The Cultural Politics of Obscenity: Sex, Censorship, and the Media

Organizer: Christopher Baum (CUNY Graduate Center)
Discussant: Gayle Rubin (University of Michigan)

“Obscenity” is a contested cultural category attributed to mediated forms of sexual expression that lie beyond the limits of social acceptability.  Its dominant meanings have been forged primarily within legal arenas, signifying forms of speech determined to be so dangerous and “utterly without socially redeeming value” that they are liable to censorship.  Yet, how does obscenity work as a social process?  Following Mazzarella’s approach to censorship (2013), what cultural forms does obscenity seek to prohibit, and what cultural forms does it make possible?  Social scientists have looked beyond the legal foundations of obscenity to explore the ways that a variety of cultural, political, and economic forces shape understandings of the obscene and its relationship to media and technology.  For instance, scholars have shown how the process of classifying media as “obscene” may illuminate paradigmatic shifts in beliefs around sex and sexuality (Strub 2008, 2013), or target women, queers, and people of color, constructing a moralized system of sexual hierarchy (Rubin 1984).  In this sense, obscenity has close ties to the regulation of sex by the liberal state (Bernstein and Schaffer 2005) and the mobilization of fear, risk and media sex panics (Herdt 2009; Lancaster 2011).  From a feminist perspective, the “sex wars” of the late twentieth-century (Duggan and Hunter 2006) famously highlighted controversies surrounding the censorship of pornography and the funding of “obscene” art, while recent feminist organizing on a global scale (including the #MeToo movement) illuminates the central roles that media and technology play in debates around consent, censorship, and women’s sexual “pleasure and danger” (Vance 1984).

This panel seeks to broadly interpret and explore how obscenity works, and invites papers that engage anthropological methods to examine the global forces that seek to govern, censor, or harness media representations of sex, sexuality, or the body. Themes or topics of this panel might include, but are not limited to:

• The ways in which media and technology become designated as obscene under various global authorities.  Simultaneously, how these designations are enforced and resisted.
• How the concept of obscenity articulates with anthropological, feminist, and/or queer theories and practices.
• How obscenity relates to issues of race, disability, and nation.
• The imbrications of obscenity with commerce, the economy, pornography, or sex work.
• The “everyday life” of obscenity (i.e. how obscenity is lived out by people on the ground).

• Connections between obscenity and morality, risk, ethics, danger, pleasure, and/or fear.

Please send 250 word abstracts to by Tuesday, April 10th.  Panelists will be notified by Thursday, April 12th.

Bernstein, Elizabeth, and Laurie Schaffner. 2005. Regulating Sex: The Politics of Intimacy and Identity. New York: Routledge.
Duggan, Lisa, and Nan D. Hunter. 2006. Sex Wars: Sexual Dissent and Political Culture. New York: Routledge.
Herdt, Gilbert H., ed. 2009. Moral Panics, Sex Panics: Fear and the Fight Over Sexual Rights. New York: New York University Press.
Lancaster, Roger N. 2011. Sex Panic and the Punitive State. Berkeley: University of California Press.
Mazzarella, William. 2013. Censorium: Cinema and the Open Edge of Mass Publicity. Durham: Duke University Press..
Rubin, Gayle. 1984. “Thinking Sex: Notes for a Radical Theory of the Politics of Sexuality.” In Pleasure and Danger: Exploring Female Sexuality, edited by Carole S. Vance. London: Pandora Press.
Strub, Whitney. 2008. “The Clearly Obscene and the Queerly Obscene: Heteronormativity and Obscenity in Cold War Los Angeles.” American Quarterly 60 (2): 373–98.
———. 2013. Obscenity Rules: Roth V. United States and the Long Struggle Over Sexual Expression.  Lawrence, Kansas: University Press of Kansas.
Vance, Carole S., ed. 1984. Pleasure and Danger: Exploring Female Sexuality. London: Pandora Press.