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Words Mean Things: “Erotica” vs. “Porn”

Words Mean Things: “Erotica” vs. “Porn”

I’m not really one for euphemisms. All too often, euphemisms lose people. You’re better to just be blunt about things. After all, the purpose of communication is to be clear and concise. If someone loses my meaning because I put it in a pretty package with a neat little bow on top, I’m not doing my job effectively.

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Like what does this even mean?

So I don’t like the fact almost every sexually explicit book written for a primarily female audience gets billed as “erotica.” A lot of the works involved are essentially straight-up word-porn.
Why does it happen? Well, there’s a little bit of politics involved.

Blame the Victorians

Fashion plate showing two ladies from 1845.

Oh so demure.

Women’s sexuality is generally considered non-existent. It’s an attitude that goes back to the Victorians, who posited women had no sex drives. “Good” women were pure and innocent. They were almost childlike. Sex didn’t interest them. Those women who were interested in sex were dirty and shameful. These ideas still echo through our culture today. You can see it reflected in the fact that women are called “sluts” and “whores” on a regular basis. Such insults imply women who like sex, who have a sex drive, are morally inferior, lesser beings, or even abnormal.

Defining Pornography

Pornography, by definition, is pretty much anything of a graphic sexual nature. It’s material depicting sexual acts, designed to excite. You can have “hardcore” and “softcore” porn. Softcore porn is less graphic than hardcore porn. Some erotica could be easily considered softcore porn. Other works might be better classed as hardcore porn. It depends a bit on what you’re reading.

The Crux of the Issue

Labeling something “pornography” is fairly blunt. The reader picks it up to be aroused.
But women are often considered asexual creatures, or at least “averse” to sex. We’re supposed to be prim and proper. Polite society frowns on frank displays of sexuality. Need proof? Simply look at pictures of female celebrities, then count how many “slut” comments each racks up.
If we offer up sexually explicit works as “pornography,” we’re implying women seek out materials specifically designed to arouse and titillate. That also implies women have sex drives and sexual needs. This thought makes many people uncomfortable.

Skirting the Issue: Using “Erotica” Instead

Someone started applying the term “erotica” to sexually explicit works designed for women to get around this issue. The word suggests there’s something more than an intent to arouse here. Maybe there’s more artistry, or perhaps there’s more of a story. Yes, it’s still erotic, but that’s no longer the primary purpose.
The shift in focus makes it more palatable than “pornography,” especially if women are consuming the product. “Erotica” is erotic, sure, but the word doesn’t imply the same graphic sexual nature of “pornography.” Calling a book “erotica” downplays its sexual nature somewhat—and so downplays the sexual nature of the women reading it. It makes it more acceptable for women to enjoy the work. Women don’t enjoy pornography; they enjoy “erotica.”
The gendering of the terms is fairly obvious in the implications. Pornography focuses on sex, pure and simple. It’s raw and unadulterated, like the men it’s aimed at. Erotica, on the other hand, is probably more artistic, softer, demure. It’s much more feminine.

Splitting Hairs

Ultimately, “erotica” is almost exactly the same thing as pornography. Labeling works for women as “erotica” is simply a mechanism  to avoid the uncomfortable reality that women are sexual creatures, that we do have sex drives, and, yeah, we even enjoy sex.
We hardly ever see people using “pornography” for books, and much less often for literature aimed at a female audience. (There are also issues of censorship here; erotica tends to slip under censorship measures applied to porn, although not entirely.) While recognizing varying degrees of sexual graphicness exist, there’s a point in time when you need to call a spade a spade. Most erotica is pornography.
And you know what? There’s nothing wrong with it. Arguing porn isn’t porn is actually more problematic, because it plays into antiquated notions about women’s (a)sexuality. It attempts to sanitize and purify the genre, by making it more feminine. It creates a sex-segregated divide in genres of sexually graphic materials. Men read pornography, but women browse “erotica.”
Same shit, different pile, people. “Erotica” boils down to nothing more than a clever marketing term used to pander to those who might be scandalized by the thought of women reading, enjoying, and ultimately getting off on pornography.

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