Famously, associate justice of the US Supreme Court Potter Stewart refused to define “hard-core pornography” in the case of Jacobellis v Ohio – instead writing that “I know it when I see it”. The case referred to 1958 French film Les Amants, and whether the state of Ohio was justified in banning a 1964 screening on the grounds that it was “obscene”, and thus not protected by the First Amendment’s free speech clause. Four justices agreed that it wasn’t, but they also each disagreed about why it wasn’t obscene.
The irony, of course, is that Stewart’s plain-spoken judgement is both intuitive for any individual and yet also less than ideal for building a comprehensive legal framework. He’s right that, for those who think there are limits on free expression, there’s a line where it ends and titillation begins – but leaving the definition of that line as nothing more than a gut feeling is maybe the most apt example of how the law often struggles with the inherent
Japanese artist Megumi Igarashi now knows that well, after being arrested by Tokyo police for breaking that country’s obscenity laws, as reported by Sankei Shimbun. Her crime? Emailing 30 people a digitised scan of her own vagina, for 3D-printing at home.
The 42-year-old, who goes under the professional name Rokudenashi-ko (roughly: “good-for-nothing kid”), has worked for years to “demystify” the vagina in her work as part of a wider project called “Deco-Man” (roughly: “decorated pussy”). Her website is hilarious – there are vagina-inspired t-shirts, toys, smartphone cases, dioramas and even action figures. She’s said she felt shamed for daring to say a slang word for vagina – “manko” – in public and on TV:
Why did I start making this kind of art pieces? That was because I had not seen pussy of others and worried too much about mine. I did not know what a pussy should look like at the same time I though mine is just abnormal. Manko, pussy, has been such a taboo in the Japanese society. Penis, on the other hand, has been used in illustrations and signed as a part of pop culture. But pussy has never been so cute.
Pussy has been thought to be obscene because it’s been overly hidden although it is just a part of women’s body. I wanted to make pussy more casual and pop. That’s how I came to make a pussy lampshade, a remote-controlled pussy car, a pussy accessary, a pussy smartphone case, and so on.”
The crowning achievement was her “peach on the beach” the MK Boat, a full-sized kayak modelled on her own vagina:
Using the Japanese crowdfunding website Campfire, she asked fans for ¥514,800 (£2,952), but eventually reached a full ¥1,000,000 (£5,735). As with similar sites like Kickstarter, she gave out rewards for those who had donated larger sums. For 30 donors, that meant a copy of the 3D scan of her vagina, sent out via email – and that act is what led to her arrest, with police citing it as the distribution of obscene materials as defined by a 1907 act. Essentially, she accepted money in exchange for pornography, albeit in an unusual format. Igarashi has defended herself, according to Kotaku, as saying: “I don’t think this is obscene.”
It’s a case that exposes the inconsistency of definitions of “obscene”. The 1907 act under which Igarashi has been charged specifically refers to any “person who distributes, sells or displays in public and obscene document, drawing or other objects”, or “who possesses the same for the purpose of sale”.
Critics have pointed out that, while Igarashi fell foul of the law because her project involved a data file containing instructions on how to print a copy of her vagina, the police appeared unconcerned that she sells products featuring vaginas on her website. It has also been attacked in light of recent events in Japan, which only outlawed possession of images of child abuse last month after years of domestic and international criticism – yet with a specific exception for cartoon depictions of children in sexually-explicit comics, computer games and movies.
This means that a woman digitising her own vagina constitutes an obscenity, but a drawing of a child being raped isn’t. The difference, under Japanese law, appears to be because one involves the genitalia of an actual person, while the latter is fictional; this distinction is why, for example, Japan can be famous for a festival which features a six-foot penis being carried down the street while onlooks suck on penis-shaped lollipops, while simultaneously demanding that all genitalia in porn films are pixellated out. The issue appears to be not so much that nudity or titillation is what causes something to teeter over into obscenity – as might happen in the West – but simply the verifiable representation of a single person’s genitalia, whether for pleasure or art.
According to AFP, Igarashi’s lawyer has said she could face up to two years in prison or a fine of ¥2,500,00 (£14,340), while a Change.org petition demanding the charges be dropped currently has more than 13,000 signatures.