Erotica, Porn, And a “Contagion of Pleasure”

A question that keeps coming up [heh] in my research is one that annoys me: what’s the difference between erotica and pornography?

[My addendum: who the bloody hell says that there IS one?]

Although I may reject the premise of the question, that does pretty much no good, for it’s one that’s been around at least as long as first-wave feminism and continues to pop up pretty prominately in contemporary culture. See discussions of Fifty Shades of Gray or the presence/absence of the “PWP” [Porn Without Plot] tag in slash communities, for example. As a culture, we keep acting like there’s a distinction here, so I’m spending some time trying to figure out why.

For the record: In my own work, I don’t see a meaningful distinction between erotica and porn. It’s all about sex and emotion and getting the fuck off. All of the gendered bullshit that’s bundled into these debates just pisses me off and I’m veering wildly off track. Let me table the Rage Cat for a later discussion.

Last week, I read a terrific (apparently foundational) article in romance studies called “Mass Market Romance: Pornography for Women is Different” by Ann Barr Snitow, published in 1979. Snitow’s work [which deserves its own post. Or four.] pointed me in the direction of the November 1978 issue of Msmagazine, then at the height of its cultural powers (the cover’s posted above).

There are three articles devoted to the erotica vs. pornography question in that issue, but I’m going to focus for now on Gloria Steinem’s “Erotica and Pornography: A Clear and Present Difference.”

In the article, after a long and confusing introduction about humans’ capacities as a species (??), Steinem lays out what’s essentially a entomological distinction between erotica and porn. She argues that erotica “is rooted in eros or passionate love, and thus in the idea of positive choice, free will, the yearning for a particular person” (75). By contrast, she posits, pornography:

“begins with a root meaning ‘prostitution’ or ‘female captives,’ thus letting us [who is “us”?] know that the subject is not mutual love, or love at all, but domination and violence against women…It ends with a root meaning ‘writing about’ or ‘description of’ which puts still more distance between subject and object, and replaces spontaneous yearning for closeness with objectification and a voyeur.” (54)

She then sketches this difference in several other ways, including:

  • “Perhaps one could simply say that erotica is about sexuality, but pornography is about power and sex-as-weapon” (54)
  • Erotica is “a mutually pleasurable, sexual expression between people who have enough power to be there by positive choice”; while pornography, on the other hand, carries a “message…[of] violence, dominance, and conquest” (54).

Ultimately, the vision of sex she presents here reads as a naive, almost romantically-idealized, view of sex. It feels as though 1978 Steinem is invoking the spirits of two (or more) imaginary partners who are wholly decontextualized from the wider world.

Love isn’t always fucking in a bed of roses–and anyway, those bitches have thorns.

Despite her desire for lovers to be fully embodied–to be in bed by choice made in both body and mind–the kind of sex that Steinem describes, to which she aspires, is one outside of time. Status is elemental to our interactions with other humans; whether we are conscious of them or not, we’re engaged in constant negotiations of status with all of the people whom we meet in a given day. Even our virtual interactions are marked by the back-and-forth of status games. While gender can and does affect those interactions, our sense and performance of our own always-shifting statuses, it’s not the sole determining factor, nor is it the only exigence for status exchanges.

Frankly, I don’t buy Steinem’s morpheme-based argument. To me, it feels that she reads the “textbook” definitions of erotica and pornography, of their entomological roots, far beyond what the text itself actually says, and actively avoids engaging with how those linguistics elements compare/contrast with the practical use and understanding of those concepts in modern (as of 1978) life.

To be blunt: her implicit assertion seems to be that erotica is good because it’s more “feminine” in nature–deals with feelings and love and all that shit–while pornography is bad because it’s used by men, created by men, espoused by men, in order to maintain the patriarchy. I’m essentializing here, and I realize. However, her assertions that erotica has a “sensuality and touch and warmth” and concerns itself with “shared pleasure,” while pornography uses sex to “reinforce some inequality, or to create one,” sounds pretty fucking gendered in its construction to me (53).

I’m also struck by her resistance to pleasure in this piece, to discussing erotica–if one accepts her argument that erotica is good–as a means through which a woman might gain some getting off, if you know what I mean.

Here’s the closest Steinem comes to acknowledging why a woman might want to use erotica:

“It [erotica] may or may not strike a sense-memory in the viewer, or be creative enough to make the unknown seem real; but it doesn’t require us to identify with a conquerer or victim [as she does porn, she argues]. It is truly sensuous, and may give us a contagion of pleasure.” (54)

It’s that last phrase that struck me: what’s a “contagion” of pleasure, exactly? Why not straight-up pleasure? What’s the virus that’s being transmitted? Why does Steinem seem to associate [physical] pleasure gained from a “photo or a film of people making love; really making love” as an infection, as something external that invades the viewer’s body from the outside?

The cynic in me wonders if this passage suggests a deeper resistance to heavily sexualized texts, if there’s not an implicit assumption here that getting off from the outside in isn’t as “good” or “right” as getting off with an imaginary, egalitarian lover.

There’s a whiff here of policing here, I think, of telling feminists of 1978 what they should want, what they should desire. And you know how I feel about that. Sad to say, such conversations, such attempts at community policing, are still ongoing, not just in explicitly feminist communities, I’d argue, but in many places where women gather around a shared ideology.

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One thought on “Erotica, Porn, And a “Contagion of Pleasure”

  1. Pingback: I Know It When I See It – A Photographer Dishes about Porn and Erotica

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