Obscenity is usually defined as sexually explicit media in its most extreme form. How a person or government defines obscenity can range widely, and can sometimes include something many might find innocent, like a woman showing her face. Just as governments vary in their definition of obscenity, there is also variance in how they might restrict what they determine to be obscene materials. Generally more restrictive policies on obscenity are referred to as conservative, whereas lenient policies are called liberal. There is a wide spectrum of how different countries treat obscene material internationally, ranging from extremely liberal countries such as Denmark, to more conservative countries such as Iran. While it is beyond the scope of this article to describe every county’s policies regarding offensive media, this article discusses four nations that fall on various points of the spectrum.
Iran is of the most repressive nations in regards to sexual expression. Not surprisingly, Iran has very rigourous regulations on sexual content in the media. In public, women must wear special veils known as Hijabs to cover most of their skin and hide their form. It is illegal to depict unveiled women in Iranian film.1 Because of this law, it is incredibly difficult for filmmakers to depict women in their home, as this is one of the few places women are permitted to not wear Hijabs. While filmmakers have found clever ways to circumvent these regulations, such as strategic pans to open windows when women remove their veils, many would argue that Iran’s censorship laws are a detriment to creative expression.
Iran imposes stringent censorship on the internet as well. In 2012 Iran established the “Supreme Council of Cyberspace,” which among other things controls Iran’s “Committee for Determining Offensive Contents.”2 This committee maintains a list of banned websites which are deemed immoral, or critical of political and religious figures.3 In addition to requiring internet service providers to block specified sites within Iran’s borders, Iran throttles internet speeds over international connections to prevent high speed video streaming.
In addition to the preventative measures, Iran has incredibly severe punishments for violations of internet morality laws. An average internet users can expect scrutiny and harassment as well as threats of imprisonment if they visit potentially controversial websites even unintentionally. Bloggers and web designers are regularly imprisoned and tortured. Notably, one web designer was sentenced to death when his software was used to upload pornography despite the fact that it was not the intended purpose of the software.4
The United Kingdom is one of the more liberal countries worldwide in terms of censorship. Generally speaking, the government censors very little media. However one very specific and somewhat controversial policy is part five of the twenty sixth Criminal Justice and Immigration Act, which bans the possession of “extreme pornography,” and became law in England and Wales as of 2009.5 It describes “extreme pornography” as images depicting in a realistic way life threatening scenarios, acts which might cause harm to the genitals, breasts or anus, or acts with a corpse or animal. Regarding images depicting sexual acts with an animal, the law also specifies that it does not matter if the animal is alive or dead, and also that it does not need to be an actual animal. It merely must appear to be one to “a reasonable person looking at the image.”5
A murder committed by Graham Coutts inspired this law after he asphyxiated his victim Jane Longhurst in what he claimed to be a sex game gone wrong. Coutts’ pornographic preferences played a major role in his conviction, as the prosecution demonstrated his habitual viewing of violent pornographic sites. The trial’s notoriety inspired the formation of a panel to assemble research linking extreme pornography with sexual aggression. Ultimately the panel concluded that pornography posed a threat to the psychological well being of its consumers. However this conclusion came under heavy criticism, as the panel was composed of three scholars who were notably biased against pornography. Additionally, the research they cited for the most part either concluded porn was harmless, or drew only very narrow conclusions that many argued were not applicable.5
Despite this controversy, the legislation was passed. Opponents claim that the basis of the law is “moral outrage”, an intuitive albeit unsound reasoning, as it relies too heavily on gut instinct, and is lacking in hard logic and evidence. However ultimately there is no definitive conclusion on the value of this law. Ultimately this represents an unresolved dilema in the United Kingdom, and many other countries. As a country tends towards free press and expression, it becomes exceedingly difficult to draw the line between free expression and harmful media.5
Turkey’s Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan is regularly in the news for his censorship efforts, especially against reporters and bloggers who are critical of him.6 However Erdogan’s censorship is not limited to people speaking critically of him. In 2007, Erdogan passed Law 5651: a provision that aimed to clean the internet and bring Turkey into the future. Erdogan however offered very few specifics as to what he meant by this.7 In reality, the law gives a government organization called the Presidency of Telecommunication and Communication (TIB) the power to ban international websites without a court order if the TIB deems it illegal under certain provisions. One such provision is websites containing obscenity are illegal.7 However the TIB is yet to provide a specific definition of what constitutes obscenity.
The TIB has has provided very little information about why they have banned individual websites , as well as about their criteria for defining obscenity and other offenses. In 2008, about a year after the law passed, a comprehensive list of banned websites was released, including the reason for each ban. Since then, no such list has been released. They have however, divulged the percentage breakdown of the particular reasons websites were banned. The TIB claims that as of September of 2014, 84 percent of all banned websites were banned due to obscenity.7
Due to Turkey’s lack of transparency in its definition of obscenity, it is difficult to ascertain what qualifies a website as obscene under Law 5651. Still, considering the sheer number of websites banned for this reason, it appears that Turkey imposes quite stringent censorship on internet pornography. Interestingly, while in Iran the motivation for banning such websites is primarily religious, the Turkish government is technically not a theocracy. Some however, claim that Turkey is moving in the direction of an Islamic state, or a country which bases its laws off of the religion of Islam.8
In the late 1960s, Denmark became the first country to legalize pornography. First “erotic literature” was legalized in 1967, and subsequently “pornographic images” in 1969.9 Therefore Denmark provided a unique opportunity for research, and due to the polarizing nature of the debate on pornography, such research was performed extensively.
Research in Denmark attempted to determine the correlation between the circulation of pornography and sexual aggression. The research found that sexual aggression declined after the legalization of pornography, suggesting that pornography could have social benefits. Academics often cited this research in the United States and other countries when debating topics such as obscenity and pornography, and its potential harm. However despite whatever conclusions one might draw from this research, it has not been enough to settle these debates.
To this day, Denmark maintains a very high degree of media freedom, with specific exceptions in cases of libel, treason and racism.10 Those with liberal views towards the production, distribution, and consumption of obscene materials will argue that Denmark is and has been ahead of its field in this regard. Opponents however may argue that the legalization of pornography in Denmark is indicative of a moral decline.9
The amount of government regulation of sexuality in the media varies greatly. Most countries fall somewhere on a spectrum from the most conservative, like Iran, to the most liberal, like Denmark. There are countless cultural and religious factors that play into how a nation’s laws deal with pornography and sexual expression, and no two countries are alike. To make matters more confusing, there does not seem to be a definitive trend in terms of media freedom. Some countries are regulating less and less, whereas others are increasing their control over the media. The introduction of the internet has merely complicated this, as every country’s legislators approach the issue differently. Whereas some people see the internet as cause to protect their morals by tightening government control over the media, others see controlling internet pornography as a lost cause. Of course internet pornography is only the very surface of this issue. Ultimately all of this goes back to the great challenge of finding a balance between freedom of expression and government control.
1. Shirazi, Faegheh. "The Veil Unveiled: The Hijab in Modern Culture." Choice Reviews Online39.05 (2002): n. pag. I-epistemology.net. Web. 15 May 2016.
2. Aryan, Simurgh. "Internet Censorship in Iran: A First Look." USENIX Workshop (n.d.): n. pag.Jhalderm.com. Aug. 2013. Web. 19 May 2016.
3. Brown, Ian. "Internet Censorship: Be Careful What You Ask for." N.p., 2008. Web. 19 May 2016.
4. "Ecoi.net - European Country of Origin Information Network." IRB: Iran: Government Surveillance Capacity and Control, including Media Censorship and Surveillance of Individual Internet Activity [IRN104972.E] |. N.p., 16 Jan. 2015. Web. 19 May 2016.
5. Attwood, Fiona, and Clarissa Smith. "Extreme Concern: Regulating `Dangerous Pictures' in TheUnited Kingdom." Wiley Online Library. N.p., 23` Feb. 2010. Web. 19 May 2016.
6. Parkinson, Joe, Sam Schecner, and Emre Peker. "Turkey's Erdogan: One of the World's Most Determined Internet Censors." Middle East News (2014): n. pag. 2 May 2014. Web. 19 May 2016.
7. Akgul, Mustafa, and Melih Kirlidog. "Internet Censorship in Turkey." Internet Policy Review. N.p., 3 June 2015. Web. 19 May 2016.
8. Erimtan, Can. "The End of "Secular Turkey" or Ottomans Re-emergent?" RT International. N.p., 13 Jan. 2015. Web. 19 May 2016.
9. Martin, Gert. "Home." PsycNET. N.p., n.d. Web. 19 May 2016.
10. "Freedom of the Press 2008." Google Books. Ed. Sarah G. Cook. N.p., n.d. Web. 19 May 2016.