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"What can be more obscene than Bayle's Dictionary, or many of the works of the standard authors in English poetry, from Chaucer to Byron? - Dryden's translation, for instance, of the sixth satire of Juvenal? Or Savage's St. Valentine's Day? And yet of Savage, the great moralist Dr. Johnson, (Lives of the English Poets) says, alluding to the attempt to prosecute him in the King's Bench for his "Progress of a Divine," as being an obscene libel: "It was urged in his defence, that obscenity was criminal when it was intended to promote the practice of vice; but that Mr. Savage had only introduced obscene ideas with the view of exposing them to detestation, and of amending the age by showing the deformity of wickedness. This plea was admitted, and Sir Philip Yorke, who then presided in that court, dismissed the information, with encomiums upon the purity and excellence of Mr. Savage's writings.""--Regina v. Hicklin (1868)

"Malesherbes’s usage of the term “obscenity” attests to the currency the concept had gained in France by the mid eighteenth century. 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."--A Monster for Our Times: Reading Sade across the Centuries (2011)

"Pierre Bayle and Julien Offroy de La Mettrie insisted on the differences between [the obscene and the “simply” erotic or licentious ], but Malesherbes, that legislator of the book trade, admitted to being perplexed: “It would certainly be better to suppress them, if one could,” he wrote, referring to erotic texts, “but what would be the certain rule or the fixed boundary in this respect? This is where the difficulty lies” (Mémoires sur la liberté de la presse [1759; Memoirs on the Freedom of the Press])." --Encyclopedia of the Enlightenment

"Does the Bible come within the ruling of the Lord Chief Justice as to obscene literature? Most decidedly it does, and if prosecuted as an obscene book, it must necessarily be condemned, if the law is justly administered." --"Is the Bible Indictable?" (c. 1877), a pamphlet by Annie Besant

"Like the proliferation of highly publicized obscenity trials, that of books about obscenity was principally an American phenomenon. Germany and France produced little on the subject, and Britain not much more, though the very best books of the kind were published in England. Among them should be mentioned Norman St. John-Stevas's Obscenity and the Law (1956), Alec Craig's The Banned Books of England and Other Countries (1962), H. Montgomery Hyde's A History of Pornography (1964), and Donald Thomas's A Long Time Burning (1969). The superiority of these books derives in part from their sociohistorical approach; American studies tended to get bogged down in court proceedings and to read like law textbooks." --The Secret Museum: Pornography in Modern Culture, p. 287, Walter Kendrick

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)
Frontispiece of "Pernicious Literature" (1889)
Frontispiece of "Pernicious Literature" (1889)

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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.


Dictionary meaning and etymology


  1. Offensive to current standards of decency or morality
  2. Lewd or lustful
  3. Disgusting or repulsive
  4. Excessive; beyond all reason.
  5. law Liable to deprave or corrupt

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


this list overlaps with Underground literature#Bibliography

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 research by Jahsonic and friends. See Art and Popular Culture's copyright notice.

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