On the distinction of erotica and porn

(NB: Although I mention the Eroticon2014 Storify here, there was no specific piece that got me onto this topic; it’s just a few different things all came together to make it seem worth saying, and that feed turned out to have some useful cases in point)

My view: there isn’t one.

That needs some expansion. What I mean is, whenever I see people make a distinction between erotica and porn, I have rarely found anything other than the following sentiment is something along the lines of “and porn is bad, I don’t like it, but erotic(a) is good, I prefer erotica”. Which is fine, it’s okay to not like things, and to like other things instead. That’s why we need labels so we can distinguish between stuff.

But the catch is that “porn” is never the same thing. “Erotica” is never the same thing. One person’s erotica that they like may be a part of what another person considers porn, that they don’t like. And one person may call “erotica” things that other people put on different sides of the line (that is, they agree on some things and disagree on others), and the same with porn.

The purpose of having two different words is so that a person can turn around and say to another person, “Your means of getting turned on is wrong.” Or icky, or suspect, or in some way deficient. It isn’t quite censorship, but it ties into the same root mentality as censorship, to proclaim one thing as morally superior to the other and thereby make it okay to like what I like. The storify of Eroticon2014 reveals that even sex bloggers, authors, and creators can fall into such thinking:

14:30 – 15:15 : Building tension: conflict and consent in erotic fiction : Judith Watts : Mirren Baxter

In porn nothing gets in the way of sex. That’s not the case in erotic fiction. If tension keeps us turning pages, how can we combine sex and conflict to create great stories?

Chris McC: Boring fiction comes from not enough conflict…. Erotica without conflict is just porn @HotJupitersltd #Eroticon2014

(I disagree with this, a lot. Because the porn and sexual fantasies I enjoy most have some kind of tension or conflict wrapped up in the sex itself, so there’s some kind of plot anyway. I mean, look at my story Tucked Away – as far as I can see, it doesn’t “let anything get in the way of sex”, but equally, if you don’t see any tension or conflict in the opening paragraph, then I should probably quit writing.)

In many cases, making a distinction between porn and erotic is about making it okay to like what I like, even though it’s superficially the same as that thing that’s not okay to like.

There is a particularly classist bent to the distinction: erotica tends to be reserved for material that in some way fits into a middle-class or upper-class aesthetic (as in the assumptions underpinning the “Building Tension” workshop description), whereas porn is most often used to describe whatever is widely available, mass-produced, or otherwise “of the people”. Would people be so keen to get on board with David Cameron’s censorship campaign if he talked about “internet erotica” instead of “internet pornography”? Maybe, but I think he would find it a harder sell. The toffs that are his natural constituency might suddenly twig that he might be including their predilections in his net. I’ve seen “tasteful erotic nudes” that are indistinguishable in content from the images in wank mags like Fiesta and Escort: the only difference is in the use of lighting and whether the image is printed in colour or black-and-white. Oh yes, and the props may be different, too.

Again, from the storify of Eroticon2014, there was a panel on censorship, and these points were raised:

London Faerie: #Eroticon2014 starts with Zak Jane Keir: “Censorship is always used by the powerful to control the powerless.”

Blacksilk: First film erection passed by censors was allowed because “only the middle classes would see it”. Class, power and censorship. #Eroticon2014

All porn is art. This is my belief and thesis. Just as all fiction is literature. Yes, there are novels written that perhaps are formulaic, quick reads, unchallenging, aimed at a mass market. Likewise, there is a great deal of porn that does the same. But porn is art. Trying to draw a line between the two buys into the idea that there is a legitimate segregation of sexuality from other forms of human expression. And the beginning of that is to draw a distinction between “erotica” (or “erotic”) and “porn” (or “pornographic”). Because that says, “Sex is okay as long as it’s leavened by some other form of human expression”.

This is why I dislike it when people say “I like erotica, I don’t like porn”. It allows governments to claim that there is some distinction by which the stuff they dislike can be banned because it “lacks artistic merit”. There are plenty of writers’ works I would like to ban on the basis that it “lacks artistic merit”, but it’s just plain wrong to do so. If it’s wrong when sex isn’t involved, then it’s just as wrong when it is.

About ValeryNorth

I overthink everything.
This entry was posted in Politics, Sex, Writing about writing and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to On the distinction of erotica and porn

  1. Pingback: Retrospective: Some highlights of my 2014 blogging | Valery North - Writer

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