Normally when we think of obscenity we think of pictures or movies that show sexualized nudity -- and often "obscenity" is considered to be pornography that is particularly degrading or disgusting, beyond the pale of normal sexuality. There are federal laws against obscenity but they aren't enforced very broadly because there isn't much agreement on what is obscene and what isn't ("I know it when I see it"). Historically, however, obscenity prosecutions weren't focused only on graphic depictions of sex:
For the past three decades, the courts have been concerned almost exclusively with obscene visual images, not graphic verbal descriptions of sexual activity, but such was not always the case. The early and celebrated legal battles in this country sometimes involved what are now recognized as great works of fiction that included sexual themes: books such as James Joyce's Ulysses or D. H. Lawrence's Lady Chatterly's Lover. But it is important to remember that obscenity issues can still involve non-visual material, as demonstrated by a Florida prosecutor's decision to (unsuccessfully) try the rap group Two Live Crew for violating Florida's obscenity statute by singing rap songs with graphic sexual lyrics.
And so now we have the modern equivalent, though almost certainly without the redeeming literary qualities of Lawrence or Joyce: Karen Fletcher is being prosecuted for obscene stories on her website.
A woman who authorities say ran a Web site that published graphic fictional tales about the torture and sexual abuse of children has been indicted on federal obscenity charges.
"Use of the Internet to distribute obscene stories like these not only violates federal law, but also emboldens sex offenders who would target children," U.S. Attorney Mary Beth Buchanan said Wednesday in announcing the charges against Karen Fletcher, 54.
A component of obscenity laws that particularly interests me is that the laws aren't intended to protect the subjects of the obscene works, but rather their potential consumers. In this, obscenity laws are different from laws prohibiting visual child pornography which are justified by a desire to protect children from being exploited during the production (though even the definition of child pornography is rather complex). The argument behind obscenity laws is not that anyone is hurt during creation, but rather that the consumers of the work will be harmed by their consumption and that society as a whole will be degraded.
I'm quite torn over these sorts of obscenity prosecutions. On the one hand, yes, I'm disgusted and disturbed by the accusations against Karen Fletcher, and if they're true then she's a horrible person who I would never want to associate with and who should have as little influence on society as possible. On the other hand, I'm not comfortable with the government deciding to prosecute a woman just for writing gross stories. Assuming the stories are complete fiction, who is hurt? The author and readers have sick minds, but there's no evidence that writing or reading such stories leads to actually carrying out abusive acts. In contrast, my intuition suggests that people with abusive inclinations might have less opportunity and motivation to actually harm children if they are distracted by fiction. If obscene stories serve as an "outlet" for these sickos, then eliminating the stories might actually lead to more abuse and do more harm than good. We could then lock the abusers up when they're caught, but only after they have claimed a victim.