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.

Setting Wincest Straight

Here’s something I learned at the conference I attended last week:

  1. Wincest is disgusting, to some people.

Let me set the scene.

As my brother wisely observed, I go to conferences to road test my academic material. To put it up in front of an audience and see what works, what doesn’t; a trait, he says, I learned in improv, where it’s all about doing, reading audience reaction, and revising the work the next time you go on stage.

[I hadn’t made that connection, myself. He’s a smart one.]

What I’ve realized, though, is that there’s a productive tension between the need need to put a piece of academic writing on its feet and the need for it to be, you know, something good enough [ugh] for me to stand behind.

At some level, I’d love it if every conference presentation resulted in all comers telling me what a fucking genius I am, showering me with publication offers, and buying me drinks.

At another, I recognize that the unexpectedly rich engagement [weird, lively, sorta intense conversation] that occurred during my panel’s question and answer session was WAY the fuck more valuable. Even if no drinks were purchased on my behalf.

To wit: one of the lessons I took from the panel.

  1. Wincest is disgusting, to some people.

So one of the academics on my panel now writes about sex and science fiction, but is, in her other scholarship, also involved with neuroscience and psychology. In my paper, I talked [much more briefly than in others] about the rise [ahem] of the Wincest narrative and its distinctive presence in Supernatural‘s primarily female fandom. In response to some audience comments on the paper [more about that in a moment], this presenter stated that she found Wincest to be disgusting and disturbing because, as she noted, child/child incest occurs more frequently in the US than adult/child incest. At the time, my sleep-deprived brain didn’t know what to make of this statement, other than: dude, Wincest is hot. Which I thought but did not say.

But, later, revived by food and coffee, what I realized was this:

For my colleague, Wincest is akin to incest, which, in the popular [and legalistic] understanding, is almost always equated to sexual abuse. To the abuse of a power dynamic, of age difference, of emotional maturity, between siblings. Indeed, as this Harvard Law Review article suggests, most state laws that criminalize incest rely solely upon the notion of familial relation; that is, if two people who are “related” [and yes, the definition of this term varies from state to state], then any sex between them can be characterized as illegal–even when it is consensual.

And that’s the key to Wincest, I think. Well, to a lot of it.

Wincest is slash fic, first and foremost, and, in practice, most slash fic is predicated on a relationship between two [male] characters who are equals. Who consider themselves to be equals in real life, if not in the bedroom.  At least, that’s what much of the old school, hardcore academic theory [Constance Penley, Henry Jenkins, Mirna Cicioni] on slash argues. And this rings true for me as a reader and writer of slash.

So, to me, the concept of “Wincest” hinges at least in part on this sense of Sam and Dean as equal partners in general. And this sense of equality is linked to consent, to the notion that the boys come together [or, ah, something] because they want to, because it’s what they desire. Now the contrivances that get them there can be legion: magic, demons, booze, somebody’s hurt, somebody wants to fuck, somebody has a sudden moment of emotional clarity–whatever. But this acceptance of who they are, of what they have–even if it’s just for one night, as in some stories–is key, for me. Now they are non-con stories, sure, and many that feature dubious consent. And I hate making universalist or generalizing statements about anything, much less about something as free-range as fan writing.

But.

I think this equation of incest with abuse is what lay at the heart of my colleague’s squick reaction, of her immediate dismissal of Wincest [with which she had not been familiar, it seems] as aberrant, deviant, disgusting.

Which is, to me, fascinating. Because as often as I proclaim myself an evangelical member of the Church of Gay Incest Porn [tm twoskeletons], I think that I’d forgotten what that phrase actually means to most people.**

As a scholar, this was a helpful reminder that what I’m talking about, as much as I like to play at it being a little kinky and weird: actually is kinda kinky and weird, to some. And that resistance, as in this case, can be productive for me, can raise questions, can remind me of the “straight” reading of Wincest to which, through which, my scholarship on this awesomely sexy and transgressive and often really well-written stuff must be negotiated.

In fact, the whole discussion reminded me, eventually, of this terrific panel I attended at the same conference on BDSM and the popular romance novel. One of the presenters discussed the links she sees between the geek/fan community and the kink community; and, in the course of her discussion, she noted that folks in kink are constantly contradicting themselves in the way they talk about their practices. In the same sentence, she pointed out, kink people will say, “Hey, what we do is transgressive and resistant to the heternormative construction of sex. And that is fucking awesome” AND “Hey, what we do isn’t weird. We’re just like everybody else.”

Which kinda feels like where I am with slash fic, at the moment: weird and different and yet really normal, in a way. Whatever “normal” means.

So I’m stuck in between these two bodies of thought, these two ways of seeing Wincest, after this conference. Which feels like a good place to be, for now. A productive one, at least.

**Side note: One audience member who said very nice things to me about my paper after the panel also said: “I don’t really see the Wincest thing”–ok, I thought, fair enough–“but when you showed that picture of Dean at Sam and Becky’s wedding [the one at the top of this post], and you made that joke about how he was upset about Sam marrying anyone but him–I could kind of see that, in his face.”

I chose to see that as a step on the road to Damascus, friends. A baby step towards a casual Google search, towards a visit to the Sam/Dean Slash Archive, perhaps…

It’s Time For A Check Up

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So my grad program wants to know: what have I accomplished this year?

First, I made a lot of mistakes.

I spent too much time comparing myself to my colleagues, measuring myself against an imaginary standard that I manufactured in my spare time and spoon-fed with paranoia.

I spent too much time listening to certain people in my life, both in academia and not. Wasted too many brain cells trying to apply logic to things they said that made no sense then, that make no sense now, and that ultimately don’t mean a damn thing.

I didn’t spend as much time on some readings as I should have, spend more time on others than they really deserved.

At conferences, I didn’t go to enough panels. Didn’t talk to enough people.

I put myself down too often.

I forgot to press “save” more than once.

Dicked around too much, in general.

Waited until the last minute to start my work when I sure as hell knew better. Not all the time, but at least one too many.

Didn’t talk enough in some classes. Talked too much in others.

I got up too early, too often.

Didn’t spend enough time with my students’ texts or spent far, far too much.

I drank too much coffee. Ate too much bad food. Didn’t take up smoking.

Didn’t drink enough booze.

I wasted too much time not writing.

But then, I made some good choices, too.

I presented at my first conference and managed to write something, to say something, that sounded like me: funny and sarcastic and smart.

Presented at a second and, when the room wasn’t as friendly, that time, I didn’t beat myself up about it.

I said “thank you” when people praised my writing, my thinking, my teaching. Didn’t question or try to talk my way out of the compliment. Just said “thanks.”

I said “thank you” when someone told me “You can do better,” because she was right.

I was a little too honest a little too often and, man, was it good.

I started watching Supernatural.

I started writing slash fic and, damn, has that changed my life.

People I don’t know, will never know except via the internet, read my writing and liked it and even came back for more, even saw more in my texts than I did, than I can, than I could.

I remembered how to learn strategically, how to get what I need from a text and move on to the next.

I became myself, in my teaching.

I discovered porn studies and critical discourse analysis and feminist film theory.

I submitted abstracts without fear because, hey, the worst they can say is “no.”

[Or is that “yes”?]

I had colleagues ask me to submit panels with them and said “yes” instead of “why?”

I had papers accepted at a hardcore feminist conference, at pop culture fests in the US and in Switzerland, at a grad conference, at a regional MLA deal.

I didn’t listen when some people gave me misguided–if well-intentioned–advice about my academics, my career, my once-and-future “marketability.”

I accepted that other people in my academic life might actually mean it when they offer help, or guidance, or direction. And that these people might be good advocates, for me. That they want to be, if I’ll let them.

I interviewed my academic idol, saw the mask fall, and figured out that I have to hack out my own path as a scholar. Figured out that douchebaggery can trap, can take even the best of us.

I embraced my inner Rage Cat and then learned how to let him go.

I said “yes” more than I said “no.”

I wrote a love(d) letter and got back something, someone that I’d lost.

I stopped waiting for someone to give me permission to do what I want to do in my research and just–did it.

I realized that I might have something to say, after all, and that some people might want to listen.

I became a writer.

I became “KT.” Or “CC,” all at once.