Leave the Obscene Unseen
August 1989

“Leave the Obscene Unseen,” Ensign, Aug. 1989, 27

Leave the Obscene Unseen

In choosing entertainment, we cannot be guided by the world’s definition of “obscene.” Latter-day Saints are to live by a higher standard.

Our seventeen-year-old son wanted to attend a movie that some of his friends had already seen. We checked the newspaper: the movie’s PG-13 rating was for “sex, profanity, violence, and vulgarity.”

“So what?” he said. “It can’t be any worse than what I see and hear every day at school.”

“That may be true,” I answered, “but that doesn’t mean you should see the movie.” I then said that according to the newspaper review, the movie was pornographic.

“It’s not pornography, Dad,” he countered. “The newspaper says it’s a teen comedy, and I’m a teenager.”

“Yes,” I said. “But you’re not just any teenager. You hold God’s priesthood. Please don’t go.”

He didn’t go.

Is It—Or Isn’t It—Pornography?

It isn’t easy to guide a teenager’s choices. Part of the problem is that today’s definition of pornography is complicated and confusing.

As parents, we have found it helpful to explain pornography to our children in simple gospel terms. We like to start with the dictionary. It says that something is obscene if it is “offensive to chastity or to modesty.”1 This definition is helpful because the principles of modesty and chastity are easily understood by children.

Latter-day Saints have a clear standard of modesty. It is defined by the temple garment. The garment covers nakedness that should not be exposed in public. Keeping our bodies appropriately covered is modesty. Wearing insufficient or tight, revealing clothing is immodesty. Even when participating in swimming and athletic activities, our “dress and grooming should be modest, in good taste, and appropriate to the activity.”2 Disrespectful talk about the body or its functions is also a form of immodesty.

Chastity has to do with the sacredness of the power of procreation. This is an especially sacred power, to be used only within the bonds of marriage.

The Lord has referred to the human body as a temple. (See D&C 93:35.) A temple is a holy place, a place where the Spirit of the Lord may dwell. Like a temple, the body is sacred; and its most sacred power—procreation—may be likened to the celestial room in the temple. The temple walls and veil provide multiple layers of protection for this sacred place, to keep it holy. In like manner, the power of procreation should also be protected by multiple layers—layers of modesty.

When we use the power of procreation only within the bonds of marriage, and when we think and speak of it with reverence, we are keeping the law of chastity.

What Happened to the Simple Definition of Pornography?

Today’s complex definition of pornography is the result of a prolonged legal process. Using the United States as an example, let’s look at that process.

Until about thirty years ago, modesty and chastity constituted the standard of decency among Christian denominations throughout the world. For many centuries, these principles also determined the English definition of pornography. As far as I can tell, every dictionary of the English language published anywhere in the world before 1957 equates obscenity with offensiveness to modesty and/or chastity.3

Early in United States history, secular judges applied this definition of pornography in criminal courts. Convicted violators were jailed. In those days, public morality was considered a political necessity, and biblical standards were enforced without apology.4

Even so, in the mid-1800s, the meaning of obscenity began to change. In 1868 the word acquired a specialized legal meaning, apart from its ordinary meaning. Between 1868 and 1957, however, the two definitions—the legal meaning and the dictionary definition—were functionally identical in most American courts.5

But in 1957, the U. S. Supreme Court formulated a new legal definition of obscenity. The Court’s decision in the case of Roth v. U.S. removed the religious doctrines of modesty and chastity from U. S. obscenity law. This created a new category of obscenity: material that is obscene by traditional scriptural standards, but not obscene under the new legal definition.6

Further clarification of the Roth standard came in 1973 with the Supreme Court’s decision in the case of Miller v. California. As a result of the Miller decision, three conditions must apply for a work to be considered legally obscene (notice the absence of the words chastity or modesty):

  • The average person, applying contemporary community standards, would find that the work, taken as a whole, appeals to the prurient interest.

  • The work depicts or describes, in a patently offensive way, sexual conduct specifically defined by the applicable state (or federal) law.

  • The work, taken as a whole, lacks serious literary, artistic, political, or scientific value.7

Currently, obscene material that cannot be condemned under the law is not legally obscene. Of course, the nature of the material hasn’t changed—only its status with respect to the law. The material is just as obscene and harmful now as it ever was.

According to Dr. Victor B. Cline, a Latter-day Saint who is nationally regarded as an expert on the influence of pornography on society, there is sometimes little difference between material found in certain popular movies and pornography that is legally obscene. “Actually,” he says, “the only difference may be a slightly different camera angle. The inappropriate behavior witnessed is still the same.”8

What Can LDS Parents and Leaders Do?

1. Reevaluate what comes into our homes and neighborhoods.

Latter-day Saint leaders have spoken clearly about the evils and dangers of pornography and have suggested ways to combat it. We must begin with ourselves and our own families.9

Another of our sons recently asked to see a movie that was being reviewed as “the fourth—and arguably the best—incarnation of this plot in less than a year.” My wife and I had seen one of the earlier versions and had given our children permission to see it also. Based on this new movie’s review as “arguably the best,” we might have given our son permission to see it.

However, we noticed in a longer review these warnings: “Unfortunately, the sex angle is dealt with here … in a way that is less than tasteful, and one scene in particular may be enough to steer young ones in another direction, despite the PG rating.”

This review went on to mention the use of a certain word, “which supposedly nets an automatic PG-13 rating—though this movie is rated PG.” It concludes with the warning that “parents should be advised that this isn’t particularly a film for young children.”10

Translated into biblical standards, this was an obscene movie.

As each year passes, motion picture ratings become more and more relaxed. Movies that would have received an X rating ten or fifteen years ago now receive R or PG-13 ratings. Movies that before would have received an R rating now receive PG-13 or even PG ratings.

And movies aren’t the only problem. Books, magazines, and song lyrics can be equally as offensive to decency. The opinion of a media critic may be helpful, but we must remember that most professionals do not apply biblical standards in their reviews.

How unfortunate it is to hear more and more frequently the following endorsement, even from Latter-day Saints: “It’s a great movie [or book]—except for a couple of bad parts. But I’m sure you’ll really like it!”

If material contains matter that is offensive to modesty or chastity, it is pornographic and should be avoided.

A Church-produced pamphlet, How Can I Help in the Fight Against Pornography? (stock no. PXPC3751, 5¢) suggests the following steps to avoid exposure to pornography:

  • “Set personal and family standards that focus on human dignity and wholesome living.”

  • “Have open family discussions with children of suitable age about pornography and its dangers.”

  • “Emphasize the sacred nature of the human body and the joy of proper sexual relationships.”

  • “Avoid places where pornography is believed to exist.”

  • “Control and monitor television viewing.”

  • “Select movies and other entertainment based on reliable reviews.”

  • “Read good books, … and read them to your children.”

  • “Be aware of unsuitable music and lyrics. Discuss their impact on young people and others.”

2. Support antipornography laws and work to strengthen them.

Unfortunately, there are limitations to this approach. Even if the toughest obscenity laws were strictly enforced, most pornography could not be eliminated by the law. Only the most degenerate and degrading material could be eliminated, while, as Elder Ezra Taft Benson stated in 1970, “by court edict, pornography [is] allowed to prosper.”11

More recently, President Benson, quoting law professor Lino A. Graglia, declared: “The [U. S. Supreme] Court has removed from both the federal and state government nearly all power to prohibit the distribution and sale or exhibition of pornographic materials.”12

However, there are things we can and should do. The pamphlet How Can I Help in the Fight Against Pornography? suggests the following steps:

  • Realize that “material that is not [legally] ‘obscene’ but is ‘indecent’ can be legally limited as to time, place, and manner of presentation.”

  • “Let law enforcement personnel know that you and your neighbors want antipornography laws enforced. Enforcement requires proof that the materials offend local community standards. Speak out so those standards will be known.”

  • “Alert officials to the sources of obscene materials. If unsolicited materials are mailed to you, forward them to your postmaster with your complaint.”

  • “Encourage legislators to enact additional laws where needed in such areas as telephone and computer pornography, cable television, and so forth.”

3. Let our voices be heard.

If a business sells or rents obscene material, talk to those who have authority to make changes. Quiet conversations and carefully written letters to business owners and managers can have positive effects. If these efforts are not successful, join with community groups to encourage businesses to remove offensive material from their shelves. Letters to newspaper editors, radio and television stations, advertisers, and legislators may also be effective.

It is appropriate for Church members to join with nonmembers in group action against pornography. The Church endorses the following national antipornography organization in the U. S. :The Religious Alliance Against Pornography (RAAP), 800 Compton Road, Suite 9248, Cincinnati, Ohio 45231. An LDS General Authority sits on the board of directors of this organization, along with other Christian, Jewish, and community leaders. And the Church has produced a videotape for RAAP that is available for use in local community and neighborhood organizations: “Together We Can Make a Difference”—in the Fight against Pornography, available from the Church Public Communications Department. The price is $10.00.

There are other groups as well. Service organizations like PTAs and other community groups often make a greater difference locally than national organizations. The important thing is to get involved.

4. Expect opposition.

No matter which course of action we choose, we can often measure our effectiveness by the amount of opposition we encounter. One cannot promote righteousness without provoking criticism. Speaking to the Saints in general conference, Elder Wm. Grant Bangerter of the Presidency of the Seventy warned that “since so much of the world accepts these actions [the display of such things as adultery, pornography, nudity, and licentiousness], if we resist them or speak out against them, we will be scoffed at. We will be called prudish, Victorian, puritan, and self-righteous, as if we had become the sinners. We will be accused of being evil-minded in our failure to appreciate the ‘beauty and naturalness’ of the human body.”13

Someday the Saints will succeed in establishing a society that is clean and pure—a Zion to which the Savior may come. Pornography, among other impure things, will have been purged from that society. In the meantime, everything we do or say in support of modesty and chastity contributes toward the eventual establishment of such a Zion. Even when we do not see immediate results, we need to make sure we’re on the Lord’s side of this issue.


  1. Webster’s New Collegiate Dictionary, G. C. Merriam Co.: Springfield, Mass., 1961, s.v. “obscene.”

  2. Activities Committee Handbook, 1987, p. 8. For suggestions on choosing swimwear, see Judith Rasband, New Era, Apr. 1983, pp. 20–25.

  3. An old definition from England held that obscene meant “immodest; not agreeable to chastity of mind.” (Samuel Johnson, A Dictionary of the English Language, London, 1755.) Many standard dictionaries today continue to give variations of that definition.

  4. See, for example, 56 Ind. 328, and 45 F. R. 415.

  5. See Charles Rembar, The End of Obscenity, New York: Random House, 1968, pp. 15, 17.

  6. In Miller v. California, the U. S. Supreme Court said: “The Roth definition does not reflect the precise meaning of ‘obscene’ as traditionally used in the English language. … Pornographic material which is [legally] obscene forms a sub-group of all ‘obscene’ expression, but not the whole.” (Miller v. California, 413 U. S. 15, at 18 and 19, 1973.)

  7. Prior to Roth, if there was anything in the work that appealed to the prurient interest, the work was almost always considered to be legally obscene. Today, if there is anything in the work that does not appeal to the prurient interest, the work is usually considered legal. The 1868 standard did not require that the work be considered as a whole. A single offensive word could sometimes condemn a work. Today, if any part of the work contains “serious literary, artistic, political, or scientific value,” the work cannot be condemned. (See Robert E. Riggs, BYU Law Review, vol. 1981, no. 2, pp. 248–49, 261; and Final Report of the Attorney General’s Commission on Pornography, Nashville, Tenn.: Rutledge Hill Press, 1986, pp. 18–19, 31.)

  8. Ensign, Apr. 1984, p. 34.

  9. See Ensign, Apr. 1984, pp. 37–39; see also Statements by Leaders of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints Concerning Pornography, stock no. PXPC3605, 15¢.

  10. Deseret News, 3 June 1988, p. 4-W.

  11. Improvement Era, Dec. 1970, p. 49; italics added.

  12. The Constitution: A Heavenly Banner, Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Co., 1986, pp. 26–27; italics added.

  13. Ensign, May 1984, p. 27.

  • R. Gary Shapiro, a computer programmer, is stake clerk in the Pleasant Grove Utah Timpanogos Stake. He is a member of the Pleasant Grove Eleventh Ward.

Illustrated by Paul Mann