Wednesday 26 June 2013

Erotica vs. Pornography: What's the difference?

Erotica vs. pornography. Good vs. bad. Desirable vs. vile. A welcome part of the human experience vs. all that is perverted in the world.

Recently on Twitter, I have been following along with and occasionally contributing to #AdultSexEdMonth, June 2013. This brainchild of Ms. Quote @GoodDirtyWoman strives to bring together bloggers, experts, and anybody interested in the topic of sex to share information and personal experiences in an effort to educate people and demystify one of the most fundamental and natural aspects of the human condition. I have certainly harped on it enough that in our puritanical society, it is more acceptable on television to watch two people kill each other than to watch them have sex. Yes, in our culture it is more acceptable to make war than to make love.

The other day, somebody made a curious remark which made me stop and think.

I'm not big on porn, but I'm a big fan of erotic photography & art.

What struck me as so odd about the above statement was that the person in question, a woman, is the author of erotic fiction. It was almost as if she had said, "I'm not big on sex (porn), but I'm a big fan of sex (erotica)." Maybe all roads don't lead to Rome.

What's the distinction? Is there a difference between erotica and pornography? Or is the distinction one of a personal interpretation of words? Does the word porn mean one thing to one person and something different to somebody else? Without even beginning any research, just sitting here typing these words, I have to admit that somewhere in the back of my mind is some sort of unconscious impression that the word erotica is related to something good while the word pornography evokes something bad. Erotica I read on the subway out in the open. Pornography is something I carry in a brown paper bag. I don't know why. I can't put my finger on anything specific, but the distinction between the two words is there. Erotica vs. pornography. Good (somehow) vs. bad (somehow).

The Free Dictionary: erotica
Literature or art intended to arouse sexual desire.

The Free Dictionary: pornography
Sexually explicit pictures, writing, or other material whose primary purpose is to cause sexual arousal.

Merriam-Webster: erotica
Literary or artistic works having an erotic theme or quality

Merriam-Webster: pornography
The depiction of erotic behavior (as in pictures or writing) intended to cause sexual excitement

Cambridge Dictionaries Online: erotica
Books, pictures, etc. which produce sexual desire and pleasure

Cambridge Dictionaries Online: pornography
Books, magazines, films, etc. with no artistic value that describe or show sexual acts or naked people in a way that is intended to be sexually exciting

Wikipedia: Erotica
Erotica (from the Greek ἔρως, eros "desire") is any artistic work that deals substantively with erotically stimulating or sexually arousing subject matter. All forms of art may depict erotic content, including painting, sculpture, photography, drama, film, music or literature. Erotica has high-art aspirations, differentiating it from commercial pornography.

Wikipedia: Pornography
Pornography (often abbreviated as "porn" or "porno" in informal usage) (Greek: πορνεία, porneia, fornication) is the explicit portrayal of sexual subject matter for the purpose of sexual gratification. Pornography may use a variety of media, including books, magazines, postcards, photos, sculpture, drawing, painting, animation, sound recording, film, video, and video games.
Pornography is often distinguished from erotica, which consists of the portrayal of sexuality with high-art aspirations, focusing also on feelings and emotions, while pornography involves the depiction of acts in a sensational manner, with the entire focus on the physical act, so as to arouse quick intense reactions.

The novel 50 Shades of Grey has been labelled an erotic romance. (Wikipedia)  There are profanities and explicit sex scenes. Yes, the protagonists are f**kin'. But I don't see anybody calling it pornography. I find this a curious splitting of hairs. What you like is erotica. What you don't like is pornography.

Let me return to the above definition from Wikipedia. Erotica, which consists of the portrayal of sexuality with high-art aspirations, [also focuses] on feelings and emotions. Certainly at the heart of 50 Shades is a romance; love triumphs over all and in the end Anastasia and Christian sail off into the sunset. Did I mention there's f**kin'?

Pornography involves the depiction of acts in a sensational manner, with the entire focus on the physical act, so as to arouse quick intense reactions. So, if I randomly remove a chapter or a specific scene from this erotic romance, a scene which goes straight for the groin with its depiction of sex, do I turn it from erotica into pornography?

Is somebody going to argue that no, this is not the case because I've read the book; I remember the larger context, and heck, once in a while I like to remember that really really hot scene of Christian and Anastasia f**kin' in the bathtub?

If I look at the above definitions of the two words erotica and pornography, I keep seeing the common theme of "arouse sexual desire" or "cause sexual arousal." From there, a refinement of the definition seems to qualify erotica as being more artistic with a focus on feelings and emotions while pornography is labelled as a sensational focus on the physical act of sex. Hmm, so am I back to all roads lead to Rome?

The Lightning Rod
In 1964, Justice Potter Stewart of the United States Supreme Court forever gave himself a place in the history books when he uttered during a famous case about hard-care pornography, "I know it when I see it."

From there, I don't think I would be unfair by saying the definition of the word has taken on an individualised and personalised meaning. The emotional underpinning of this word is such that the mere utterance of the word can evoke all sorts of mental images and reactions.

Wikipedia: Gloria Steinem: against pornography but not erotica
Along with Susan Brownmiller and Catharine MacKinnon, Steinem has been a vehement critic of pornography, which she distinguishes from erotica: "Erotica is as different from pornography as love is from rape, as dignity is from humiliation, as partnership is from slavery, as pleasure is from pain." Steinem's argument hinges on the distinction between reciprocity versus domination. She writes, "Blatant or subtle, pornography involves no equal power or mutuality. In fact, much of the tension and drama comes from the clear idea that one person is dominating the other." On the issue of same-sex pornography, Steinem asserts, "Whatever the gender of the participants, all pornography is an imitation of the male-female, conqueror-victim paradigm, and almost all of it actually portrays or implies enslaved women and master."

Ah, excuse me? Holy Hannah, just what pornography are you looking at? Has Ms. Steinem personalised her own definition of pornography to materials at the extreme end of the spectrum? Is this a question of interpretation? Millions of women were apparently enthralled by 50 Shades of Grey and newspaper articles were reporting that many a marital sex life had been rejuvenated by reading the books. By applying the standards set out by Ms. Steinem above (love/rape, dignity/humiliation, partnership/slavery, pleasure/pain), it seems that she would label 50 Shades pornography. And from the strength of her words so adamantly against pornography, that's a bad thing.

Is your perspective on 50 Shades one of just that, perspective? I am reminded of an old joke.

It's not a leer if the woman is interested.

Think about that. Think about that carefully. A man stares at a woman. The difference is not in whether the man stares or how he stares; the difference is in whether or not the woman wants to be stared at by that man.

The Definition of Pornography by Joseph W. Slade
Excerpted from Pornography in America: A Reference Handbook by Joseph W. Slade (2000)
Pornography" (or "porn") usually refers to representations designed to arouse and give sexual pleasure to those who read, see, hear, or handle them. Although sexual stimulation would seem to be a splendid goal, it is not always so regarded in a society still characterized as puritanical... the confusion [of misinformation] seems a deliberate means of demonizing enemies, achieving political advantage...
...the meaning of the term pornographic constantly shifts along a vast continuum moving between two equally slippery concepts, the erotic and the obscene. An erotic representation is usually considered socially acceptable... "Eroticism," says [Al] Goldstein, "is what turns me on. Pornography is what turns you on."
The problem, of course, is that not everyone uses the same measurements. Some Americans believe that sex is a necessary evil, sanctioned only by marriage for purposes of reproduction, and condemn sexual representations under any circumstances.
For most Americans, pornography means peep shows, striptease, live sex acts, hardcore videos, adult cable programming, sexual aids and devices, explicit telephone and computer messages, adult magazines, and raunchy fiction. Conservatives might add prime-time television programming, soap operas, Music Television (MTV) and rock music, romance novels, fashion magazines, and all R-rated movies. Conflating sexuality and violence leads some critics to think of sexual representations as inherently aggressive. Others, noticing that most sexual representations contain no violence, condemn only those examples that mix the two. As Walter Kendrick has pointed out, pornography is not a thing but an argument.

To avoid contentiousness, some theorists prefer a neutral term such as sexual materials over the charged word pornography. In any case, only a few things seem clear. First, what seems pornographic to one person will not necessarily seem so to another. Second, pornography is not monolithic: representation occurs in many media, and it adopts many forms and genres. Third, no group, gendered or otherwise, has a monopoly on sexual expression or representation. Fourth, our social, esthetic, political, legal, and economic attitudes toward pornography both affect and draw on complex responses to gender and sexuality. Fifth, pornography, an attempt at communication, conveys a host of messages, many of them contradictory. Some of those messages, in fact, are ancient.

Contradictory messages? Ancient messages? Remember what Gloria Steinem said above.

Cosmo Great Female Sex Survey 2011
"being dominated" ranks as your top sexual fantasy—35% say it’s the sexual act you most often fantasize about.

Psychology Today - Jan 14/2010
Women's Rape Fantasies: How Common? What Do They Mean? by Michael Castleman
Rape or near-rape fantasies are central to romance novels, one of the perennial best-selling categories in fiction. These books are often called "bodice-rippers" and have titles like Love's Sweet Savage Fury, which imply at least some degree of force. In them, a handsome cad becomes so overwhelmed by his attraction to the heroine that he loses all control and must have her, even if she refuses--which she does initially, but then eventually melts into submission, desire, and ultimately fulfillment.

Romance novels are often called "porn for women." Porn is all about sexual fantasies. In porn for men, the fantasy is sexual abundance--eager women who can't get enough and have no interest in a relationship. In porn for women as depicted in romance novels, the fantasy is to be desired so much that the man loses all control, though he never actually hurts the woman, and in the end, marries her.

Feminist Focus
Rape is bad. But when Gloria Steinem looks at pornography, is she correctly interpreting what she's sees? Christian and Anastasia are having sex. Oh hell, they're f**kin'. Is he raping her? Is he dominating her? Is he doing something the purveyors of all things moral should be rallying against? The series has sold over 70 million copies worldwide. (Wikipedia)

Andrea Rita Dworkin (September 26, 1946 – April 9, 2005) was an American radical feminist and writer best known for her criticism of pornography, which she argued was linked to rape and other forms of violence against women. (Wikipedia)

Wikipedia: Andrea Dworkin: Intercourse
In 1987, Dworkin published Intercourse, in which she extended her analysis from pornography to sexual intercourse itself, and argued that the sort of sexual subordination depicted in pornography was central to men's and women's experiences of heterosexual intercourse in a male supremacist society. In the book, she argues that all heterosexual sex in our patriarchal society is coercive and degrading to women, and sexual penetration may by its very nature doom women to inferiority and submission, and "may be immune to reform."

Think about what Ms. Dworkin has proposed. The very act of sexual penetration itself subjugates women. This takes feminist analysis to the height of absurdity. This applies a personal interpretation to life which is not reflective of reality. A bolt was designed to fit in a nut. The bolt does not subjugate the nut. A penis was designed to fit in a vagina. The penis does not subjugate the vagina. Yin and yang are two parts of a whole. There is no subjugation. There is synergy.

As a further FYI, I would add that studies have shown that as the availability of porn goes up, the rate of sex crimes go down.

"I do not believe that this research [The Meese Report] demonstrates that pornography causes rape. ... In general the scientific evidence clearly indicates that if one is concerned with the effects of media on rape, the problem lies in the prevalence of violence in the media, not on sex in the media."
-Murray Strauss, Professor of Sociology and Co-Director, Family Research Laboratory, University of New Hampshire

If convicted mass murderer Ted Bundy had said that watching Bill Cosby reruns motivated his awful crimes, he would have been dismissed as a deranged sociopath. Instead, Bundy has said his pornography addiction made him do it--which many people treated as the conclusion of a thoughtful social scientist. Why?
-Dr. Marty Klein, Why “Sexual Addiction” Is Not A Useful Diagnosis — And Why It Matters

Visual vs. Literary
It is ofttimes said that men are visual and women are cerebral. Men are turned on visually while women are turned on verbally. Is this genetic or is this social conditioning? After all, in our culture women have been taught to repress their sexuality out of fear of being labelled the S word. (Hello, Rush Limbaugh!) Does a good book about f**kin' hit home better than a video clip of f**kin'? On top of it, a good back story allows for a justification to avoid all those nasty social condemnations like the S word.

Could I say that erotica is literary and pornography is visual?

On a related matter, men are taught to repress their sensuality. We guys have to be tough and unemotional. Why? Part of the caveman act?

Social conditioning has affected both genders. Women are taught to repress their sexuality while men are taught to repress their sensuality.

Final Word
Final? Heck, I could go on and on and on. And I have elsewhere on this blog. There will be no resolution to this question. The answer, if there could possibly be one definite answer, is currently left up to the individual in question. The answer is personal. The answer is taste. The answer is based on your childhood, your religion, your education, your experience, your parents, your community, your peer group, the news, and social media.

There is no doubt that for some, maybe for a lot, the word pornography has taken on a meaning representative of all that is bad about sex and relationships. Certainly the grievances enumerated by Gloria Steinem have marked the feminist movement. But Ms. Steinem's preference for erotica tells me she is not against sex per se.

I am convinced that at the heart of it all, everybody would like to have a wonderful relationship and great sex. Now how to get there is open to interpretation and what constitutes a wonderful relationship and great sex varies from person to person. We all are very much a product of our environment but that doesn't mean our environment has been the best and left us as well-adjusted, clear-thinking, and fair-minded individuals. We may demonstrate a spot of the quirky. We may be a tad off of centre. We may very well be shy, confused, and ill-informed. Doesn't this seem more like a recipe for disaster?

Here's hoping we all figure it out. Good luck with your porn... ah, erotica? Oh heck, with your "sexual materials."


Erotica is read with two hands. Porn is read with one.

my blog: Pornography: What is it?
I know it when I see it. — Justice Potter Stewart

my blog: Pornography: Defended by... what!?! Feminists?
Wendy McElroy, Nadine Strossen, Candida Royale, Gloria Steinem

Wikipedia: I know it when I see it
The phrase "I know it when I see it" is a colloquial expression by which a speaker attempts to categorize an observable fact or event, although the category is subjective or lacks clearly defined parameters. The phrase was famously used in this sense by United States Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart to describe his threshold test for obscenity in Jacobellis v. Ohio (1964). In this case obscenity was protected speech under the Roth test, and could not therefore be censored.

Wikipedia: Erika Lust
Erika Lust (Born 1977 in Stockholm as Erika Hallqvist) is a Swedish screenplay writer, director, producer and author. She is a pioneer of feminist pornography. She lives and works in Barcelona.

Published on Dec 21, 2012 by selfservetoys
Erika Lust- Erotica v Porn
Erika Lust of Lust films discusses the language of porn vs. erotica. Erika is an award-winning, feminist filmmaker that creates aesthetic, sensual, erotic independent adult cinema. Interview by Molly Adler of


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