Is There An Actual Definition of Pornography?

In the over 200 interviews or presentations I’ve given about pornography, there’s one question that comes up more than every other, and I think a lot of people who are very passionate about this subject still haven’t answered it in their own mind: Is there an actual definition of pornography?

I do want to state upfront this is not an anti-pornography article. It’s certainly not pro, but I think it’s just an interesting exercise to determine if we can find a definition of pornography.

Courts don’t like to deal with the term “pornography” opting for even further-reaching “obscenity.” The most publicized attempt to define the term comes from the 1964 case Jacobellis vs. Ohio, which brings into question whether the Louis Malle’s film, The Lovers, is obscene.

Justice Potter Stewart said that his test for obscenity was simple. In explaining why the film was not obscene, he said:

I shall not today attempt further to define the kinds of material I understand to be embraced within that shorthand description [“hard-core pornography”], and perhaps I could never succeed in intelligibly doing so. But I know it when I see it, and the motion picture involved in this case is not that.

Justice Potter Stewart, 1964

I’m not going to go into the history of the Supreme Court taking on other obscenity cases, but it is fascinating to see how they’ve aways struggled to give an actual definition of pornography. If you’re into history, check it out.


I read recently that the most self-diagnosed medical condition in oneself are migraine headaches. In randomly diagnosing others, it’s bipolar disorder. Ironically, this article also mentioned that most people can’t accurately describe the real conditions of migraines or BPD. It also said most people can’t explain with much level of scientific accuracy how thunder and lightning works. That has nothing to do with this. It’s just interesting.

Society agrees upon definitions for certain words even when they are used incorrectly. I notice this happening with the younger generation using the word literally to mean, well, anything but literally. Since the 1970s, factoid has been used to mean “small fact” when it actually means “wrong fact.” And get this… inflammable actually means flammable. But we’re all going to continue to use these words wrong because it’s part of the social contract.

I believe that we all tend to agree on a big chunk of the definition of pornography. It’s the stuff rated XXX that shows intercourse, or similar sexual acts. It can also depict what most of us would consider outside-the-norm displays of sexuality that many of us would label unhealthy, bizarre or perverse. I think most of us would agree that it is not simple nudity, but that’s a big part of the formula and it’s very easy for nudity to quickly enter a gray area that it could be deemed as sexual. For instance, most would say the nudes of the great artists hanging in museums are not pornography, but there have been photo exhibits of nudity that do cross the line for many.

My Addendum

When asked the definition of pornography, I also add that I think pornography is personal. I believe it is any material that is written, filmed or recorded that someone uses for the main purpose of sexual gratification. I developed this example after meeting a guy I’ll call Larry at inpatient rehab.

In my addicted life, I was never a fan of lingerie photos or videos. They just didn’t ping the dopamine for whatever reason. We would get the Victoria’s Secret catalogs at my house. I don’t know if we’re now off the mailing list, but back in the day, it seems like the mailman dropped two catalogs a week in the mailbox and they would just pile up on our end tables by the couch. For me, this was junk mail, nothing sexy.

When I met Larry, he told a story in one of our groups how “traditional” pornography didn’t do it for him and how he would only pleasure himself to Victoria’s Secret catalogs and nothing else. Not Frederick’s of Hollywood, not the Sears catalog…just Victoria’s Secret. He wondered what was wrong with him, and we can get into Larry’s pathology another time, but this made me recognize that pornography is in the eye of the beholder. Pornography is as much a concept as a tangible thing.

This is the gray area.

The Gray Areas

If my addendum helps shape your definition further, I think it only causes to create a larger world of gray. Sorry. Think about how I mentioned the nudes of the great artists. Are they only great because they are paintings? There was no motion picture back then. There was no photography. I’m not an art history guy, but it would be interesting to learn how mainstream society accepted those paintings in their time of origin.

When it comes to films, there are a lot of indie films that push the boundaries of sexuality but are not sold as pornography, despite sometimes showing real sexual acts. If someone doesn’t pleasure themselves to it, does that mean it’s art and not pornography? On the same hand, does that mean someone who watches, but doesn’t pleasure themselves, to the XXX stuff is not actually looking at pornography?

I think photography is the most murky of areas. There seems to be a school of thought when something is shot in black and white, it’s instantly art. What about the first nudes taken of Marilyn Monroe? They showed no hint of sexual behavior, and hid her genitals. Was that art? Or was it porn because they were in Playboy? Most of the material you’ll find today on OnlyFans is pornography, but what about those models who do non-sexual nudity reminiscent of the great paintings? Is it still porn because it’s on OnlyFans?

This doesn’t even get into erotic literature or audio recordings. I think you could split hairs with those genres forever.

Why the Question?

If it’s such a difficult answer to pin down, perhaps with no strict answer, why is it asked so often? Does it really matter if there is a definition of pornography?

Despite the fact it’s nearing the age of 60, I like Justice Stewart’s definition. I know it when I see it.

What do you think? Please chime in and let me know your definition of pornography. Am I getting it wrong? Being to subtle? Let me know!

Lead Photo by from Pexels


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9 thoughts on “Is There An Actual Definition of Pornography?

  1. In my case porn is any sexually-oriented image or video that I wouldn’t want my mom (may she rest in peace) to see me looking at. That covers a lot of ground, I know…

  2. I was being a bit facetious, I admit, but on further thought it seems to me that even the Playboy centerfolds gave me a false and unrealistic concept of what normal women’s bodies look like. Just sayin’….

    1. I agree 100%. I grew up at the peak of the silicone enhancement/blonde hair Playboy days with Pamela Anderson, Anna Nicole Smith or Jenny McCarthy seemingly on every other cover. I learned fast that was not what I was interested in.

    1. And I’m hearing that a little bit more….if somebody didn’t set out to create porn, then it’s hard to call it porn. Back in the day, you could use a penny to get better reception on a TV set. The US Mint wasn’t producing antennas…so does it actually make it one the way I used it? Lots of gray here. Thanks for chiming in.

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