In a case seen as a test of whether text-only fiction can be considered legally obscene, Thomas Alan Arthur has been indicted on seven counts of obscenity-related crimes for hosting an erotic fiction archive named Mr Double. The site contained over 25,000 stories by more than 2,200 authors.
After the failure of the obscenity prosecutions over Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer in 1964 and William S Burroughs’ Naked Lunch in 1965, there have been no further attempts to criminalize long form fiction in the United States. However, fiction is not categorically exempt from obscenity law. In the 1973 case of Kaplan v. California, the Supreme Court affirmed that “words alone can be legally ‘obscene’ in the sense of being unprotected by the First Amendment.”
Arthur’s charges relate to five stories that contain fictional accounts of child sexual abuse, along with two line drawings and one cartoon-style drawing that were used as author profile pictures.
Mr Double’s contributor policy permitted all genres of erotic stories and required contributors to tag their stories using standardized content warnings. The site featured numerous disclaimers indicating that all of the stories are fictional and that the site was for adults only.
The legal standard for an obscenity conviction, established in Miller v. California (1973), requires that a work “taken as a whole, lacks serious literary, artistic, political, or scientific value.” Arthur’s defense contends that the works of erotic short fiction at issue in this case have that value and should not be considered legally obscene. Experts will argue that:
- There is scientific value to short fiction on taboo topics such as pedophilia, because understanding the fantasies of those with pedophilic desires helps us to protect children from abuse, and better intervene to support people struggling with these desires.
- There is artistic value to erotic short fiction, in that they appeal to various diverse readerships who may bring satirical, feminist, queer, or other readings to these works.
This case could help discourage future obscenity prosecutions over short stories and help to establish a new baseline principle that text-only fiction should not be considered obscene.
The Prostasia Foundation, an organization dedicated to combatting child sexual abuse, is assisting in Arthur’s defense and they are raising funds to cover the costs of an art censorship expert to testify at trial. Donations to fund their efforts can be made here: prostasia.org