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.
“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?