Romantic-Erotic-Pornographic – Is there a line?
I think once society or an individual stops thinking about sex acts or their depiction as shameful, there is no line. The absolute corollary of course is that to a society or individual that regards all sex as shameful, there is also no line.
Consent is the key. Not love, not what acts or body parts are displayed or hidden, detailed or euphemized, degraded or exalted, nor the medium but only consent and intent. Rather than talking about why we look or what we see, we should be talking about why we feel compelled to look away and why we feel compelled to force other consenting adults to look away.
So here we are in the 21st century, still wandering lost in the gray areas between artificial lines. Between these lines it gets so gray that I wonder if it will ever be possible to draw any line society as a whole can agree on.
Susana, at the ELS, you used to share explicit emails between yourself and your lover. In one you wrote that “The line between erotica and pornography is personal, temporal and culturally inscribed.” I’d add that yesterday’s taboo is today’s pornography. Yesterday’s pornography is today’s erotica. Yesterday’s erotica is today’s coffee table book.
“In olden days a glimpse of stocking was looked on as something shocking, now heaven knows … anything goes.” And yes, the beat goes on.
I think what you shared with us, explicit as it was, is an exchange of romantic love, pure and simple. Another pair of lovers could well have the same pulse-quickening reaction to Emily Dickenson’s or Andrew Marvel’s poetry or a tame description of candles lit and a bubble bath taken with the missing lover’s sweet face and voice.
Now say, you were to publish your lover’s courtly depictions of your love without his consent, with intent of causing him pain and humiliation. Some might construe that as pornographic. However if he gets off on humiliation, your act of exposing, of catering to his particular tastes could be an act of Eros.
Let’s look at an extreme case. Take a camera into an establishment of forced prostitution and film the sodomizing of a trafficked 14 year old girl and we’d all have a hard time seeing that as anything but sick and beyond pornographic. But the lover who shows his or her lover the same acts, convincingly staged, depicted by consenting adults, say as a way to fire a moribund marriage, well, that is still over the line for most of us, but is it truly pornographic?
Let’s add another twist or two. What if the two people sharing these taboo images aren’t yet lovers yet, but just friends? What about the lonely guy or woman who downloads a clip like that from the internet for the purpose of some relaxing self-love before bed? He or she doesn’t know if the video they masturbated to was staged or real. Many people would call such a person a pervert or pedophile, especially if he/she fantasizes about being the aggressor in such a video. But we don’t know that person’s heart. This individual might be just as capable of calling the police if confronted with the real tragedy of human trafficking. Being aroused by representations of sexual cruelty that do not sit easily on one side of a line or the other is not the same as knowing right from wrong.
When I read erotica, my standards may be a bit different than most people’s. I realize that many people, particularly women, use erotic writing as a journaling, journeying sort of activity toward healing and enhanced sexual wellness and to that I say BRAVO. I would never look at any man or woman’s account of their life experience and say oh, your life is trite or your accounting of it is anything but your gift to share with the rest of us. And thank you for doing so.
Here are some of my standards:
Does it (the writing or imaging) get me in the language/speech/emotional centers? Is the language fresh, original and vibrant? Does it evoke emotions, dark or light? Does it go down a different path, stir old associations or make new ones? Is it not just well-constructed, but playful and evocative?
Then there’s always the sex? Slightly south of language and speech centers, but not so far. Three chords might work in rock and roll, but are tiresome when it comes to erotica. I crave novelty. I want to see fresh and original ways of describing the act. If the “same three words” are overused, I quickly become bored. On the other side of the spectrum, if the writer is too timid, academic, euphemistic and abstracted in their descriptions, I also become bored.
Beyond that, what’s the emotional connection between the characters? Are they longtime lovers or brand new? Is the sex playful, angry, heated, languid, brutal, gentle, spice or vanilla? Do I smell, taste, hear and feel what’s going on?
Does the feel and the pace of the writing echo the pace and progression of lovemaking? Is this just an exercise, or is it evident that the writer is hot and bothered too? I know when something I write is working if it stirs me “down yonder.”
I think it’s an amazing, intimate compact to turn people on with words.
What about the story? Are there conflicts, plot twists, character arcs, resolution, (and yes, climax?
In short, I apply the same standards to erotica that I apply to any other form of art. Sex is powerful stuff. It makes for great stories, great art. It’s time our society lost its false modesty, false virginity and begin to appreciate the depiction of sex (lovemaking or fucking) in art. It is art. An aesthetic experience. In the end, that’s all that counts.
Ricc Berra, author of Apostrophe—Tales of Longing and Consent (http://www.inside-apostrophe.blogspot.com)
This essay was added recently as a response to my call for definitions. Written by one of the regular attendees of the Erotic Literary Salon – Live. Has me thinking I should start sharing some of my emails again, I always receive interesting reactions to the exchange of words.