So what really is the difference between porn and erotica?

2 Apr

I’m talking about writing, by the way, not those funny pictures of unlikely people doing unusual things to each other, with props.

No, I’m trying to figure out what elevates erotica from the status of pornography. I’m not the first to have done this. There is a prevailing view among erotica authors that what we do is not porn. I like to think so too. But when I try to put my finger on the thing that makes it that way, I can’t quite manage it. I’m hoping that by the time I get to the end of this post, I’ll have figured it out.

Roxanne Rhoads has what I think is a pretty mainstream take on the issue. She wrote an essay a few years ago claiming that erotica appealed mainly to women, while men were more interested in pornography. Erotica tells a complete story; porn is a collection of sex acts. Erotica requires imagination; porn is explicit.

I don’t buy the porn-is-for-men and erotica-is-for-women argument. Apart from the obvious counter-evidence to this, that women watch porn and men read erotica, it relies on the idea that women’s sexual appetites are purer than men’s. (Okay, so woman ARE better than men, but that’s not a good enough argument.) There is something about her point that erotica is a complete story though. I’ll come to that in a bit.

Perhaps we should just ignore the reader in this debate. After all, almost anything can be arousing – read J G Ballard’s Crash for an insight into the perverse. If car crashes were off limits because some people found them arousing, the Dukes of Hazzard would never have been made.

The delightful Scarlett Parrish has a more subtle view. She draws a distinction between what gets the readers off and what gets the characters off. She puts it like this:

Every one of my sex scenes has a purpose. Every. Damn. One. I can sit down and tell you what each one is supposed to reveal about the characters, or how it moves the plot along.

This is definitely a most useful distinction, I think. Every scene in a story has to justify itself, and sex scenes are no different. It’s not enough that the couple or menage have sex to move the story on, because that could be shown with a fade to black. Something about the way the characters have sex has to be significant enough that, unless we show it to you, the story does not work.

Perhaps Selena Kitt’s novel, Babysitting the Baumgartners, is a good example of this. Early in the book, there is a scene in which the babysitter accidentally watches the Baumgartners having sex, and the couple are talking about what they’d both like to do to the babysitter. This couldn’t be dealt with by a fade-to-black because we need to hear the dirty talk to understand its effect on the babysitter. The scene reveals plot and the character of the Baumgartners and of the babysitter.

Yet I have a problem with the idea that we can ignore the reader in this. The arguments Scarlett puts forward are ones that writers will understand, and agree with. Yet something which might have been pure porn does not suddenly become erotic because more care was taken about the way it was put together. There is craft in pornography as well. There must be good porn and bad porn, and the good stuff is good because it’s made well. We have to look at the effect on readers as well, even if it’s not at the forefront of our minds when we write.

So here’s my view. Pornography is created solely to turn people on, and it can have no other effect. Erotica is created with the intention of having other effects as well as turning readers on – other effects like an emotional response to characters, or an understanding of a particular culture or type of person.

In fact, I’d suggest that the best erotica is the stuff which uses the fact that readers are turned on to show them something they had never realised before. Great erotica uses its erotic content to help people understand something about the world that they could never have without being turned on.

That’s one of the reasons I’m interested in ‘realistic’ erotica, because I want to explore how people really do have sex, rather than the way people want to imagine they could be having it. To me that means people having sex for the wrong reasons, or without things working properly, or not having sex at all – all things that are not usually part of erotica. I’m not always successful – sometimes I get distracted by writing about a nice meaty cock – but that’s my aim.

Am I right? Not sure. Maybe someone will let me know?

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7 Responses to “So what really is the difference between porn and erotica?”

  1. Squeaky April 2, 2011 at 2:28 am #

    *hears crystal-clear chimes of recognition*
    That is *exactly* my definition of (written) porn vs. erotica. I can just never articulate it quite so clearly. Ta. 🙂
    X

    • mehryinett April 4, 2011 at 11:47 am #

      Thank you! It took quite some articulating, I can tell you.

  2. Squeaky April 2, 2011 at 3:15 am #

    P.S. who the hell *wouldn’t* get distracted by a nice, meaty cock…? XD

  3. ximenawrites April 2, 2011 at 4:41 am #

    You’re very right, but sometimes I define what I write as porn on paper. It’s so naughty to be on your Kindle and reading the most depraved and delicious descriptions of fucking while you’re on the train on the way home from work…

    ..but on the most part, the emotional connection that the reader makes to the characters in erotica – especially in a series of stories or a novella – can’t be done with visual porn. There was a time when I didn’t want to share my erotica because I’d been made to believe that it was *cheap and tawdry*. I was so clueless!! Personally, I’d rather be known for writing good erotica than for writing mediocre…whatever else LOL

    Good erotica satisfies my need to connect with the reader on an emotional level, while still writing about meaty cocks.

  4. mehryinett April 4, 2011 at 11:51 am #

    I think that’s sort of what was underlying my thinking. I try to write erotica, but sometimes it ends up as porn on paper. The problem I have with the idea that porn is about characters who the reader is not sympathetic with is that I quite like mucking around with characters and making them a bit miserable :/ But I think their reactions are a lot more interesting than if I made them happy so that’s why I like writing that way. I suppose I could try to keep going to give them a happy ending. Maybe I could do that too.

    And obviously your writing is anything but cheap and tawdry Ximena.

  5. nilla April 13, 2011 at 7:20 pm #

    i guess, hmmm, once i made the jump from *thinking* about writing dirty, to actually doing it, i self-defined it as porn (as did my spouse when she accidentally found some of it. As in “OMG>>THIS IS PORN!!)

    i try to make my characters…people…as opposed to props just there to enliven the ‘action sequences’…

    the action is good, but if there isn’t meat behind the story (as well as in it, lol)…it isn’t really a story, is it?

    nilla

  6. Luna May 5, 2011 at 12:04 am #

    Some really excellent points here. I always love this discussion.

    I don’t think books can be ‘pornographic’. To me, the term pornographic describes visual stimulus, and not literary stimulus.

    As I writer, I differentiate between good erotica and bad erotica (or pornographic writing), with plot. Stories where the plot does not revolve around sex, but the plot resolution may.

    To use your example of Selena Kitt’s novel, Babysitting the Baumgartners: The plot of the book is “A young woman who is coming of age emotionally and sexually is asked to go to Key West to babysit their kids during the Christmas Holiday.”

    It leads itself to her learning about herself, about her sexual limits, through her sexual activity with the characters in the book.

    I wrote a similar post regarding good erotic writing on my blog: http://lunazax.wordpress.com/what-is-erotic/

    Let me know what you think

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