Representing the Forbidden

Posted: 4 Sep 2002

See all articles by Anne M. Coughlin

Anne M. Coughlin

University of Virginia School of Law


This essay investigates the special problems that a speech taboo imposes on people who decide that they are going to talk about the very speech that the taboo forbids. The taboo on pornography is the point of departure and primary focus. Porn is the richest and most controversial context within which to evaluate the working parts of speech taboos. These days, it is hard to go anywhere without running into porn or bumping into its various retainers and hangers-on. For purposes of the essay, the range of pertinent (impertinent?) speakers is broad. They include artists and artists manque; students and scholars of law, literature, history, social science, philosophy, and political theory; actors within the legal domain, who range from legislators to criminal investigators to litigants to lawyers to judges and jurors; priests, penitents, and secular counterparts; censors and would-be censors, their supporters and support staff, as well as the various characters who then feel compelled to criticize what the censors are up (or down) to. Almost all of these speakers want to be Nice ones, in the sense that their conscious objective is to describe, not do, that which is forbidden. The Nice Writer doesn't want to write porn; she wants to write about porn. What vocabulary, what textual and rhetorical strategies, if any, will secure this objective? The essay identifies and evaluates a handful of the textual strategies available to and employed by pornography scholars, and it speculates about the connections among representation and experience, prohibition and transgression, disgust and desire.

Suggested Citation

Coughlin, Anne M., Representing the Forbidden. UVA School of Law, Public Law Research Paper No. 02-6, Available at SSRN:

Anne M. Coughlin (Contact Author)

University of Virginia School of Law ( email )

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Charlottesville, VA 22903
United States
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