chatterley's Lover (London, 1960), and Henry Miller's Tropic of Cancer (Los Angeles, 1962). A chapter is also devoted to the crusade of Anthony Comstock and the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice.

Other famous trials include Baudelaire's Fleurs du mal trial and the Vizetelly trial

See also: notes on the ineffability of censored material in the obscenity trials.

By region

See also


Unless indicated otherwise, the text in this article is either based on Wikipedia article "Obscenity" or another language Wikipedia page thereof used under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License; or on original research by Jahsonic and friends. See Art and Popular Culture's copyright notice.

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