Erotica Warning Labels, and Porn v. Erotica.

Sticking this to the front today.

Summary for the tl;dr crowd:

1. Warning labels may be helpful, but they may mislead readers into thinking books with warning labels are more extreme than books without.

2. Erotica and pornography both intend to arouse the reader, but erotica intends to do so in a way that has other kinds of merit, such as artistic.

3. Feminists who object to porn do so not b/c it is obscene, but because of its negative effects on women. From a feminist point of view, much erotica is consistent with feminist empowerment, although plenty is not.

4. It is odd and too bad that one central intention of erotica — to arouse the reader — is downplayed by many erotica writers, and readers, giving lie, in some sense, to the idea that erotica empowers women to be fully sexual beings.

I’ve been trying to get myself to write a review of Lauren Dane’s Giving Chase, which I liked, but I can’t muster the willpower. I actually purchased it in paper, and as I sat looking at it, willing myself to come up with something interesting to say about it, I noticed something.

It has a warning label:

“Warning, this title contains the following: explicit sex, graphic language, and some violent situations.”

I find it interesting that Samhain uses warning labels, and while I know their executive editor has her own blog, I feel like it would be too forward to write in and ask her about it. I guess my unconsidered opinion about it is that it probably doesn’t hurt and it may help, for example, by alerting parents of minors about the content of what they read, so that they can make knowledgeable decisions that accord with their own family values, the same way the “Explicit” notation on lyrics at iTunes helps me decide whether a song is appropriate for my child.  On the other hand, speaking as a consumer new to Samhain Publishing, the warning led me to gird my loins, as they say, for what turned out to be a pretty tame read.

Anyway, that led me to start thinking about the age old discussion of the difference between pornography, erotica, and romance.

Here’s what I think about that:

Erotica and pornography are both designed to be sexually arousing, but erotica aspires to artistic, scientific or human merit, whereas “pornography” does not.

There’s a really negative connotation to the word “porn” (witness the title of Dionne Galace’s blog, “It’s Not Chick Porn” ) and most erotica writers object to being called pornographers, I think mainly on the grounds that they take themselves to be doing something that has artistic merit.

What’s so bad about porn? There are two basic arguments:

1. The traditional one, favored by moral conservatives, revolves around the sexually explicit nature of the material, which they call “obscene.” (Pretty much all sexually explicit material is obscene, and immoral, on this view). We  are all familiar with this approach, legally, from the Miller test and related court decisions.

But morally, what’s wrong with obscenity? Well, there are supposedly two moral problems with obscenity: (a) it may be intrinsically immoral, i.e. the portrayal of bestiality, or (b) it may have morally problematic effects: it may corrupt consumers, it may offend “passersby”, or in general it may harm society by eroding “family values”, etc. Not only do I find these types of argument unconvincing, I find them offensive in the forms they typically take.

2. A second approach that some folks who condemn pornography take is not based on the sexual explicitness of the material, but on its effects on women. So, most feminists, for example, could care less about the “community standards” that are central to the Miller test (feminists generally are pretty critical of a lot of “community standards”). Feminists object to porn when it desensitizes consumers to rape, endorses women’s subordination and further normalizes it, sends messages about women that are degrading, silences women by making some of their speech acts (saying “no” to sex, for example) unhearable, etc.  In all of these ways pornography is thought to thwart the goal of equality between the sexes. (Other people besides women can be harmed, of course, but I am trying to keep this shorter than the King James Bible if at all possible.)

[BIG RED CAVEAT: 1. Many feminists have no problems with porn under either definition. 2. Even feminists who oppose porn often disagree on what's wrong with it, and on the question of what counts as porn. 3. Most feminists oppose censorship of any kind (which is why the two who didn't --Dworkin and Mackinnon -- got really famous.)]

As for my own take, I’ll just say, briefly, that I think some porn does some of these things, and I am not a purveyor of that type of porn (or any porn actually, not that there’s anything wrong with it), and I try to educate people so they won’t be purveyors of it, but I don’t think (as does Catherine MacKinnon, for example) that porn assumes any uniquely powerful role in perpetuating a sexist culture.

So, to sum up, Pat Robertson and Gloria Steinem are going to (a) define pornography differently, and (b) object to different things in what they call “pornography”.

From a(t least one) feminist point of view, Sweet Savage Love is more pornographic than any explicitly written consenting scenarios erotica writers dream up, regardless of how “kinky” they are.

One of the things I think some feminists would appreciate, actually, and it’s something erotica writers often pat themselves on the back for, is normalizing and celebrating women’s sexuality in its myriad forms, and in general claiming a positive place for the sexual agency of women. (Not all erotica does this, of course, and it’s an interesting question which does and which doesn’t. One book everybody loved was Joey Hill’s The Vampire Queen’s Servant. All I kept thinking was, okayyyyy… we have the roles reversed, but we still have dominance and submission. It’s just that man is the bitch. The female is merely taking on and defining power the way men always have. This, to me, was not a great leap forward, but maybe I needed to read the second book. I can see some of my friends reading this and saying, “Oh Jessica. you want everything to be respect and roses. Get over it!”).

I looked around to see how this larger debate has been carried on in the romance blogosphere, and I seem to be about 2 years behind the curve, but here are some things I found:

A 2006 article on “posh porn” from the Guardian, which contends that the difference between romance and erotica is that the latter is more “authentic”, less idealized, about sex.

Author Alison Kent’s take on it.

Gay romance and erotica writer Angie’s view.

Dianne Castell on what makes erotica erotica.

Sarah Frantz, of Teach Me Tonight, discusses the difference from her point of view as a reader here. (And can I just add, totally gratuitously, that I find it astounding that these youngster professors work in an environment that allows them to write things like  “hot m/m sex is my current obsession” using their real names, on their quasi-professional blogs. I’m so obviously not in Kansas anymore! ;))

Jane at Dear Author touches on this in her post on the Oversexualization of Romance (aka the Caveman Calamity of 2008).

The DA discussion got AztecLady so fired up, she posted this on Karen Knows Best.

Over at Passionate Ink, the RWA chapter for erotic romance, co-founder Sylvia Day defines the varying “heat” levels in the following manner:

“Porn: stories written for the express purpose of causing sexual titillation. Plot, character development, and romance are NOT primary to these stories. They are designed to sexually arouse the reader and nothing else.

Erotica: stories written about the sexual journey of the characters and how this impacts them as individuals. Emotion and character growth are important facets of a true erotic story. However, erotica is NOT designed to show the development of a romantic relationship, although it’s not prohibited if the author chooses to explore romance. Happily Ever Afters are NOT an intrinsic part of erotica, though they can be included.

Erotic Romance: stories written about the development of a romantic relationship through sexual interaction. The sex is an inherent part of the story, character growth, and relationship development, and couldn’t be removed without damaging the storyline. Happily Ever After is a REQUIREMENT to be an erotic romance.

Sexy Romance: stories written about the development of a romantic relationship that just happen to have more explicit sex. The sex is not an inherent part of the story, character growth, or relationship development, and it could easily be removed or “toned down” without damaging the storyline. Happily Ever After is a REQUIREMENT as this is basically a standard romance with hotter sex.”

Above, I wrote that both erotica and porn are created with an intention, primarily, to sexually arouse, although erotica also has other intentions and porn does not. I also noted that many erotica writers feel a justified pride in openly celebrating human sexuality, especially women’s sexuality, which has been so hampered, maligned, traumatized, and literally mutiliated throughout our history.

Many erotica writers implicitly acknowledge the intent to arouse in interviews when they joke about practicing on their partners, or say things like “if it doesn’t turn me on, it’s not going to work for the reader.”

Therefore, I find it surprising that authors of erotica like those covered by the above definitions choose to define erotica in terms of what it’s NOT designed to do, rather than making it clear that one central intention is to arouse the reader (and no, the euphemism “written about a sexual journey” doesn’t count!). By playing this central defining feature of the genre down, I feel like all the other gains get kind of washed out.

Anyone want to show me where I am getting it wrong?

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13 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. I’m about to be all high-falutin’ about what I affectionately refer to as smut.

    I think that demonstrating women’s sexuality in erotica, erotic romance, whatever, to a public audience verifies the existence of female sexuality (woman as actor rather than than object–think how many advertisements show a passive woman sexually displayed) and helps bring female sexuality into public discourse. Better dissed as “chick porn” than ignored and suppressed.

    I also hope the mere existence of erotica aimed at women encourages women to think or write or talk about their own sexuality, thus validating that they have sexual identities to themselves, to their partners, and to society. And I hope stories about varying sexualities can subtly lead to more acceptance of difference in general.

    At the same time, I think erotica should be fun and not preachy, and not grim. My route to that is genre; I’m happiest when reading erotica/erotic romance that’s been flavored with something else, like spaceships or crazy archaeological adventures or car chases. It shouldn’t be ashamed of itself.

  2. I’m not sure I’ve got much to add to this, apart from a couple more links. AgTigress wrote a guest post at TMT about distinguishing between the erotic and the pornographic and I wrote a post about romance novels and the definitions of pornography.

    All I kept thinking was, okayyyyy… we have the roles reversed, but we still have dominance and submission. It’s just that man is the bitch. The female is merely taking on and defining power the way men always have. This, to me, was not a great leap forward

    Sarah Frantz (in addition to posting about m/m romances) has written about BDSM and she thinks (as outlined here) that “BDSM is a sexual orientation both analogous to and concurrent with Kinsey’s continuum of heterosexuality/homosexuality.” In addition, she recently presented a paper at the PCA conference about:

    female dominant/male submissive BDSM romances. But while fem-dom romances overturn the traditional gender roles, they reinforce the construction of gender—the heroes are more male and more alpha than other heroes, the heroines more powerfully female and comfortable with being female than other heroines, and the Alpha male submissives thereby serve as an exaggeration of the value of the final submission to love of normal romance heroes.

    In that first link Sarah writes about a number of axes along which people’s sexuality could be mapped. It was just a quick summary, though, and so she didn’t have space on the blog to fully explore it. Because of that I’m still not really clear about what she’s suggesting, but I think she’s partly suggesting the possibility of separating out sexual behaviour between a couple (which might or might not involve BDSM) and their day-to-day non-bedroom interactions (which might or might not involve domination, submission or very traditional gender roles). I can’t speak for Sarah, of course, but that’s the impression I got of what she’d written.

  3. Sorry for the delay in responding. Soccer season is upon us, that’s my only excuse!

    Victoria – I love what you wrote, and I completely agree about not being ashamed.

    Laura — so glad this is a blog and not a peer reviewed journal, or my overlooking those important pieces you mention would be grounds for rejection of my post.

    I think Professor Frantz and I agree on the BDSM question. What bothered me about the Hill book was that BDSM was presented approvingly as a way of life, and while I think it can be a wonderful way, in art, in real life, whatever, to explore the boundaries of self and other, it’s a way point, not an end point. But again, maybe reading the second book would have changed my view.

    It’s interesting to me — this post is one of my top read posts, up there with my top ten lists. And yet only two comments. What gives? Is it mainly randy men who came here after a google search for hot sexy titty or what?

  4. “this post is one of my top read posts, up there with my top ten lists. And yet only two comments. What gives?”

    I’ve been pressing the refresh button quite a bit while waiting for your response, but I doubt that alone would take it to the top of the list.

    while I think it can be a wonderful way, in art, in real life, whatever, to explore the boundaries of self and other, it’s a way point, not an end point

    So what would you see as an end point? Having spent so long writing about death, I’d tend to see that as an end point for all of us (or at very least a rather significant point of transition for those who believe in the afterlife), regardless of our sexual orientation(s), but somehow I don’t think that’s what you mean.

  5. hi Laura,

    Just to clarify, it is the post with the largest discrepancy between views and comments, although there aren’t that many views.

    As for the “end point”, you’re quite right, I don’t mean temporally. Maybe “goal” would have been better, although that’s too static. I am an egalitarian through and through, and a relationship that’s based on servility – even voluntary servility — is not romantic to me.

    BDSM can be a healthy way, I guess, to explore some existential issues that arise in human relations, but this requires separating psychological surrender from rank victimhood, something I don’t think occurred in the Hill book.

  6. BDSM can be a healthy way, I guess, to explore some existential issues that arise in human relations, but this requires separating psychological surrender from rank victimhood

    From what you’ve written, I get the impression that you’re thinking of BDSM as a stage which people might go through. Is that right? I don’t think that’s what Sarah Frantz is arguing when she wrote that “BDSM is a sexual orientation both analogous to and concurrent with Kinsey’s continuum of heterosexuality/homosexuality.” I got the impression that she was saying that, just as homosexuality is considered a fixed sexual identity, so too can BDSM be a fixed identity.

    As I mentioned, though, she outlined those ideas in blog posts, so there wasn’t space to give any of the evidence on which she was basing her theories, and as I know next to nothing about the topic, I really have no way of assessing their validity.

    Given my cluelessness on the topic (which is no doubt apparent from the number of questions I keep asking, and the way I keep referring back to Sarah’s posts), I should probably not have commented on it at all, but it sounds like you know more than I do, so I’m interested in knowing (a) what you think and (b) why you think it.

  7. Hey Laura,

    I’m thinking of BDSM as a type of harmless erotic play, not as a stage or as a gender. As a stage or a way of life, I would probably pathologize it. A funny way to capture my view would be the movie Secretary: I approved as a viewer of the growth of their relationship from BDSM to something more egalitarian.

    To some extent this is a debate between Feminist Theory and Queer Theory: BDSM is not problematized in queer theory the way it is in feminist theory. But I fear talking more about these disciplinary struggles and competing theoretical commitments would take us very far afield (because it has to do with how you conceive of gender — as discursive, performative, or something else.).

  8. A funny way to capture my view would be the movie Secretary: I approved as a viewer of the growth of their relationship from BDSM to something more egalitarian.

    Funny you should say that. I didn’t think their relationship evolved to anything other than what it was meant to be, that is, master/slave. It was far beyond a dom/sub relationship, but, as you say, it was egalitarian because they seemed to both be playing by the rules.

    At the end, when he washes her, that’s part of the master/slave relationship, wherein the master takes care of his slave because he doesn’t allow her to do it for herself.

    Notice how he gets her to stop cutting herself. He says, “You will not cut yourself ever again” (or something like that) and poof! She stops. After all the time she’s spent cutting and therapy she’s been in to deal with it and he says, “Stop it” and she does.

    That said, in the lifestyle lingo, he’s a “good” master because he’s actually holding up his end of the relationship where (IMO as an outsider looking in), the trouble with many, many of these types of relationships are that one partner doesn’t abide by the rules (by hook or by crook) and abuses the other one’s willingness to abide by the rules. If it’s a Dom/Master, they can get carried away with not taking care of their subs/slaves. If it’s a sub/slave, they can manipulate everything until they’re actually the one in the power position.

    I suspect that the egalitarianism of a D/s or M/s relationship (i.e., where both are playing by the rules; the sub obeys and the dom takes care of the sub) is a balance very rarely hit and by very few couples.

  9. Moriah, I had forgotten the ending of that movie, and I obviously have a lot to learn about a subculture that neither my middle class white Anglo heteronormative upbringing, nor even my feminist theory studies, have taught me much about!

  10. middle class white Anglo heteronormative upbringing

    I resemble that remark.

    I only know this because long ago, I was interested in a man who said he was “the master.” Kept repeating this and I’m like, WTF? Then a girlfriend broke it down for me and I– Well, the reaction was not favorable.

    Anyway, I dug a little deeper (thank you, Google! all the info, none of the dungeons) and got a pretty good idea of what it’s about and that this person was NOT (from his presentation, anyway, and the warning signs I read about) a good master and that good masters are few and far between. I got the definite sense that many D/s and M/s relationships cross from consensual to abuse, but that is ONLY my impression from what I read.

    That said, as I’ve gotten distance from that “master,” I’ve started to become curious about trying some of the milder individual components here and there, but the Dude is most definitely not. C’est la vie.

  11. Good post Jessica.

    Kristina Lloyd and Mathilde Madden have an interesting site (Erotica cover watch) which talks about erotica, feminism, sexual politics etc. The site has an underlying objective/ campaign, which is to get men on the covers of straight women’s erotica. There are a number of interesting posts on that blog of which I’ve put a link to one below. KL has also written some very interesting posts about female submission and kink on her own site and on Lust Bites which are worth a look.

    http://eroticacoverwatch.wordpress.com/2008/10/16/erotica-cover-watch-the-erotica-project-by-slugocki-and-wilson-pub-cleis-press/

  12. Tumperkin,

    Wow, never in a million years would I have thought more women than men would be featured. Maybe it depends on what you call erotica, but in Harlequin Spice covers, or Joey Hill covers, or Ellora’s Cave, I recall seeing men. But maybe those are “romantics” not erotica?

    Thanks for the link!

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