Saturday, September 09, 2006

Romance, Erotic Romance, Erotica and Pornography

Alison Kent's Blog is usually one of my first stops when I do my rounds of blog reading every day. (Fun fact, I use this blog as my own bookmark list of blogs to check far more often than I bother to update, though I'm going to try to do better at that. And the discussion of Romance vs. Erotic Romance vs. Erotica vs. Porn is a topic that fascinates as well as intrigues me (as much for the reactions it provokes as for the debate itself), so I was delighted to see her latest post on the topic, Erotica vs Romance vs Porn, and I'm on board with her regarding the Erotica = A story where the sex is necessary to the story, or as Morgan Hawke puts it,
” An EROTIC story has sex in it.
EROTICA is a story where the PLOT hinges on Sexual Events.
EROTIC ROMANCE is a story where Plot-Turning Sexual Events maps the progress of the Love Relationship DURING an Adventure. ”

But when I saw a quote she included, from another blogger, that began with "Erotica humanizes sex; pornography dehumanizes. Erotica is to pornography as a portrait is to a cartoon", I had a bit of a knee jerk reaction. I'm in the minority of both women and porn consumers in that I'm a woman and a porn consumer. Not terribly regularly mind you, I've bought one DVD in the last year, and own maybe ten, all told, but I'm relatively familiar with the industry, the marketplace, and the breadth of product available.

The vast majority of pornography is crappy, even by pornography standards, but I'd venture that that's true of most forms of entertainment, especially one with as voracious and profitable a consumer base as porn has. But what makes porn porn (IMHO) isn't that it dehumanizes, or the kinkiness of the act depicted, or the lack of emotional involvement. Much of it is dehumanizing and fetishy and doesn't even pretend that that the people shown are doing this out of love. What makes porn porn is that the primary goal of the product/entertainment/art in question is to arouse the (almost invariably male) viewer, probably to the point of orgasm. You can have a story and a romance and emotional involvement and a moral and any number of other things, but their absence or presence doesn't make it porn or not porn. The fact that it is specifically, primarily, and from the start created to turn the viewer on and get them off makes it porn.

Now Romance, Erotic Romance and Erotica can all arouse the viewer. Heck, a shoe catalogue can be used for pornographic purposes by the right person, so whether someone is or can be turned on isn't a fair criteria. The difference between the first three, and porn is that for the first three, the product must be a story. Porn can contain a story with characters and emotion, but to succeed as porn, it has to get someone off. Everything else is icing. Doesn't even need to be fiction or have a story. One popular, long running series involves nothing but self made "we taped ourselves doing it" videos by real life couples. The first three are necessarily stories and are going to be judged on fictional terms in addition to the "level of heat."

But Pornography? Is first and foremost a tool that (primarily) men use to enhance their masturbation, an activity that they've got a basic, biological need to do (they constantly produce semen from puberty onward, regardless of whether they're in love or even particularly turned on and it's gotta get out somehow). And while we as women can and do enjoy masturbation, and can experience a need to do it, it's not exactly the same need. Porn doesn't have to be emotional or romantic or artistic to do that job, it just has to add a little spice/variety/fun/intensity to the old "fist/handlotion/kleenex" routine that they started around 12 or so and will tend to continue to do until they die or lose the ability to do so (whether or not they have a partner in their lives).

But that doesn't make it an intrinsically less worthy form of entertainment. It's just one geared towards satisfying a related but fundamentally different need. It's just a catagory of entertainment with a vastly different requirements and purpose than, say erotica, which must be a story and be arousing and have the arousing bits integral to the story. Or romance which is required to be a story and a love story that is integral to the story. Or Erotic Romance which needs to have all three (A story, a love story, and a story with arousing, "on screen" sexual content, all of which should be inextricably linked) at the same time.

And then I got to thinking of the way the term "pornography" is thrown around, as a moral judgement or quality judgement or indication of amount or freakyness of sexual content, and I tried to puzzle out (for myself) where I felt the boundaries were. I tried to think in objective terms, tried to come up with a definition that had more to do with the purpose of the product rather than the subject questions of taste or outrage or morality, because as long as you crack open that bedroom door, you're going to have someone accuse you of pornography. That can't be controlled. As long as you write something that's deliberately arousing (or steamy, or whatever euphamism you care to choose) you're going to be accused by some of committing "pornography" because there may be some overlapping purpose.

But if that's not the primary and most important goal of your work, it's not pornography. It might be pornographic in parts, but that's like calling Fight Club a romance because it contains a romance. You can watch Fight Club as a romance, just like you can watch Annaud's "The Lover" as pornography, but you'll likely be disappointed on both accounts. Slapping the "pornography" label on "erotica/erotic romance" shows a fundamental misunderstanding of both catagories, and judging either by the other's set of requirements dooms you disappointment on both sides, even though both catagories have topics and themes in common, and some works straddle the fence (reverse cowgirl style, baby). ;)

I get that some people will always use "Pornography" to pass moral/artistic judgement on any work of art (video, book, film, photo) that deals explicitly with human sexuality. Hell, half they time they're going to use that term to pass judgement on the artist as much as they are the art. And I get that it's always going to be a hot button because "what turns you on" is so personal and variable and tied up with religion and morality and identity and shame. But as people working in (or aspiring to work in, or even just avidly consuming) an industry that (aspires to) deal honestly, affectionately and respectfully with human sexuality, we owe it to ourselves and our art to try to come up with objective, clear-headed definitions that are useful and accurate regardless of personal morality and taste.

*whew* This is what happens when I have too much time to post from work. ;) Anyway, my original thoughts (which cover some of the same ground) can be found here and continued here, and Alison was kind enough to link to my long winded comments in her next post. Rather than continue to blather all over her space, I came here to blather in my own space. Obviously, all opinions are my own, your opinion is likely to vary. But as someone who enjoys porn, romance, erotica and especially that still-struggling-to define itself catagory "erotic romance", I thought I'd share my perspective, especially those who, for whatever reason, aren't going to be watching "Grand Theft Anal" any time soon.

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