Wednesday, July 06, 2005

Pornography vs Erotica

So often I have heard, or been involved in discussions about the supposed difference between erotica and pornography. It’s the kind of thing that the theology and philosophy students discussed a lot in my undergraduate days: long nights, dark wine, coffee and lingering glances… I’ve read the debate played out in newsgroups and mailing lists on the Internet: a gabble, a whine, a discussion, a justification….

The topic never seems to go away completely.

And yet, it only struck me recently why it is such a circular discussion, why it never goes away. The two words don’t compare. And here’s my weak insight: erotica refers to the ‘affect’ of a piece of art or writing, pornography refers to its ‘content’. Why did I not see this before? It’s hardly a massive revelation but it explains so much: not just why the old arguments never end. (I know there is a segment of activism which would dispute this, but their use of pornography as a word to characterise the violent affect of a piece of work is a neologistic use of the word which, in my humble opinion, only confuses the issue. We can talk about the affects and ethical implications of explicit sexual material but we would be hampered not helped in this by phrasing it in terms of erotica vs pornography.)

There is a particular version of this debate which, roughly paraphrased, goes something like: “pornography is cheap, nasty, exploitative and violent, what I write (let’s stick to writing) is about sensuality, gentleness, involves consent, and isn’t focussed on genitalia – therefore it is not pornography, it is erotica” It is similar to other less rigorous arguments such as ‘erotica has a level of art in it which elevates it from pornography’

We know that the word pornography comes from the greek root meaning ‘violence’ and that in common usage it has moved beyond that to include almost everything explicitly sexual but it still relates to the ‘content’ of a piece of writing and not to the affect. The more I think about it the more it seems that arguments like those above are simply forms of unnecessary self-justification. Many people have no problem with saying that they like to use or create pornography, but others, sadly do. Arguments such as the ones above are designed to justify an uncomfortable self knowledge. Somehow erotica is built up to be ‘acceptable’ and pornography not.

Of course, because the two words are not referents of the same thing this leads to difficulties. We know that much pornography can have an erotic affect. We also know that things which are a long way from pornography, or even from explicitness, can be erotic. We also know that a good artist can take even extreme, explicit description and create a form of pornography which is not only of artistic merit but which has strong erotic affects. Look to the writings (largely bi/heterosexual) of Anis Nin, look to the writings (largely bi/homosexual) of Samuel R Delany.

The discussions I have heard all treat the two terms as if they are two ends of a scale. Even where the debate has been subtle it has still done so: pointing out a supposed overlap on the scale. This is made worse by the fact that this wrong-headed creation of a sliding scale – erotica-pornography – is elided with two other sliding scales: art-artless and good-bad.

So the next time I hear this debate begin I will know how to extricate myself from the circle: pornography refers to the ‘content’, erotica to the ‘affect’; pornography and erotica are not at two ends of a sliding scale; moral discussions about rightness and wrongness are independent of this discussion; artistic value judgements are independent of this discussion. In the end, the answer to the question I have set myself in the title of this short rant is that, the question makes no logical sense.

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