Pornography and Erotica
I’ve always been fascinated by sexual, sensual writing and wanted to play around with the form. It seemed the perfect antidote to writing my thesis. Thus, I would find myself in the morning waning on the influence of the social-constructivist concept of knowledge making on composition pedagogy, and in the evening, waxing effusively about kisses and cunts, powerful cocks rubbing nipples and then slipping into mouths willing to suck and suck and suck, a couple slow dancing in the buff with the blinds open just enough for a voyeur to catch an exciting glimpse, out-and-out public fucks, and curious onlookers more fascinated with a silk dress fluttering to the ground than the naked woman who has abandoned the dress.
I kept this sort of writing secret for quite a while, but finally unveiled a small piece (Kiss) at my writer’s group. Not my first piece of erotica, and not my best – sure to be followed by both worse and better, but it was the first piece I read aloud to others.
And then I shared What Happens When You Suck Peppermint From a Strange Man’s Mouth – the beginning line of which came tumbling out in an off-the-cuff exercise at my writing group. I began to feel more comfortable with this genre, less embarrassed that I spent my precious time on such an endeavor, and even began to confess to a few folks here and there, including office mates, that I was “writing erotica.”
But I couldn’t possibly say “I write pornography.”
I read one erotica poem at a very small, private reading and learned that such work can be wonderfully accepted, but not immediately after you read. No, at that point, your words are greeted with uncomfortable silence. Perhaps minds (and pussies and cocks) are squirming with reaction, and are secretly ashamed that they are aroused. Later though, when the readings are done and the small parlor group begins to wander to the dining room table for cookies, some cheese, a slice of pear, a glass of wine, someone takes you aside and with a blush, says, “I really loved that piece.” And you say thank you, and let them move quickly on, because, after all, it’s a bit embarrassing to be seen talking with you, the writer of erotica. Or perhaps it really is pornography. Either way, it’s taboo. But one seems more taboo than the other.
“Is there truly a distinction?” I asked myself and quickly and defensively responded, “Erotica is art and pornography is trash.”
Oh. But whose aesthetic values have determined what art is and what trash is? How do we define it? How do I define it? The art/trash dichotomy just doesn’t cut it.
Aware that I carried certain assumptions and judgments about both these words and the materials they supposedly define, I brainstormed a list of characteristics for each:
Erotica: desire, sensual, intimacy, relationships, shared power, tenderness, care, concern, rich, textured, layered, uplifting, artistic.
Pornography: desire, sexual, casual, violent, oppressive/submissive, exploitive, blunt, crude, unbalanced power, glorifies violence, forced sex, and objectifies women, degrading, depraved.
But sometimes I write “erotica” which is blunt and crude. Is it then pornography? Oh, I’ve weaved a web for myself, trapped in my own definitions. But I won’t stop writing what I write. It’s too much fun. Am I, therefore, depraved?
I check dictionary.com, which essentially defines both erotica and pornography in the same manner:
Literature or art intended to arouse sexual desire.
Yet the entry on pornography adds this extra bit of information:
Pornographic material is protected expression unless it is determined to be obscene. However, child pornography is illegal under federal and state laws prohibiting the depiction of minors in sexual acts.
And how is obscene defined?
1. Offensive to accepted standards of decency or modesty.
2. Inciting lustful feelings; lewd.
3. Repulsive; disgusting.
Now we’re getting somewhere. Author’s intent in part defines the genre, as does reader’s response. Both pornography and erotica are intended to arouse sexual desire (and I suspect authors have additional intents beyond this one – I do). But pornography seems to be smudged, dirty. It can drift into the obscene (but whose accepted standards of decency or modesty will apply – ever and always the issue – WHO is the judge?). And pornography can also drift into the illegal. I don’t see erotica defined specifically as obscene, and certainly, we don’t hear about kiddie erotica – only kiddie porn (bad/illegal). And authors of such texts make purposeful choices, have intentions for their work and the direction in which it goes.
But this list of characteristics and these definitions just further polarize the terms. Erotica represents “good” values, and pornography “bad” values. I am uncomfortable with this dichotomy.
Some writer’s of women’s erotica say the distinction between porn and erotica is about how relationships are portrayed – women want a piece which arouses their sexual desire, but depicts loving, intimate relationships (erotica), while men don’t care, they want a piece that depicts the sex (porn).
Some feminists rail against pornography because it glorifies sexual violence toward women, represents women as objects, and is exploitive. Thus, a pornographic piece not only has the intent to arouse desire, it intends to objectify a person and render them powerless. And its production exploits others. On some levels, I can get comfortable, I think, with this sort of definition – I can clearly say – this is not a good construct for our culture. But I cannot say that only pornography and not erotica does this.
I begin to wonder…
If in my piece of sexually-arousing writing, I make the authorial decision to tip the balance of power, is that piece pornography, instead of erotica? What if I want to write a piece which pulls readers in because it arouses sexual desire, but that is merely the hook – what I, the writer, really want to look at (and have the reader look at) are gender relationships and the expression of sex as power. Now, is it porn or is it erotica? Is it neither? It is it social commentary? It is a good for society, or an ill? Is it obscene? Depraved?
What about a story which may be offensive to some, in that it depicts a violent sex act between consenting adults, or rape as a fantasy – implying consent? If a character/writer/reader consents to be objectified, if a character says,”hit me baby, hit me,” or “rape me baby, rape me” – is this porn now instead of erotica? (Some feminists would say yes.) Do the characters in these stories represent victims, or independent persons, pursuing that which they enjoy, and what concern is it of ours if they like being struck during sex, or made to do what we perceive as humiliating acts of depravity – they are getting off on it right – they choose it, want it (or at least, the authors have scripted that these characters choose it, want it). Of course, then we must look at why they choose it, and why the authors choose it for them. Do these characters represent individuals who have internalized hatred, oppression, abuse? Have these choices been imposed on them? Or is it possible that the writer purposely puts this together so we will look at and question these choices and what drives them? Can either pornography or erotica move past sexual arousal and description and critique our society, our relationships? What about when the writer merely wants to describe and arouse through depravity? Is that porn, or is it erotica? Or something else? And what does it say about us, that at some deep, dark level, we are aroused by such stories?
Take a look at this(http://ifuckedanncoulterintheasshard.blogspot.com/). Is this porn? Is it erotica? Is it political commentary? Is it degradation? Is it social commentary?
Are these distinctions between pornography and erotica derived from class lines? Erotica is highbrow, upper class. Pornography is lowbrow, lower class. And all the associations and assumptions we attribute to these two stratums are attached to either erotica or pornography.
Porn is the girl who grew up on the wrong side of town, whose father raped her
and whose mother kicked her out of the house as a result. Porn drinks and
drugs herself into oblivion and then, broke and beaten down, believing only in
the negative and basest parts of herself, finds a job working at the Seven Seas
Tavern on 2nd and Port, where she dances on a small, raised, dirty stage in the
middle of the rough tables and chairs, her eyes looking down because she can no
longer look up. Wearing an old, dirty thong, and a short, tight T-shirt
torn from her neckline to navel, she humps and grinds in time to whatever music
is playing. Drunken men call out to her, “grind it cunt, grind it,” or
“I’ll grind you, bitch.” And she dances, endlessly, as they move around
her, on their way to and from the bar, reaching with their calloused, grimy
hands to pinch her nipples far past the point of pleasure, pull her labium, and
poke their fingers into her ass. She doesn’t stop them, nor flinch, but
now and again a fleeting look of pain crosses her face and she momentarily
wonders, and then mutely accepts, that this, all of this, is what she deserves.
And when she thinks that, she tries to smile, and look seductively into the eyes
of any of the men that call out to her or feel her up. But they won’t look
her in the eyes, though they will, on her occasional break, follow her to the
back alley and take turns fucking her.
But that’s not porn, that’s social commentary. Or is it?
I return to the idea of authorial intent. My intentions when writing porn or erotica are varied: I often intend to describe a sexual act as richly, fully, sensuously as I can, simply for the aesthetic experience. I sometimes use crude words, to either shock my audience, or call into question the “taboo” nature of these words, or lessen their negative power through casual and repeated use. Sometimes I try to critique a relationship as it is played out in sexual and sensual acts on the page. Sometimes I just want to arouse the reader because it’s fun and there is something inherently sexy and powerful (in a benevolent sort of way) about making someone hot and bothered.
I can no longer justify a distinction between porn and erotica for myself – though I can distinguish between texts which arouse sexual desire in what I deem as a positive, healthy way and texts which don’t, between texts which describe and critique the darker side of human sexuality and texts which exploit the darker side. But I do not find the labels of pornography and erotica very useful. Their lines are too blurred for me.
What do you think?
Links to explore: