Anything Goes in Boudoir Photography. Or is it Pornography That Should Be Censored?

It’s possibly the most challenging topic to discuss in photography. As photographers, do we have a responsibility to maintain specific standards, or should we accept that if we can photograph it, we should?

Cole Porter’s 1934 song declares that good authors now only use four-letter words and how the smart set intrudes on nudist parties. It was written when risqué films and scandals in the movie business shocked the world. At that time, the film industry implemented a self-imposed set of moral values.

Although not enforceable by law, the Hays Code required filmmakers to obey rules that themselves seem offensive when measured by today’s generally accepted standards. The depiction of miscegenation, extra-marital sexual relations, and homosexuality were all banned. Crime could never be depicted sympathetically and had to be punished. Furthermore, authority figures could not be shown as anything but benevolent.

Of course, not every filmmaker agreed with that self-imposed censorship. But they had no other option than to abide by it as cinemas would not show films that were unrated by the newly formed Motion Pictures Producers and Distributors of America censor board. Perceived offenders would also lose financial backing from sponsors.

Although the Hays code has long since expired, there are those with financial and political power that, in effect, censor what we see. For example, the actor Sam Elliott is reported to say that he thought the Catholic Church had scared off New Line Cinema from making sequels to the 2008 film The Golden Compass, based on the His Dark Materials books by Philip Pullman. Fourteen years later, the final TV serial of the story is due for imminent release by New Line and the BBC. Times change quickly.

Reading this, you probably sit on one side of the fence or the other regarding censorship. Maybe you think that parts of the Hays Code were right and salacious movies with profanity, suggestive nudity, graphic violence, different sexual persuasions, and rape shouldn’t be allowed. Maybe, you believe that fictional criticism of any religious organization is wrong. Or, possibly, you view these ideas as puritanical and think, like in Cole Porter’s song, believe that anything goes.

Today in the photographic world, we are torn by similar arguments. We are restricted not only by self-imposed censorship, but by made-up rules that dictate what is and isn’t acceptable. Those boundaries are forever shifting.

When I was about nine or ten, my school collected wastepaper for fundraising. What surprised the teachers was that some of my schoolmates, who would be described today as “colorful characters,” volunteered to keep the storeroom tidy during their lunch break. As I remember, they even received a reward for it.

The teachers didn’t catch on to why these usually disruptive boys were so keen to help. The real reason was that occasionally they would find a pornographic magazine. More often, though, among the tons of discarded papers and magazines were many copies of a low-grade sensationalist tabloid newspaper. It was famous here in the UK for having a photograph of a topless woman on the third page.

A campaign objecting to the newspapers’ depiction of semi-naked women on Page 3 started in 2012 and finally saw the demise of those photographs a handful of years later. Despite gaining the support of Members of Parliament, charities, universities, and advocacy groups, the campaign’s final success was primarily due to the protestors persuading advertisers to abandon the newspaper. Like the application of the Hays Code in cinema, the power of money swayed the paper to ditch the practice.

However, concurrent with the demise of the “Page 3 Girls” photos, what some argue is another form of soft pornography became normalized. There are pictures of naked and semi-naked women abound in the popular genre of boudoir photography. Many of these pictures are far more suggestive than the models in that newspaper.

Boudoir photographers object to the description of their work as soft pornography, claiming it is an art form and not obscene. However, the counterargument is that the models depicted in such photos are almost always young and attractive women, and the images sexualize them. Furthermore, the people who comment positively about the pictures are mostly men. Boudoir photographers also argue that their models choose to be photographed this way. That then brings in the debate of whether women are forced, coerced, or pressured into posing for pictures, as they often are in the pornographic industry. Additionally, others will argue that they are demeaning to women, while the photographers and models say they are celebrating the human form as art.

Is boudoir photography pornography? It’s a difficult call to make. Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart famously said of obscenity in the Jacobellis v Ohio case 1964:

…I know it when I see it.”

That is suggestive of a subjective point of view.

The test for obscenity in the USA was defined as the following:

Whether to the average person, applying contemporary community standards, the dominant theme of the material, taken as a whole, appeals to prurient interest.

I think the important words there are “contemporary community standards.” Standards change over time, and different communities within individual countries can have very different values ​​from one another. Perhaps, by the Western standards of today, a majority won’t consider boudoir photography as pornography, but there will be some that do. Some sections of our societies will view the images as obscene. Other countries’ cultures certainly would too. Of course, there are some cultures where nudity is considered the norm.

Western cultures are becoming less stuffy, and there is a change in attitude to the human body. But the widespread distribution of unrestricted hard pornography on the internet has watered down the idea of ​​whether images we call boudoir are pornographic. Moreover, the concept of the porn star, once considered a degrading occupation, has become an accepted part of popular culture.

We have little control over the depiction of nudity within the photographic industry. We have the Not Suitable For Work (NSFW) label, but the idea of ​​what is obscene has become diluted by modern culture. Search engines penalize websites that publish such material without the NSFW tag, but there is little other restriction. However, in some countries, the UK included, governments are examining ways to restrict viewing adult content so it is not easily accessible by minors.

Lucy-Anne Holmes, who started the No More Page 3 campaign, did so because she said the photos she was exposed to had adversely affected her body image when she was just 11 years old. Some believe that the self-image of young women and girls is damaged by the depiction of naked, slim women. Those that claim this – there is evidence to back up their claims – want tighter controls. Those who shoot and post nude images will undoubtedly believe self-regulation is sufficient.

Is the former group fighting a losing battle? In most democratic countries, nudity in photography is considered normal, so by contemporary community standards, is not considered as obscene. Politically, the censorship of images is seen to go against human rights. Currently, that only leaves financial pressure, which is harder to inflict on individuals.

What do you think? Should photographers be free to photograph whatever they like, or should we try to uphold some moral standard? Is your point of view an arbitrary one? Or is it backed up with empirical evidence? Do you think we set subjective standards influenced by our culture and the times we live in?

I hope I’ve managed to discuss this evently and show both sides of the argument. I am not a boudoir photographer, hence the lack of boudoir images to illustrate the article. It is a sensitive and emotive topic. So, in the comments, please be respectful to others whose opinions may differ from yours.

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