Skip to main content



The term pornography, derived from the Greek porne (prostitute) and graphein (to write), came into common use in English in the 19th century to describe life, manners, and activities of prostitutes and their patrons. In present usage, the term is a generic label for a wide range of books, magazines, films, videos, broadcasts, Internet communications, taped phone messages, and live public performances intended to be sexually arousing. A further and relational characteristic of pornography is the removal of "real or simulated sex acts from the intimacy of the partners in order to display them deliberately to third parties" (Catechism of the Catholic Church 2354), a voyeuristic condition on which is based major moral objections to the material. In both popular speech and in the legal and cultural battles over this issue, a distinction is sometimes made between "soft core" and "hard core" pornography. The former denotes erotic representations conveyed suggestively, the participants displaying a degree of mutuality in the intimacies they share; the latter connects the sexual acts with violence, hatred, pain, and degradation, the principals relating to one another in purely instrumental ways. The word "obscenity," often used interchangeably with "pornography," is more usefully identified with a range of offensive conduct that extends beyond the sexual. Thus a rally of the Ku Klux Klan or an act of spousal abuse could be called obscene though free of any sexual content. On these definitions and their linguistic refinements hangs a complex history of legal and moral wranglings that has only increased in intensity over time.

Examples of pornography are found throughout human history and in many cultures, although attitudes toward it varied widely. Examples include the salacious songs associated with the fertility rites of Dionysus in ancient Greece and erotic paintings found on the walls of Pompeiian ruins. The craft, both visual and verbal, of these productions does not entirely remove them from invidious classification, their clear purpose being to celebrate the pleasures of the flesh exclusive of other human values. Other alleged pornographic practices have historically served the purpose of satirizing the pretensions and hypocrisies of individuals and institutions. Thus a medieval poet such as Boccaccio as well as an 18th-century graphic artist such as Hogarth employed the bawdy to skewer the self-righteous, the erotic subject matter dissolving in cathartic laughter. For this reason, societies with strong centralized governments and/or a state supported religion have used anti-pornography laws to prosecute political humorists as threats to civic order.

propertag.cmd.push(function() { proper_display("encyclopedia_content_1"); });

The invention of printing and subsequent advances in photography, motion pictures, and the electronic media have made possible the mass production of pornography in ever-increasing amounts. Thus a behavior confined to a primarily literate and privileged elite became in the 20th century a mass phenomenon, one that has come to permeate popular culture. It is this phenomenon that is the primary focus of this article, a summary of efforts by the Church, private interest groups, civil governments, and academics to deal with the issue.

Church. The Catholic Church, which affirms the dignity and sovereignty of all humans, individual and collective, and opposes all influences that threaten these values, entered most forcefully into the regulation of offensive print materials during the Counter-Reformation. The first general decree of prior censorship was promulgated by the Lateran Council of 1515; a half-century later, the Council of Trent (1562) issued the index of prohibited books, which shaped Church policy well into the 20th century. The Index, a checklist of specific titles, established normative guidelines to regulate censorship, among which was one that forbade the publication, selling, reading, and possession of obscene works. Revisions over time and under different pontificates changed the titles but the norms remained intact.

As a consequence of the Second Vatican Council, the duties of monitoring the Index were transferred in 1965 to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. That body a year later issued a statement declaring the Index to have "no ecclesial force," but reserved to itself as well as diocesan ordinaries and episcopal conferences the right to condemn writings for the protection of the faithful. These norms and the procedures for enforcing them have been codified in canon law. However, the explicit condemnation (ex professo ) of obscene publications in the 1917 Code has virtually disappeared in the 1983 Code, which confines its concerns to works that carry or should carry the marks of Church orthodoxy in matters of faith and morals.

propertag.cmd.push(function() { proper_display("encyclopedia_content_2"); });

In the U. S. especially, the actions of the Church in defense of morality have been directed both internally and externally: individual bishops as well as national conferences have organized the faithful for their own moral protection, for example through such agencies as the Legion of Decency, which regularly published lists of unacceptable movies. Also, sometimes alone, often with the collaboration of other faith communions, Catholics have formed pressure groups to support censorship of the media, to oppose or limit the spread of "adult" venues such as bookstores and massage parlors, in direct actions such as boycotts and protest marches. Joining in these actions as well as promoting the enactment of prohibitory laws through at least the 1960s, Catholics mounted the most active opposition to pornography of any church or civic body. The effectiveness of that oppositionboth in accurately targeting the offensive material and in limiting its spreadwas not, however, always consistent. Norms as well as judgments of specific works of popular entertainment were often simplistic, their articulation paternalistic and condescending. At present the voice of the American Church has grown more nuanced in discussing the morality of popular entertainment, reflecting the increased educational level of the laity. But its counter-cultural position is perhaps more pronounced than ever.

U.S. Courts. European states, more concerned with sedition and subversive ideas than aberrant sexual behavior, exercised control over printed works in the name of established religious and state powers. In Catholic countries sexually explicit materials were not generally condemned except when they were blasphemous, undermined religious doctrine, or subjected clergy and nuns to ridicule. Colonial America, influenced by the Puritan ethos, also linked obscenity with disrespect toward civic and religious authority. Nathaniel Hawthorne's short story "The Maypole at Merrymount," based on the short-lived 17th-century experiment in collective hedonism led by Thomas Morton, illustrates this connection: the civil authorities of Massachusetts Bay jailed and then deported the free-living colonists as a threat to orthodoxy. In 1711 the same government enacted a statute prohibiting the "composing, writing, printing, or publishing of any filthy, obscene, or profane story, pamphlets, libel or mock sermon, in imitation of preaching or any other part of divine worship."

The history of protective legislation and court actions in the American Republic is long and complex, characterized by a constant back and forth movement in a dynamic generated by the opposing values of individual freedom and community solidarity. States and local governments enacted obscenity statutes; and courts measured these norms against the materials actually proscribed. But in the course of time, the norms themselves came under constitutional scrutiny, resulting in an erratic if evolving judicial center.

propertag.cmd.push(function() { proper_display("encyclopedia_content_3"); });

Reviewing U. S. court cases over a period of 150 years, one can discover a limited understanding of this evolution. An early precedent turned on the distinction between authorial intent and actual content. Thus, although a work was recognized to have been written to secure a social value, the presence of scatological elements (whatever their purpose) rendered the work legally offensive. In a celebrated 1934 case before the Supreme Court, this principle was overturned: James Joyce's celebrated novel Ulysses, formerly banned because of obscene content, was found by reason of the artistic integrity of the whole work to be unobjectionable. This calculus pitting artistic merit against offensive content continues to be a source of judicial dispute, serious art by its very symbolic nature being resistant to easy reductions.

A second area of contention concerns the question of harm, and the obligations of the state to protect individual victims as well as the community. Restricting the distribution of pornography on this basis is regularly opposed by appeal to the First Amendment to the U. S. Constitution, the "free speech" clause. As this fundamental issue works itself out in case after case, more points of conflict are exposed. The Court in 1957 (Roth v. U. S. ) found that publications "utterly without redeeming social value" deserved no protection. But this near absolute "utterly" condition caused considerable trouble for the bench, leading to minimal regulation for several years. The Burger Court stiffened the code in 1973 with two decisions: Miller v. California found that "public portrayal of hardcore sexual conduct" is far removed from the free exchange of ideas the Constitution is designed to protect; it went on to invoke "contemporary community standards" as the benchmark for specific judgments. In a related action decided on the same day in 1973, the Court in Paris Adult Theater v. Slaton defined an "environmental" principle for ruling against a chain of adult moviehouses, arguing that their presence alone was a threat to the quality of life of a neighborhood and could therefore be restricted by zoning laws.

The vigor of this prosecutorial offenseat one point demanding not just proscription of targeted materials but monetary damages to the victimsgradually weakened, again from a difficulty in identifying key conditions: e.g. "taken as a whole," "violates community standards," and "inherent harm."

This long history, linguistic and legal, ecclesiastical and civil, brings us in this new century to a point of impasse. The opposing camps, libertarian and communitarian, are themselves deeply divided. And their professional supporters, lawyers, social scientists, and moral theologians, multiply the points of contention. A third force, amoral at its center, is economic; the explosion of pornography as a market phenomenonin 1996 there were 665 million pornographic video rentals, 150 titles were added each week, and this does not include electronic transmissions to millions of subscribershas generated enormous profits in the industry shifted the balance of power between providers and society so radically that only the state can restore a measure of parity. And this does not take into account the role of organized crime, a steady and malignant presence.

At this writing, a new contest over the rights of the pornographer has reached the doors of the Supreme Court. However this matter is decided, the case illustrates many of the complexities of this long history as well a new element. Child pornography has long been one of the secure areas in the battle to protect community values. This is because the production process itselfthe use of underage boys and girls to make the productindependent of the content or the merchandising, exploits and violates children. No area of this industry has so consistently drawn the enmity of the law and the courts, from village to nation, as child pornography. Congress has enacted Child Protection laws (1988) and the Supreme Court has upheld them (1994, U. S. v. Knox ).

Recently, however, producers have moved to create and distribute virtual depictions of child sex, the images electronically produced, and hope thereby to avoid prosecution based on harm to the child "actors." In moving through the appeals courts, the legal adversaries have also reenacted the debate over violence to women allegedly inherent in pornography; viz. does the consumption of pornography, child or adult, lead to anti-social behavior by devaluing women and children, portraying them as willing victims of sexual assaults, and thereby legitimizing violence? Does such material victimize the consumer by weakening their moral judgment, their capacity for mature relationships, alienating them from society, closing them off in addictive fantasies? Or, as libertarians argue, does such experience provide an "innocent" release of sexually aberrant impulses that otherwise might be spent in criminal acts? And does their repression too conveniently serve to cover a more pernicious attack on uncomfortable ideas?

However these things work themselves out in the future, if they work themselves out, what seems most certain is that pornography is one of a number of crucial lifestyle behaviors that have intensified a spreading culture war in the United States. Political parties, religious bodies, age groups, and even geographical regions have become polarized over these issues. Anyone who wants to track the direction of the United States at this millennial divide must attend to this unsavory issue.

Bibliography: j. a. coriden, t. j. green, and d. e. heintschel, eds., Code of Canon Law: A Text and Commentary (New York 1985). j. bishupic and e. witt, "Freedom of Ideas," Congressional Quarterly's Guide to the U. S. Supreme Court 1 (1997). m. j. mcmanus, Final Report of the Attorney General's Commission on Pornography (1987).

[p. messbarger]

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Pornography." New Catholic Encyclopedia. . 20 Aug. 2018 <>.

"Pornography." New Catholic Encyclopedia. . (August 20, 2018).

"Pornography." New Catholic Encyclopedia. . Retrieved August 20, 2018 from

Learn more about citation styles

Citation styles gives you the ability to cite reference entries and articles according to common styles from the Modern Language Association (MLA), The Chicago Manual of Style, and the American Psychological Association (APA).

Within the “Cite this article” tool, pick a style to see how all available information looks when formatted according to that style. Then, copy and paste the text into your bibliography or works cited list.

Because each style has its own formatting nuances that evolve over time and not all information is available for every reference entry or article, cannot guarantee each citation it generates. Therefore, it’s best to use citations as a starting point before checking the style against your school or publication’s requirements and the most-recent information available at these sites:

Modern Language Association

The Chicago Manual of Style

American Psychological Association

  • Most online reference entries and articles do not have page numbers. Therefore, that information is unavailable for most content. However, the date of retrieval is often important. Refer to each style’s convention regarding the best way to format page numbers and retrieval dates.
  • In addition to the MLA, Chicago, and APA styles, your school, university, publication, or institution may have its own requirements for citations. Therefore, be sure to refer to those guidelines when editing your bibliography or works cited list.