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Defeat Lust & Pornography 8 minute read

What Is Considered Porn?

Last Updated: February 9, 2024

Covenant Eyes exists to help people overcome pornography—but what do we mean by “pornography”? Judge Potter Stewart, in Jacobellis v. Ohio, famously wrote that while he couldn’t give an intelligible definition of pornography, “I know it when I see it.”

Most people know what they mean when they use the word, but it’s often less clear what other people mean by it. In a 2016 survey conducted by the Barna Group, they found that Americans had very different understandings of what should be considered porn. Only 57% of people surveyed believed that a fully nude image that is sexually arousing should necessarily be considered porn, and only 62% of people said “an image of a sexual act that is not intercourse” is pornography.1 So what is pornography?

The Dictionary Definition and Etymology of Pornography

“Pornography” is a compound word, comprised of two Greek words, “porneia” and “graphe.” Porneia refers to sexual immorality or promiscuity of any kind. Graphe simply means “writings.” So the word pornography originally indicated “writings of sexual immorality” or “writings about prostitutes.”

In the mid-nineteenth century, English writers began using this term to refer to sexually arousing pictures or literature. However, as this is a subjective and personal judgment, people differed as to what constituted pornography—just as they do today. Gradually, as technology evolved, the word has come to refer primarily to pictures and video content. See A Brief History of Porn From Venus to Vivid.

Form or Function?

In their study, The Porn Phenomena, Barna pointed out there are really two different ways of defining pornography. One is to focus on the form, or content itself. What types of content should we call pornographic? What kinds of pictures or videos? Nudity? Various sex acts? Only graphic depictions of intercourse?

When I was a boy, I thought any image of a naked person was pornography to be avoided. I remember reading my history books and hurriedly flipping past the pictures of the Sistine Chapel and Botticelli’s Birth of Venus. But most people today, even conservative Christians, would consider these classical paintings fine art rather than pornography. Furthermore, even if you decided to get rid of all nude paintings, what about the bodies displayed in anatomy textbooks? Are doctors in training required to view pornography? What makes an image of a naked body pornographic?

With these questions in mind, many have argued that defining pornography strictly based on content leads to unhelpful silliness. Rather, pornography is about the function of the content, which we hinted at earlier in the way the word was first used: Pornography is material designed to arouse. After working at Covenant Eyes for nearly 20 years and talking to countless people struggling with various types of content, I would argue that any materials used for sexual arousal can become pornography, even if that wasn’t the purpose of their design—but more on that later.

To discuss pornography meaningfully, we need some concept of the type of content we mean generally. However, any attempt to define pornography strictly based on content will eventually break down, especially when it comes to individual porn consumption. So in this case, the functional definition of pornography is more helpful.

Pornography and Obscenity Laws

For the most part, people are content to have their individual definitions of pornography, whether formal or functional. Society gets along very well with a wide range of opinions about what is and what isn’t porn. But as soon as porn starts to protrude into the public sphere, the disagreements grow stark. On the one hand, you have free-speech purists who insist on no regulation whatsoever. However, most people have recognized something unique about pornography that distinguishes it from other expressions of speech. A public display of pornography intrudes on the sexual privacy of everyone who sees it. Consequently, it is not “free speech,” but sexual harassment.

(See Is Porn Protected By the First Amendment?)

In this context, rather than “pornography,” the legal questions revolve around “obscenity.” Something “obscene” is something that violates common decency. In the United States, the determination of obscenity was left to state and local authorities until the mid-nineteenth century. However, in the second half of the nineteenth century, activists like Anthony Comstock helped pass federal obscenity laws. These regulated the distribution of pornographic content, especially by the United States Postal Service.

It surprises many people to learn that federal law still prohibits obscenity in the United States. These laws make it a federal crime to distribute obscene material—but the definition of obscenity remains unclear. What makes something obscene?

Miller v. California, 413 U.S. 15

In the United States, the landmark decision of Miller v. California in 1973 provides three-fold legal criteria for determining whether content is obscene. To paraphrase, these criteria are:

  1. The average person applying “contemporary adult community standards” would consider this content something to be of “prurient interest,” i.e., sexually deviant.  
  2. The average person using these standards would consider this content offensive and inappropriate.
  3. This content has no intrinsic value (other than its purpose to arouse sexually).

 We might say this three-part test tries to incorporate both formal and functional definitions. Does this depict something that most people would agree is obscene? Would people use it in an obscene way? Would we lose something of value by banning it? If these three things apply to a piece of content, then according to federal law, it is illegal to sell or distribute it in the USA. Violators face fines or even prison time.

So why is it that pornography is distributed so freely across so many channels? One answer is that the current laws simply go unenforced. I think this is true. But law enforcement also reflects the changing nature of “contemporary adult community standards.” While most people would agree that billboards depicting graphic pornography would be obscene, fewer people are ready to confront what goes on in the dark corners of the internet. Is privately enjoying porn really obscene?  

Obscenity and Child Sex Abuse Material

While the public remains divided as to how pornography relates to obscenity in general, there is at least one area where obscenity laws are regularly enforced: child pornography. More accurately called “child sex abuse material” (CSAM), this includes any sexual depiction of children under the age of eighteen. In the last few years, some mainstream pornography sites have been found complicit in distributing and profiting from CSAM.

See Pornography and Sex Trafficking for more details.

Is This Porn? Taking a Closer Look

Outside of the legal space, there’s a more important question to ask than what other people think is porn: What do you think is porn? Put another way, are you consuming content that affects you as pornography? That may sound confusing, so let’s take a closer look.

Porn Differs From Person to Person

At Covenant Eyes we’ve helped close to two million people on the journey away from pornography. After more than two decades, one thing we’ve found is that pornography use can look very different for different groups and individuals. Not everyone agrees “this is porn” or “this isn’t porn.” And that’s OK. People from different cultural backgrounds tend to have different understandings of what is or isn’t appropriate. I’ve also spoken to people who struggle with unique fetishes that most would not find arousing. Despite the differences, what is the same is the motivation for viewing this content.

Covenant Eyes author Lisa Eldred discusses this in her article on female porn use. In addition to pornographic websites, porn can include things like erotica, social media, scenes from movies, or video games. Lisa writes, “This, for the record, describes my own porn use, which involves abusing character customization options in video games to emphasize character sexuality.”

This goes back to the functional definition of pornography. The type of content may vary, but when something is consumed for sexual arousal, it becomes pornographic for the user.

The Bible’s Definition of Porn

You may be asking, “Is this considered porn?” because you know porn is bad, and so you want to steer clear of pornographic content. Now, that’s very good! But it’s also not exactly the right question because the Bible condemns lust of any kind, no matter the content you’re consuming.

Elsewhere, we’ve written about pornography in the Bible. Rather than a formal definition (i.e., specific types of content), the Bible emphasizes what’s going on in the heart of the person. Why are you looking? Whether it’s a website, video, billboard, or an actual person you’re looking at, do you have lust in your heart?

For Christians, the goal isn’t just to avoid porn. It’s to stop lusting and to avoid situations where you have the opportunity to lust.

Not All Porn Is Created Equal

I need to make a caveat here: Not every type of pornography is equally bad. Certainly, some kinds of content are more intrinsically harmful than others. Pornography that depicts violent or deviant sex acts is worse. Pornography created through coercion or outright sexual violence is wrong for many reasons.

Modern digital pornography is especially destructive because it’s a superstimulus and easily leads to out-of-control behavior. (See Why Is Porn So Addictive?: 4 Reasons It’s Tough to Resist). But even relatively harmless forms of pornographic content can fuel patterns of unwanted behavior.

For someone who desires to live porn-free, the point is not just to avoid the worst possible kinds of pornography and patterns of behavior. Rather, the goal is to live a life unhindered by any pornography.

You Can Be Free From Porn

Do you feel like you’re stuck in the habit of viewing pornography? Maybe you’re a Christian and feel guilty because you realize your behaviors don’t match your beliefs. Perhaps your porn use has been escalating, and you feel like it’s time to get things under control. You don’t have to stay trapped. You can find freedom from pornography.

Check out our article by sex addiction therapist Dr. Doug Weiss, How to Stop Watching Porn.


1  Josh McDowell Ministry, The Porn Phenomenon: The Impact of Pornography in the Digital Age (Ventura, CA: Barna Group, 2016), 10.

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