Defining Porn & Erotica, Barney Rosset – publisher/crusader dies

Barney Rosset, First Amendment crusader dies. As publisher of Grove Press he released classics such as Tropic of Cancer and Lady Chatterley’s Lover, helping to overthrow U.S. censorship laws. USA Today obituary link below.

I am approached often with the question, “What is the difference between pornography and erotica.” It is why I use the words ‘sensexual or sensexuala’ when referring to works dealing with sexual content. The judgement overtones are immediately discarded.

Greta Christina’s free thought blog and the many comments try to grapple with this subject.

Is there a useful difference between porn and erotica?

My usual answer to this question is that the distinction between porn and erotica is pretty artificial. It generally comes down to subjective taste, conveniently dovetailed with character and even moral judgment. “I like erotica; you like porn; they like filthy smut.”

But when I have time to kill, I sometimes amuse myself by trying to come up with an answer. The way I often frame it is, “If someone held a gun to my head and made me give a coherent distinction between ‘porn’ and ‘erotica,’ one that most people who use the words would recognize and might even accept… what would it be?” Regardless of whether I think one is better than the other — regardless of whether I accept the common verdict that erotica is high-minded and beautiful while porn is tawdry and degrading? (Or whether I accept the other common verdict: that porn is exciting and hot while erotica is stuffy and boring?) Is there a useable distinction between the two?

Here’s what I have, provisionally, come up with.

Porn is sexually explicit art that has, as its primary intent, the sexual arousal of the audience, and in which any other artistic/ political/ cultural intent is secondary or incidental.

Erotica is sexually explicit art that has, as its primary intent, some artistic/ political/ cultural goal other than the sexual arousal of the audience, and in which this sexual arousal is secondary or incidental.

Note that these definitions don’t have to involve a judgment about which one is better. They often do, of course — we live in a sex-negative culture, sexual arousal isn’t by itself considered a worthwhile objective, blah blah blah — but they don’t necessarily have to. We can, at least theoretically, discuss whether a piece of sexually explicit art is primarily motivated by sexual arousal or by some other intent, without placing judgment about whether one of these motivations is morally superior.

But I see a serious flaw in these definitions. It’s this:

What if the sexual arousal of the audience is, in itself, an artistic, cultural, or political aim?

The example that leaps to my mind most readily is On Our Backs, the “by lesbians, for lesbians” sex magazine published in the late ’80s and early ’90s. Some of the work in On Our Backs certainly had serious literary, artistic, political, etc. content — Dorothy Alison wrote for them, as did Sarah Schulman, Jewelle Gomez, Sapphire, me, and other serious writers. Ditto for the photography. But plenty of the work in that magazine was porny porny porn porn. It existed to get women turned on, and to get them off. Period.

Yet that, just in itself, was an act of serious political defiance. For women — writers, photographers, publishers, readers — to say out loud, “We like sex, we enjoy smut, we’re going to make it and sell it and buy it and get off on it, and anyone who doesn’t like it can cram it sideways”… that was a serious political statement, with far-reaching effects both within the lesbian community and outside it. And it wasn’t just defiance of sexism and sex-negativity in mainstream culture, either. It wasn’t just defiance of the message that women don’t really like sex, don’t care about sex, don’t pursue sex for its own sake — and that if we do, we’re bad bad people. It was also defiance of a variety of feminism that was very prevalent at the time (and still is, although less so): a version of feminism that was hostile to the very idea of sexually explicit art. (The very name On Our Backs was a satire on the anti-porn, anti-kink, anti-sex-work feminist newspaper, off our backs.) The intent to get women off, with sexually explicit material designed to get them off… that was a political intent.

Another example, I think, is gay male porn. For decades, even the raunchiest, tackiest, porniest gay male porn has been an important source of gay pride: an important way for gay men to reclaim their sexuality from a culture that reviles it. That was true during the repressive fifties; it was true in the gay liberation seventies; it was true during the worst years of the AIDS pandemic; and it remains true to this day. Writing a story, taking a photograph, drawing a cartoon, saying “Gay sex is cool” — that was, and is, a political act.

But you see the problem, right? To some extent, this is true of pretty much any porn/ erotica/ whatever you want to call it. Playboy, Penthouse, Hustler, Deep Throat, the mainstream video porn industry, amateur and low-budget Internet porn… all of this has had an effect on the culture. The mainstreaming of explicit sex magazines; the increasingly blatant sexuality of those magazines; the “chic” of the porn film industry in the 1970s; the home video revolution and the filtering of sexually explicit movies into the living rooms of millions of everyday couples, the Internet porn revolution and the democratization of porn production — all of these have had a powerful effect on our sexual culture. Whether you think this effect has been positive or negative or a complicated stew of all of the above (my vote is for the last one, btw)… the culture and political impact is undeniable. And it’s often a conscious one. Hugh Hefner has a political and cultural and artistic vision. So does Larry Flynt. You may or may not like that vision… but it exists.

And I’m reminded of one of my own pieces of porn/ erotica: the novella “Bending,” part of the three-novella collection Three Kinds of Asking For It (currently available, btw, on Kindle and in dead-tree physical form). When I was in process of writing it, I sent a partial draft to my editor, Susie Bright, who gave me this feedback (paraphrasing here), “You have enough erotic treats for the readers — you don’t need any more sex scenes, focus now on fleshing out the story.” My reaction was to think, “What the fuck? This is porn. It’s supposed to be about sex. So screw you. I’m going to write more sex scenes. In fact, I’m going to write nothing but sex scenes. I’m going to make the entire novella be just sex, from beginning to end.” And that’s what I did. With the exception of a couple/few paragraphs, every sentence in that story involves people either having sex, talking about sex, or thinking about sex. And that’s how the story gets told. Characters change, conflicts emerge, relationships develop, insights are gained, crises unfold… all through sex. And if I can be arrogant for a moment here, it’s pretty freaking hot sex.

So what’s the primary intention? Is the primary intention to arouse the audience, or to tell a story?

To read more link to: http://freethoughtblogs.com/greta/2012/02/22/porn-or-erotica/#comment-57649

USA Today obituary link http://www.usatoday.com/life/people/obit/story/2012-02-22/barney-rosset-publisher-grove-dies/53210516/1

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