Obscenity has several connotations. It can simply be used to mean profanity,
or it can mean anything that is taboo, indecent, abhorrent, or disgusting.
The term is most often used in a legal context to describe expression
(words, images, actions) that offend the prevalent sexual morality of the time.
The definition of obscenity differs from culture to culture, between
communities within a single culture, and also between individuals within
those communities. Many cultures have produced laws to define what is
considered to be obscene, and censorship is often used to try to suppress or
control materials that are obscene under these definitions, usually
including, but not limited to pornographic material. Because the concept of
obscenity is often ill-defined, it can be used as a political tool to try to
restrict freedom of expression. Thus, the definition of obscenity can be a
civil liberties issue.
The United States has constitutional protection for freedom of speech, and
the Supreme Court has ruled that this protection does not extend to
obscenity as currently defined by the Miller test. In U.S. legal texts, the
term "obscenity" now always refers to this "Miller-test-obscenity".
The etymology of obscenity and its parent adjective obscene, is not known,
but is thought to have come from a primitive Latin word meaning "filth,
foulness". Despite its long formal and informal use with a sexual
connotation, the word still retains the meanings of "inspiring disgust" and
even "inauspicious; ill-omened", as in such uses as "obscene profits", "the
obscenity of war", and the like.
Many historically important works have been described as obscene, or
prosecuted under obscenity laws. For example, the works of Charles-Pierre
Baudelaire, Lenny Bruce, William S. Burroughs, James Joyce, D. H. Lawrence,
Henry Miller, and the Marquis de Sade.