Style Selector

Erotica vs. Pornography.
User Rating: / 2
PoorBest 
Written by Amanda Gannon   
Monday, 01 August 2011 22:24
People have been asking me for years to write this piece, and I think it's a perfect topic to kick off our non-story-content updates.

What constitutes "obscene?"  What constitutes something that's "pornographic" as opposed to "erotic?"

Answer: it's entirely subjective.

I personally use the terms "porn" and "erotica" interchangeably.  I think that because the difference between them is entirely subjective and unquantifiable, there should be no greater stigma attached to one than to the other.  I don't use the word "porn" solely for work that I find gross or exploitative.  I don't use the word "erotica" to apply solely to work that I like.

I think there's good writing (photography, movie-making, etc.) and shitty writing (photography, movie-making, etc.), and whether it's pornographic or erotic is entirely in the eye of the beholder.  There is erotica that is fucking terrible, that is stilted and precious or mundane and boring, that never gets to the fucking point (literally).  There is porn that is fucking amazing, that is incredibly sexy, that brings out the human element even if there is no story at all, and that is so explicit and so blatantly intended to be just wank fodder that it would be hard to call it anything but porn.

Given that those two things are true, that there is shitty porn and good porn, shitty erotica and good erotica, and that good porn has far more value than shitty erotica, and good erotica has far more value than shitty porn, I don't think a case can be made, objectively, for erotica to be considered superior to porn, and it should not merit privileged protection.

I recently read a blog post written by a woman discussing what she thought was the difference between pornographic photography and erotic photography.  She made some good points, but most of the flaws she pointed out were things that made photographs bad photographs. For instance, a complicated background or cluttered composition that distracts from the central figure, or awkward poses.  And it's true, those can break an otherwise beautiful picture.  But that makes the photo a shitty photo or an awkward one, not a pornographic one.

The difference between porn and erotica is not that erotica is done well and porn is done badly.

She goes on to say that, to her, seeing the man's face, or his direct gaze, is pornographic, and that not seeing his face is more erotic.  Now, this is her opinion, and she's entitled to it, and I completely respect that, but that does not belong in any definition of erotic vs. pornographic.  Facelessness can be intensely erotic and mysterious, but it can also be dehumanizing and alienating, depending on how it is presented, and also on how the viewer interprets it.  Facelessness is one of the things commonly cited as being wrong with images intended to arouse, but this woman found that, to her, the opposite was true.

She was, essentially, describing her preferences and saying "erotic is these things, which I prefer; pornographic is these things, which I dislike."

That idea sums up what appears to be the most common definition of porn vs. erotica: "Erotica is what turns me on.  Porn is what those perverts over there use to get off."

I don't believe that, obviously, though I think the statement, put like that, is really fucking funny.  What I do believe is that a lot of people feel that way, don't stop to consider why, and basically hold an important and incredibly varied form of self-expression to a completely subjective and unexamined standard, which is wrong.

There's a tendency to define one's personal preferences as "erotic" because we are told that erotica is okay, that it's healthy sexual expression, that it's meaningful, that it has social value.  And we are told that pornography is disgusting, exploitive, meaningless, and dehumanizing.  Nobody wants to think of their preferences as being unhealthy or disgusting.  Okay, some people do get off on being really, really "bad."  But most people do not like to think of themselves that way, and they create a definition of "erotic" that encompasses what they like, so that they don't have to feel bad for liking it.  And they shouldn't feel bad about what they like, absolutely.  That's the opposite of what I want.  But I wish people didn't feel the need to define what they don't want as gross and meaningless and wrong.

It's sad that people feel the need to justify their desires and preferences in this way.  Some of the things I find it diverting to think about are disgusting and filthy (no, they really, really are), but those tastes aren't wrong, nor do they reflect badly upon me, because no matter what my fantasies might be like, I would never actually go sexin' up any living being that had not or could not give consent.  But, as has been demonstrated on multiple occasions, I have a tiny shame gland that really never worked right.  Most folks aren't that comfortable with what gets them off, and it shows.

People like to make an example out of the most extreme forms of pornography.  The wildly sexist and pretty thoroughly disgusting genre of gonzo porn is a frequently-cited example – justifiably.  Acts-wise, they aren't doing anything to write home about.  It's all in how it's done, and how it's presented.  Which is usually, in the case of gonzo/extreme porn, quite hatefully.  I reviewed those sites for money for a while, believe me, I know how despicable it tends to be.  But as long as everyone is consenting, and nobody is being hurt without consenting to it, I don't see why it should not be protected.

I don't have to like it – and I don't – and I do believe that the adult film industry is pretty fucking broken and sad, and needs to be cleaned up and made safer because heinous abuses do occur terrifyingly often, but I do think that in general, it should be protected.  I don't like the idea of trying to legally define what is valuable expression and what is not.  I don't like that idea at all.  Anti-porn zealots really do think that the sex scene in Titanic is pornography, and they don't draw any neatly-manicured distinctions between erotica and pornography.  The Tin Drum might as well be Drowning in Bitch Juice.  And those are not even erotic works.  In light of that, they sure as hell don't care whether you think that The Story of O has more redeeming social value than Buttfuck Sluts Go Nuts. If allowed, they will sweep it all out the door and call it a job well done.

Fragmenting sex-related creative expression into two camps, one of which refuses to defend the other, is counterproductive and stupid in the extreme.

As for the people who argue that porn is becoming more and more disgusting, well, no, I don't think we've come up with anything that the Romans missed, any more than it was Call of Duty that made the Mongols so fucking violent.  We're just making it more accessible because cheap and easy production and super-fast distribution via internet have made niche markets more profitable than ever before, and have removed barriers to porn distribution.  Like state lines.  I used to not be able to order porn movies through the mail, because companies wouldn't ship to Oklahoma, where that kind of material was against the law.  Alas, that was the only way to get hardcore movies at that time.  Now, that's not the case.  It's easier to find, which makes it more visible.  Also, there's a vogue right now toward EXTREME entertainment, and I think to some extent the excesses of gonzo porn can be viewed as an extension of that, which is its own crime against taste, but is certainly not unique to porn.

If you want to talk about disgusting, those so-proper Victorians liked things in their porn that we consider taboo.  Incest and underage sex are two that are really, really easy to stumble across, and there is much worse that isn't hard to find.  Pissing?  There's poetry about it.  Bestiality?  Always been popular!  Shit porn?  So not new.  Two girls, one cup?  Fuck it, that's, like, any random Thursday in 120 Days of Sodom.

So, no, gaping ass porn, spitting, facials, creampies, ass-to-mouth, double penetration, fisting, extreme penetrations, the whole litany of tastelessness, is not something invented by a generation of desensitized, sexist little shits.  It's been around forever, there's just been no way to document it and widely distribute it until now.  These days, those same themes that the Victorians found entertaining are explicitly forbidden in most guidelines for submitted material and TOS for user-created content, but they have been pretty common at other times (and still are, if you know where to look for it).  What is considered obscene and what is considered erotic varies wildly from age to age.

Isolating certain acts and certain forms of expression as valueless or corrupting is ridiculous. As long as nobody is being harmed without their consent to produce it, or is being coerced or exposed to undue risk, as long as everyone is a live and willing human being above the age of consent or is a fictional entity existing only in print or pixels, there is no cause to argue against protecting it, even if I personally find it disgusting.

And the most annoying thing is that a lot of the time, publishers of the printed word are drawing these lines not because they are actually taking a moral stance, but because they are afraid of being prosecuted.  Hence the ridiculous situation that arises when authors are forced to pretend that their characters never so much as had a sexual thought or masturbated before they were 18.  Even Smashwords, an extremely liberal service that I love very, very much,  has this in its TOS:


. . . If you publish erotica content, neither the book cover nor the book interior may contain graphic images of nudity (either photographic or illustrated) or persons involved in sex acts, and does not include children or underage minors engaged in sexual acts or situations, witnessing such situations, considering sexual acts, or thinking about sexual acts.


Which means that a story about two seventeen-year-olds having consensual sex, or even considering having sex, is in the same category as kiddie-fucking.  And that is stupid and wrong, considering it's the printed word . . . also considering that when I actually was seventeen, I'd already done some things that most people never do.  Completely consensually.

I'm all for publishers having guidelines and limits, but when those clearly exist because of the risk that some overzealous shithead will take offense and take them to court, that's bullshit.  Publishers shouldn't have to worry about it.  Authors shouldn't have to worry about it.

The presence or lack of artistic significance and quality production does not determine whether something is pornographic or erotic, and it is wrong to assign greater value and greater protection to the palatable things that are labeled "erotica," and ghettoizing "porn."

If everything that is good is called erotica, and everything that is horrible and disturbing and unlovable is called porn, that removes the possibility of there ever being "good porn," because the good stuff is automatically redefined as erotica, and lifted out of the filth pile like some hidden nugget of gold. And that's just obscene.