Speaking of Obscenity


A friend told me last week that he was going to celebrate the first day of Black History month by listening to James Brown records. I thought that was inspiring, and so we are celebrating the first Sunday of Black History month by listening to that lively and irrepressible anthem “I Got You”, otherwise known as “I Feel Good.”

The history of Africans and those of African heritage in the United States has been so full of exploitation, dehumanization, and tragedy, that we need to acknowledge and celebrate the joy, too, that African Americans have expressed in music and song and which brings joy to all of us, no matter our background. We feel good listening to music like this.

At the same time, I did not choose the next cut on the CD, “(I Feel Like Being a) Sex Machine.” Which brings us to the theme of today’s service: Where do you draw the line between what is appropriate and not appropriate for a Sunday service or for any other occasion? When is content that is sexual in nature appropriate and when is it not? What makes something “dirty”? What makes something obscene? Does the obscene have any place in a Sunday service?

So many questions, and as is so often the case, so many hints for answers lie inside the questions themselves.

Let’s start with a definition. Our word “obscene” comes from the Latin obscenus also pronounced obscaenus. The Oxford Latin Dictionary informs us that the root of that word is caenum, which means “dirt, filth, mud, mire, always with the accessory idea of loathsomeness.” Pretty heavy duty stuff.

Well, I guess that it’s pretty clear that “obscene” means dirty, sure enough, as in “dirty pictures,” “dirty books,” dirty movies,” and so forth. In all those cases, it’s pictures, images, stories or texts having to do with sex or sexual acts that makes them dirty. So, I guess we can assume that sex is dirty. Or, perhaps, that sex is dirty in some circumstances. Then, the question is “in what circumstances”?

I hope we can all agree before going any further that what is called “obscene” in one place in time is quite acceptable in another place and time, that different cultures will differ in what they consider obscene, and that within those cultures, subgroups and individuals will have varying opinions. It’s complicated enough to have become a topic for the courts in the United States and elsewhere.

An online encyclopedia says that “an obscenity is any utterance or act that strongly offends the morality of the time.” But, how is it decided what the morality of the time is? And, in our country particularly, how does a definition of obscenity impact our right to freedom of speech and of the press? There is no national uniform standard in this country of what constitutes obscenity.

One case that tested these boundaries was the famous 1957 trial of the book called Howl and Other Poems by Allen Ginsberg. Two of his associates sold a copy of the book to undercover policemen and were arrested and jailed for the act. The poem includes pornographic slang and references to homosexuality and drugs. The California Supreme Court eventually decided that the book had “redeeming social value,” so it was decided that it could legally be sold.

In 1978, we saw a landmark case called FCC vs. Pacifica, often referred to as the “seven dirty words” case. Here, “the Court found that only ‘repetitive and frequent’ use of the words in a time and place when a minor could hear could be punished.”

Nine years later, in a case called State v. Henry, “the Oregon Supreme Court ruled that the Oregon state law that criminalized obscenity was an unconstitutional restriction of free speech under the free speech provision of the Oregon constitution.” The ruling meant that “Oregon was the ‘first state in the nation to abolish the offense of obscenity’” completely.

And in 1997, in a case called Reno v. ACLU, “the Supreme Court struck down indecency laws applying to the Internet” (Wikipedia, all).

So, one solution is to abolish all standards whatsoever and to declare everything within the boundaries of the acceptable. Well, that might work well enough for the secular world, but I expect that it’s clear that other standards apply to church life. (Today would have been my mother’s 95th birthday, by the way, and I can hear her saying now, “Obscenity? You’re speaking about a topic like that in a church? Oh, Peter, why can’t you talk about something nice and uplifting?”)

Actually, the idea of addressing this topic came from last month’s interview and subsequent article in the Daily News. The focus was on pornography addiction, the fact that pornographic material is widely available on the Internet to teens and that an alarmingly large number according to the survey that prompted the article frequently come across such material whether or not they are seeking it.

We in the Unitarian Universalist culture don’t often confront questions like this. By and large, we are much less likely to be concerned about eternal salvation for the individual and how that might be impacted by sexual gratification and more about seeing justice done in the here and now, less concerned about the sins of individuals than the sins of the larger society, less concerned about purity and more concerned about integrity.

That’s true enough for the larger issue of whether material of a sexual nature is “dirty” or “obscene,” but when it comes to the more specific issues of sexual addiction and the use of pornography by impressionable teens, I think it behooves us to take a closer look.

These are big issues, and I certainly don’t expect that anything I say here today will be the definitive word on the subjects, but it will be useful to take a look at any issue that is likely to lead to harm, in one way or another, rather than good. Our responsive reading today, The Free Mind, was from the great Unitarian minister William Ellery Channing. It starts out:

“I call that mind free which masters the senses, and which recognizes its own reality and greatness.”

One of the problems of addiction to sex is common to all addictions, it makes the senses our masters, rather than the reverse. It obscures our ability to recognize our own reality and greatness. We get caught up in compulsions, rather than remaining aware of them for what they are, pausing, reflecting, deciding on the path of serenity so that we can determine for ourselves when it’s time to summon the courage to change things that we can change and when it’s time to accept what we cannot change.

There is human dignity is the act of thoughtful reflection and discernment. I have seen all too many times, in my work with homeless persons in Boston, but not only homeless persons, the debilitating effects of addiction, whether it be to alcohol or other drugs.

Sexual addiction, too, has been known to cause discord in the home and to break up families, to turn healthy relationships into bitter battlefields, to damage the psyches of the parents as well as the children, victims of “collateral damage.” When I was interviewed for the Daily News article, I made it clear to the reporter that the truest general statement that I could make on these topics is that it’s not a case of “black and white, good vs. evil.” There are complexities to the human psyche and the human condition, and the variety of factors that determine any individual’s opinions on these matters are too numerous to catalogue.

The Daily News reporter wanted to know my opinion of how these issues, sexual addiction and the wide availability of pornography to teens, are affecting the Christian church. So, I answered in terms that make sense from that perspective. In Christianity, God is the ultimate good, so all human activities should strive towards serving that ultimate good.

The elevation of anything as superior to God, whether it be overindulgence in sex or alcohol or drugs or anything else, constitutes idolatry because it places something other than God in the highest place. We serve our compulsions rather than what we know to be of higher worth. And I believe that, whether or not I would always use Christian terminology to verbalize it.

Another question asked, but not mentioned in the published article is why I think pornography is such an issue within the church. There is a danger in oversimplifying, but I think, in large part, it goes back to St. Augustine who drew a sharp line between the spirit (or soul), which is called “good” and the body, which is “bad.” You can go further back, too, to the writings of St. Paul in the New Testament. He, too, separated body from soul, advocating chastity as the best way to get closer to God.

From this perspective, the impulses of the body are impure, they pull us away from the purity that God expects from us if we are to serve him perfectly. We are to restrain ourselves, which, unfortunately, leads to suppression of natural instincts and the unfortunate byproducts of that, including self-mortification, self-flagellation and all the rest.

The filmmaker Luis Bunuel delighted in exploring, exploiting and ridiculing these excesses as he saw them displayed in the Catholic Church of his time. And, while I love Bunuel’s films, myself, I find it a higher calling to try to understand the human need to make sense of our condition on earth that prompts these excesses in the name of purity, goodness and godliness.

The question of the widespread availability of pornography to teens is something that does concern me quite a bit, though I’m more often preoccupied by questions of the immorality of the exploitation of the resources of our society and ecology. But, come to think of it, are not our young people our society’s most important resources? I’m not concerned that they will place their immortal souls at risk because of the use of pornography (though that very much concerned me when I was an adolescent, myself, given the religious environment I found myself in).

Instead, I’m concerned that they will cheapen themselves and demean their partners and submerge themselves in relationships that are shallow and one-dimensional. This is a tragedy not only in the lives of the young people, themselves, but also in the society at large. If we find the relationships of intimacy that we have with others to be disposable, why would it be surprising that all our relationships would have, then, a shallow and superficial nature?

If your relationships with others are disposable, surely your plastic waste, your food trays, your entertainment choices will all be disposable. If your focus is on self-gratification, then your ability to see the larger picture, to learn compassion, to understand the perspective of others, to be empathetic, all of these things, too, will become compromised.

The effects of early exposure to pornographic material has a disproportionate effect on the minds of those whose bodies and brains are still in formation. There is certainly nothing wrong, in my view, with finding pleasure in sexual relationship. But, too much focus on pleasure gets in the way of finding deep and abiding joy, the kind of delight that springs up when you find kinship in the soul of another. The body and the soul are intimately related, I think, so that damage to one causes damage to the other. It’s not that there’s a dichotomy; it’s that they complement one another.

I believe that Unitarian Universalists value integrity over purity, as I have said. This means that we understand that to be human is to be complex. We may desire truth, but we also desire pleasure. We may hold our intimate relationships to be sacred, but that does not mean that we deny that lustfulness is part of our nature. We may want to serve, but we can’t deny that we also want to be served.

The word “integrity” is tightly bound with the term “integrate.” To strive for integrity is to strive to integrate the disparate threads of what it means to be human into a fabric of meaning that, when lived out, creates the destiny we make for ourselves.

Teenagers need help doing this. They are only partially formed, but, if you remember your own teen years, there is a youthful energy and curiosity that has not yet had the opportunity to be matured by experience. And energy plus curiosity minus experience is a recipe for trouble, unless there is the opportunity for guidance by more experienced hands, those of parents, teachers, and trusted advisers.

So, what’s the solution? There is no simple solution. Parents, be frank in your discussions with your teenage children. Provide the opportunity for questions, healthy questions, provide a framework of trust within which conversations of significance can occur. Provide a home life that is loving and supportive and allows for mistakes. Be the parent you wish you had when you were a teen, regardless of the fact that things have changed so much with the advent of instant electronic access to information of all kinds. And, be willing to forgive when mistakes are made, when indulgence has been excessive, when cherished values have been challenged.

These years, as hard as they are, are part of the fabric, too, of the lifelong relationship you will have with your sons and your daughters. Make the most of what you have with what you can.

And remember that you have a minister who is also a pastor, someone you can come to in time of need, in time of confusion, in time of challenge, someone who is willing to listen with an empathic ear, who has had years of experience working with teens as a high school teacher and years of experience listening to the concerns of adults, forming relationships of trust and care.

And remember the words of William Ellery Channing, whose reading we shared this morning. Its closing words were these: “I call that mind free which has cast off all fear but that of wrongdoing, and of which no menace or peril can enthrall: Which is calm in the midst of tumults, and possesses itself, though all else be lost.”

The floor is open for discussion and response.



  • Wikipedia: “Obscenity.”
  • Dictionary.reference.com/browse/obscene
  • E-mail message from Dr. Jan Garrett, January 21, 2016

Presented by the Rev. Peter Connolly at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Bowling Green on February 7, 2016

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