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Types of Pornography

Excerpted in part from Kids Online: Protecting Your Children In Cyberspace
by Donna Rice Hughes (Revell, September 1998)

Pornography can be thought of as all sexually explicit material intended primarily to arouse the reader, viewer, or listener. Each category of illegal pornography has a specific legal definition established by the courts. The Supreme Court has said that there are four categories of pornography that can be determined illegal. Illegal pornography includes indecency, material harmful to minors, obscenity, and child pornography. Click here for the legal definitions of types of pornography.

Lay Person Definitions

Legal for consenting adults, Illegal for minor children

  • Harmful to Minors Material - Material harmful to minors represents nudity or sex that has prurient appeal for minors, is offensive and unsuitable for minors, and lacks serious value for minors. This material is often referred to as soft-core pornography. There are "harmful to minors" laws in every state. Note: Indecent and harmful to minors material is legal for adults but illegal when knowingly sold or exhibited to minor children (legal definition).

  • Indecency-Indecent material includes messages or pictures on telephone, radio, or broadcast TV that are patently offensive descriptions or depictions of sexual or excretory organs or activities. This is often referred to as "sexual nudity" and "dirty words" (legal definition).

Illegal for Adults

  • Obscenity- Obscenity is graphic material that is obsessed with sex and/or sexual violence and is, therefore, prurient, patently offensive, and lacking in serious value. It is often referred to as hard-core pornography and includes close-ups of graphic sex acts and deviant activities, such as penetration, group sex, bestiality, torture, incest, and excretory functions. There are federal obscenity laws that criminalize distribution of obscenity on the Internet, but they have not been vigorously enforced as of November 2001 (legal definition).

    Note: (Production, transmission, and distribution of obscenity are felonies, yet possession of obscenity in one's home is not a crime. However, use of a phone line or online service to transmit obscenity is a federal crime under current law. Therefore, it is a felony to either upload (transmit from your personal computer to the Internet) or download (copy from the Internet onto your personal computer) Internet obscenity.

    Because of the subjective nature of current obscenity law, content prosecutable as obscenity is widely available on the Internet, not because it is legal, but because it must be treated as "constitutionally protected" until it has received due process and has been proven illegal in a court of law. Consequently, children have access to content that could be prosecuted as obscenity, such as pictures of women engaged in sexual acts with animals (bestiality).

  • Child Pornography
    Child pornography is material that visually depicts children (real children as well as computer-generated depictions of children) under the age of eighteen engaged in actual or simulated sexual activity, including lewd exhibition of the genitals. Child pornography laws were recently amended to include computerized images or altered (morphed) pictures of children, and counterfeit or synthetic images generated by computer that appear to be of real minors or that were marketed or represented to be real child pornography (legal definition).


© 2001 by Donna Rice Hughes. Request permission if you wish to reprint or post.