There’s a current online trend which challenges Internet personalities to descend through gauntlets of disturbing (at deepest levels, illegal) content. YouTubers are smart enough to not to violate terms of service or watch illegal content, but reactions to even legal content range from startled humor to horror, depression or disgust.

I understand their morbid curiosity.

I use the word “troll” to describe creatives who create content that shocks audiences. There’s one reason to troll: attention (and sales). Every artist must draw audiences. An effective troll doesn’t just make shocking images. Shock as marketing is an art itself. It’s not hard to understand why: even bad press is press.

But are shocking images, subject matters, and production histories defensible? Is there virtue to pushing audiences’ viewing habits?

Some argue there is, particularly within the confines of legal content. That’s what Hollywood makes (if they could, some directors might make illegal content). Equally, some argue shock content is obscenity, which isn’t protected speech under the first amendment.

What’s obscenity? According to some Supreme Court Justices, they know it when they see it.

Obscenity is material which an average person utilizing contemporary community standards would think appeals to prurient interests and has no redeeming literary, scientific, artistic or political value. Material can be offensive without being obscene, or vice versa.

If there’s ethical content to law, standards of ethical “value” must be applied equally to all works.

What’s tricky about obscenity is: do Supreme Court justices have unbiased views of what the “average person” thinks?

Because it’s tricky to know what doesn’t have value.

Pier Paolo Pasolini’s artsy torture porn classic Salo; or, the 120 Days in Sodom (1975) wasn’t an expression of Pasolini’s sexuality, but a critique of fascism (the film garnered yet more press when Pasolini was murdered three weeks after its release). The film contains gratuitous amounts of graphic fictional torture. During filming, actors were accidentally burned.

Many claim Salo is without value. Its anti-fascist message seems difficult to fathom buried beneath fictional torture. But if Pasolini hadn’t been homosexual, would anyone think Salo reflected his sexuality?

Unsafe working conditions are unethical, so if Salo’s obscene, it’s because actors were injured. If this makes it obscene, The Wizard of Oz (1939) is obscene for near-fatal injuries which occurred during filming.

Salo was considered obscene for the obvious: torturous pornographic images cannot possibly be meaningful art. or so critics believe.

However, some films featuring extreme or fetish sex have been recognized as high art. Crash (1996), which features real sex, is about people who fetishize car wrecks, the emptiness of their modernized lives leaves them craving bottomless promiscuous sex and predatory violence. Eyes Wide Shut (1999) features simulated ritual group sex, which society’s “betters” enjoy on a night of responsibility-free debauchery. In the Realm of the Senses (1976) is about dangers of obsessive relationships wrapped in creative, mutual sexual daring. Clearly, each have meanings to convey.

But then Deep Throat (1973), which advocates for women’s sexual freedom, must also be erotic art. Art-school porno Blow Job (1964) subverted porn protocol by only filming the actor’s face. Scorpio Rising (1961) is a parade of occult, homoerotic, and (upsettingly enough) Nazi symbols, but also captures images of the early gay leather scene, so has historic value.

This isn’t to say all pornography seems justified to me. I couldn’t get through Nekromantik (1987) without laughing or I’d cry; it’s cartoonishly grotesque. Nekromantik delves into a roller coaster of grisly sex, death, animal abuse, murder, suicide, sex with decay, fascist imagery, and other shocking elements. I can’t guess if anyone could be aroused by it. Yet Nekromantik had a point: extreme kinks won’t fix Rob and Betty’s problems, it’s easier to love ideas than people, and it explores male self-esteem issues concerning sexuality. So, it has artistic value.

(I must thank Nekromantik for defining my boundary for morbid interest in shock porn. Thankfully, I never progressed down the drain to August Underground (2001) or Slaughtered Vomit Dolls (2005), for example.)

What defines the difference between pornography and erotic art? The answer is illusive.

Some films wouldn’t bother the “average person” in the past but bother an “average person” today. This doesn’t mean the films don’t have value.

I dislike seeing blackface in The Jazz Singer (1927), but Jakie Rabinowitz is aware of the inherent offense. Jazz is about Jewish performers struggling to work on Broadway and explores a Jewish diaspora story. It’s one of the first commercially-produced Hollywood films to experiment with sound. While nothing truly excuses the offense, it gives it context: Jakie can’t define his path to success.

Other films have meaning in that they can now be viewed as a reflection of past social ills.

When The Birth of a Nation (1915) was released, it was praised for “accuracy” and won accolades. At that time, audiences didn’t see what’s clear now: Birth panders to the fear white Southerners had of blacks. Birth can be watched as a historical study of racist biases in the early 20th century. The fact that Africa Addio (1966) was created to shock seems secondary now: Addio’s content isn’t as shocking as its callousness is, as documentarians refused to intervene on violent military situations. Some footage was rumored to be staged. Today, it can be viewed as “what not to do” for documentarians.

It’s always surprised me when films with fictional violence are still criticized. Supposedly, many viewers walked out of theaters due to excessive gunfire and torture in Reservoir Dogs (1992). I want to know if they’ve watched Bonnie and Clyde (1967), The Godfather (1972) or Taxi Driver (1976), to name a few.

Offense over era-specific culturally shocking content isn’t always equally distributed.

When Marlene Dietrich wore a tuxedo and slyly kissed a female cabaret patron in Morocco (1930), cross dressing and lesbianism were rare in film. However, Morocco received praise. The reason’s obvious: Dietrich’s still sexualized in drag, the kiss is flirtatious and funny.

Other films appear to self-censor portrayals of homosexuality for the same reason. Lawrence of Arabia (1962) never mentions Lawrence is in a homosocial/homosexual relationship with Sherif Ali. Yet Arabia contains a nude whipping scene Lawrence enjoys. It’s more acceptable for a British military hero to be a masochist than to have had a homosocial/homosexual relationship. O’Toole can’t be fetishized fluidly like Dietrich can. When Dietrich kisses the patron, it’s doesn’t affect the conclusion of the film. When the relationship between Lawrence and Sharif is ignored, the emotional resonance between the men is perplexing.

What this means is that straight and lesbian romance (despite its rarity in 1930) was more acceptable in film than gay romance would be 30 years after. Films alluding to gay romance were made in the 1920s and 30’s, but were coded, like F.W. Murnau’s Faust (1926).

Coding makes a perplexing situation where self-censoring and societal censoring meet, but ultimately, the difference between coded and overt content had nothing to do with what was acceptable. It represented what directors and studios believed would attract or repel audiences.

The exploitation genre is often accused of lacking value, but a single watch of most exploitation films often proves otherwise.

I Spit on Your Grave (1978) is about getting revenge for rape. Last House on the Left (1972) is about parents avenging their tortured/raped/murdered daughter. Despite this, Left was considered so scandalous theaters were instructed to cut it themselves if they intended to screen it, then the original reels were lost. The full film is still lost.

Isla, She Wolf of the SS (1975) mocks Nazism, but it’s also torture porn.

Deliverance (1972) criticizes neoliberal classist biases, but includes a brutal male rape scene. A similarly brutal scene occurs in Pulp Fiction (1994), so that should mean it’s obscene, too. But Pulp isn’t considered exploitation film, but auteur film, despite being considerably more profane and violent than Deliverance.

Cannibal Holocaust (1980) says something about “documentaries” made at the expense of the indigenous societies they’re recording. Cruelty to animals during filming might make it obscene. But if so, Apocalypse Now (1979) is obscene.

The Green Inferno (2015), which was influenced by Holocaust, didn’t harm animals. It was criticized for its portrayal of fictional indigenous tribes. Yes, Inferno might be culturally insensitive. However, Inferno warns that both social activists and multinational companies makes survival for these tribes worse. It has political value.

More recent comers to the exploitation genre prove the point to a greater degree.

It’s difficult to watch any scene in A Serbian Film (2010). Anyone claiming it’s not about human trafficking and abuses of the porn industry, particularly to male actors, is being obtuse. Hostel (2005) takes on similar issues but contains less excessive levels of violence.

Martyrs (2008) becomes nearly unwatchable in its final scenes. It’s message about violent sexism repackaged as Christian virtue is clear. Begotten (1989) has a similar message and uses tamer images.

Bone Tomahawk (2015) descends quickly into comedic, bloodthirsty mayhem, then threatens to lose its point, which is civilization might not be for everyone and remote tribes might be better left isolated.

This isn’t to say that all exploitation films have messages that justify their extremes.

I recognize The Human Centipede (2009) is about Mengele-esque Nazi human experiments and disregard for subjects. That doesn’t mean Centipede’s extremes felt necessary. I laugh while watching Pink Flamingos (1972), and appreciate its about what some will do for fame, but the fact Divine willingly consumed real dog feces ruins the humor Pink creates. Still these films aren’t without message even if I don’t appreciate their extremes.

Are these movies difficult to watch? Yes. Do they have value? Yes, as do most “tasteless” exploitation films. Difficult imagery doesn’t mean a film is without value. The Passion of the Christ (2004) is difficult to watch, but Passion was never accused of lacking value.

Some truly difficult films never created controversy. The Act of Seeing With One’s Own Eyes (1971) is 32 minutes of autopsy footage. It received praise despite being stomach churning. If “hard to watch” means offensive, why has Eyes only received praise? It has scientific value, yes, but films seized from Dr. Kinsey’s research had scientific value. Why? Kinsey recorded unsimulated sex; his films were considered obscene.

Kinsey was conducting research and collecting data, and his participants were willing, so who determined his research has no scientific value? Dr. Kinsey’s research was considered controversial because it hoped to collect data concerning sex lives of Americans. Eyes is a good film, but if anything, it’s more disturbing than sexuality. Eyes is praised, Kinsey’s research is condemned, obscenity is arbitrary.

Some directors are abusive, and that could be considered grounds for obscenity.

Stanley Kubrick verbally abused Shelley Duvall while filming The Shining (1980). Sergio Leone frequently put Eli Wallach in danger while filming The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly (1966). The infamous butter rape scene in Last Tango in Paris (1972) left Marlon Brando and Maria Schneider feeling violated, despite the fact the sex was simulated and the scene was in the script.

While abuses aren’t warranted, actors can break contracts and leave films. While there’s no excuse for criminal behavior, actors should be aware of their professional limitations. No film and no contract, no matter how lucrative or legally binding, is worth suffering for. Still, knowing actors suffered makes these films harder to watch.

Directors have fabricated rumors of abuses to create controversy. Alejandro Jodorowsky claimed he committed onscreen rape in his midnight movie classic El Topo (1970). The onscreen sex in Topo was consensual.

Is lying about Topo unethical?

No; marketing relies on deception. If audiences believe the deception, it’s effective. Daring marketing strategies have been constructed other films.

Alfred Hitchcock increased ticket sales to Psycho (1960) by advertising that no one would be admitted to the theater after the film began. Directors of The Blair Witch Project (1999) convinced so many it was found footage that rumors of actors’ deaths persisted. Late-night television watchers got scares during summer of 2002 when the “cursed film” from the American adaptation The Ring (2002) played during commercial breaks. Antrum (2018) put audiences on edge by creating an elaborate “cursed film/snuff film” mythos.

All these methods, despite their deceit, represent successful campaigns to increase ticket sales. One could ask if all marketing is unethical, but that’s another matter altogether.

There’re films that have perhaps rightfully been censored. Faces of Death (1978) is difficult to watch because it doesn’t offer context to deaths and the deaths are of anonymous victims. I can legitimately see why this could be a reason to find the callousness of Faces obscene. Mark Marek, owner of, was tried under obscenity charges and ultimately driven out of business for similar content. Marek countered that he’s received messages that prevented people from attempting risky behaviors. If never prevented harm, can the California Highway Patrol admit Red Asphalt (1964) never prevented any?

And this standard isn’t equally applied. Footage portraying police brutality has been featured on news outlets to the point they’re familiar. Footage of Mohamed Bouazizi, the Tunisian fruit seller who self-immolated in response to police harassment, sparked mass protests that spread throughout the Middle East against police and government corruption. This content had considerable value if it motivates a people’s revolution.

Seeing real death in media isn’t a new trend. The most culpable culprit for such materials hasn’t been artists, but journalists and news outlets. A contemporary researcher would be likely to cite news footage of the Vietnam War. There’s much terrifyingly iconic footage to choose from, but one candidate for most disturbing is the footage of Thich Quang Duc, a monk who self-immolated in protest of Vietnam’s persecution of Buddhists. The images were captured by Malcolm Brown for the Saigon Associated Press. If we’re going to censor snuff in media, we’re decades too late.

Is it unethical to spread such content? Clearly, these images and films have impacted political change: just because that change has not always been in service of convenient political narratives doesn’t mean they didn’t have meaning. What is ultimately, perhaps, conditional upon this content is that if it supports an official political narrative, it’s barely news, and all content that doesn’t support it is obscene.

We have ample methods we can use to ensures safety of viewers, too. Viewer discretion warnings, age-restricted content online, and parental controls might be ample to inform viewers of content they’ll view. Apart from properly labeling the videos, we can do little to provide warnings for otherwise legal content.

There’s no denying that illegal content should be censored and should be illegal. And the fact is that almost none if it is in film.

Groups known for systematic violence (such as ISIL and cartels), regularly create footage proving they are equal parts creative and brutal when executing enemies. These snuff films are too disturbing to experience. Then again, it’s astounding the recordings from the events of the Jonestown Massacre are in the public commons. The fact that these videos were made to purposely torture and kill (usually) anonymous victims should convince us these films are evidence of crimes.

Many extremist groups would use media to try to encourage audiences to do violence, which would be inciting imminent lawless action, which is not protected under the First Amendment. Their content is also illegal.

The Internet is, sadly, crawling with violent, torturous, underaged pornography where its participants are obviously not consenting adults. Such content needs to remain illegal. No matter what the age of consent is in each country of production or distribution, this shouldn’t be considered art and should always be illegal.

Just as sickeningly, pornography which features torture of unwilling participants is just as prevalent on the Internet. There shouldn’t be any reason to explain why such content should be illegal, as obviously, victims of the content do not consent to threatening their lives or even losing them.

While I support those who struggle with mental health issues (I’ve struggled), there are communities on the Internet who actively encourage suicide, and others actively encourage extreme self-harm. While I believe in the autonomy of each person to determine their fate, we have responsibilities to encourage those with mental health struggles to seek help. Content which encourages extreme self-harm and suicide are actually encouraging violent action in a passive way.

Some Hollywood films contain violence to animals, but there’re disturbing online communities which intentionally harm or kill animals for entertainment. Methods used often prolong the suffering of the animal. Hollywood films that containing animal violence were filmed before current animal cruelty laws were passed. Legal penalties for such actions are now higher; this content is now considered very illegal.

(For example, it’s a shame the sleuths who investigated sadist and murderer Luka Magnotta for torturing kittens couldn’t get him arrested, or “One Lunatic, One Icepick” wouldn’t have happened.)

Despite what Supreme Court judges state, there’s no true definition of obscenity. Everyone’s hurt by some content; that’s inevitable. If that content’s legal and doesn’t incite violence, it’s rarely obscene and shouldn’t be censored. Most art attempts to communicate a message. What audiences of the past determined to be obscene define more about their social biases and habitual viewing practices than ethics in art; for better or for worse, current community standards have adapted to shocking images.

We can stop calling non-criminal content obscene. Artists who make offensive content will be criticized (the First Amendment guards nobody against the consequences of free speech), but we should recognize that criticism shouldn’t call for censorship.

There’s a reason obscenity trials are rare today.

Audiences have been exposed to increasingly more extreme content.

The average person doesn’t feel compelled to commit unwilling prurient acts. The legal system considers viewers more responsible for their actions.

And modern audiences recognize meaning in content deemed meaningless and obscene decades ago. This should happen if audiences are exposed to a greater variety of content.

Allowing audiences freedom may be risky, but challenging viewers to take responsibility for the legal content they’re exposed to is a worthwhile reward.