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Nakedness, nudity or pornography: Where do you draw the line?

By Ronald Musoke

What exactly constitutes nakedness, nudity or pornography has always been quite a controversial topic in many societies around the world. The Independent solicited the expertise of a linguist, catholic clergy, artist, psychologist and law professors to understand the distinction of the three concepts.

In one famous case in the US Supreme Court in [1963-1964] involving the prosecution of a theatre manager for showing the French movie, ‘Les Amants’ or ‘The Lovers,’ Justice Potter Stewart declined to define pornography, instead saying “I shall not today attempt further to define [obscenity]; and perhaps I could never succeed in intelligibly doing so. But I know it when I see it….”

That famous statement, uttered by Stewart when faced with a case involving obscenity, illustrates the difficulty of trying to determine what constitutes obscene or pornographic content.

The term “pornography” has no well-defined meaning, and certainly no legal definition. Justice Potter definitely had trouble defining the nature of sexually explicit material.


Lack of consensus is one reason why the definition of pornography has dragged on both in the public sphere and the courts of law.

John Conklin, an American sociologist who has published widely on criminology says pornography refers to material that is intended to arouse people sexually by portraying sexual matters in visual or verbal terms. Such material, he says, is intended to elicit thoughts of lust or desire that are sexually vulgar, disgusting, shameful and repulsive.

Dr Ben Twinomugisha, a professor of Law at Makerere University, says the three concepts of `nakedness, nudity and pornography’ are difficult to define because sexuality is broad.

“It is more than looking at miniskirts or swimsuits or the genitalia or the sexual act,” he says, “What about the dimples on the woman’s cheeks, the eyes, or a woman’s protruding breasts but covered in cloth?

“Are we going to cover all these features because somehow they are going to arouse someone, are we going to call that nudity or nakedness?”

Debate on obscenity or pornography has even sucked in the conservative Catholic Church. There was fierce debate in 1981 during the restoration of the Sistine Chapel in the Vatican which features numerous nude images.

The late Pope John Paul II who oversaw the restoration of the chapel between 1981 and 1994 insisted on removing several loincloths that other clerics had had painted over Michelangelo’s original nude paintings.

When he finally dedicated the Chapel in 1994, the pope described it as the, “sanctuary of the theology of the human body.”

He wrote that some works of art in the Vatican portray the naked body in a manner that “allows one to concentrate in some way on the whole truth of man, on the dignity and beauty — even ‘supra-sensual’ beauty — of his masculinity and femininity”.

In contrast to this kind of authentic art, pornographic portrayals of the body raise objection, the pope insisted, not because they expose the human body per se— the human body in itself always retains its inalienable dignity—rather, because of the way in which the human body is portrayed.

Pornographers portray the body with the explicit intention of arousing lust — or, as theologians would say, “Concupiscence” — in the viewer. This was not the intention of Michelangelo.

Father Josephat Ddungu of Makerere University’s St Augustine Chapel, says Michelangelo’s work is not pornography.

“That is Michelangelo creative art; he imagined the bit of the human person and it is not pornographic,” he told The independent on Nov.6.

Harrison Davis Watsala, an artist attached to Makerere University’s Margaret Trowell School of Industrial and Fine Arts sees a wide berth between being nude and naked.

“Sculptors, photographers and fashion designers encounter these two when they are dealing with the concept of anatomy,” he says, “but they never dabble in pornography.”

Dr. Celestino Orikiriiza, from Makerere University’s Department of Linguistics, English Language Studies and Communication Skills says from a linguistic point of view, the words ‘nude’ and ‘naked’ are synonyms with slight differences in meaning.

“Nakedness refers to a situation when you completely have no clothes. On the other hand, nudity is a ‘type of nakedness’ and it is often intended to achieve a certain goal; it is always purposeful”.

“If, for instance, one is probably putting on a skirt that is slightly above the knees, it may show some kind nudity. When you are at the beach and one is only putting on a swimsuit that could be some other form of nudity.”

As far as the English language is concerned, the word ‘nude’ originates from Latin and was first used in 1531 AD whereas ‘naked’ has an Anglo-Saxon origin and was in use as far back as the 12th century.

So ‘nudity’ came much later in the English language meaning that the original word was ‘nakedness.’

Tamale says there needs to be a clear contextualisation of Uganda’s laws in respect to nudity, nakedness and pornography.

“The association of nudity to shame or morality was imported into Uganda by the colonialists, thanks to the Abrahamic religions they came along with that associate the naked body with shame and immorality.  “Nudity in Karamoja does not equal immorality and it does not translate into shame,” she says.

Tamale who is one of the petitioners challenging the Anti- Pornography law in Uganda’s Constitutional Court says Father Lokodo more than anyone else should understand and appreciate this because he comes from Karamoja.

She says what Ugandans have done is to embrace the value system of colonialists who imported and planted into our consciousness their foreign value systems.

“We have embraced them [values] very uncritically and we now use the law to impose these foreign values and interests into our society.”

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