QuestionWhat's the difference between erotica and pornography?
Hopes&Fears answers questions with the help of people who know what they're talking about. Today, we wonder is one person's smut another person's sensuality, or not at all?
We saw the tension between "erotic" and "pornographic" erupt on a mainstream scale with the release of Sam Taylor-Johnson’s film Fifty Shades of Grey, adapted from E. L. James' best-seller of the same name, about the sexual power play between a naive college grad and a billionaire with a dark side. Their relationship was criticized by many, including real-life dominatrices, for being BDSM-lite. The story was dubbed "mommy porn" by more unforgiving audiences, who called out the narrative's conventional portrayal of gender roles. And yet, James' poorly-written trilogy had serious appeal, selling more than 125 million copies worldwide. Headlines extolling the virtues of James' goofy brand of sadomasochism were relentless: "Fifty Shades of Grey Saved My Marriage!" Meanwhile, moralists and conservatives slammed the series, denouncing it as "dangerous." If a hardware store employee who babbles about her "inner goddess" and a jetsetter who believes he's "50 shades of fucked up" can be pornography to some and erotica to others, where do we draw the line?
We reached out to adult performers, filmmakers, psychologists, sex therapists, and other experts on human sexuality to hash out the difference between the erotic and the pornographic.
Filmmaker, writer, photographer, artist; Queercore pioneer
Tony Ward, the star of my film Hustler White, once said in Rolling Stone magazine that the difference between art and porn is the lighting, and he has a point. Aesthetics go a long way in describing how people view sexually explicit material. Soft focus, diffused lighting, consciousness of mise-en-scène and montage, and a general attention to composition and atmosphere can tend to make audiences think more of art or erotica than of porn.
Erotica also usually entails presenting the actors in a more flattering way, glossing over, either through the choice of camera angle or editing, the more harsh realities of skin blemishes, awkward positions, painful mistakes, or various leakages. One can also make the distinction between "art" and "erotica": the former, often with a more DIY approach, can sometimes be more realistic and warts-and-all, which has the effect of disrupting the streamlined illusion of perfect sex presented by much high-end industry porn; the latter tends to be less focused on penetration and come-shots, and more concerned with the act of lovemaking itself.
Historically, in class terms, porn is regarded as something more for the unwashed masses, aimed directly at the libido, while erotica is for the "high-born" with more "delicate constitutions," hiding the sexual act behind a veil of discretion and distance. Porn is often viewed as crass, exploitative, and base, while erotica gains, through "artistic legitimacy," a patina of acceptability, even respectability.
I often point out to people that the main difference between "art" or "erotica" and "porn" is quite often simply the direct and unapologetic display of penetrative sex. (A sow's ear is very difficult to make into a silk purse.) Polite society usually dictates a flaccid penis and an aesthetic appreciation of the nude body. Porn, generally viewed in a more private or discrete context, caters more directly to the Id, and often to our darker and more politically incorrect urges, which has the considerable advantage of making it much more fun.
How people consume sex on the internet and IRL
Of men think about sex at least once a day
Of women think think about sex at least once a day
Of men have bought X-rated movies or videos
Of women have bought X-rated movies or videos
Of all data transferred across the Internet is pornography
Of men and women using the Internet for sexual reported significant problems or behaviors associated with compulsive disorders
9 minutes, 16 seconds
The worldwide average time spent on Pornhub.com
Founder, Make Love Not Porn; business and brand innovator; luxury branding consultant; 2003 Advertising Woman of the Year
The difference between "erotic" and "pornographic" is very simple: context. The word "pornographic: is massively misused, much more often than the word "erotic."
Both words are used judgmentally. The word "erotic" is often used to indicate "positive sexual"—"classy," "acceptable," etc. The word "pornographic" is used to indicate "negative sexual" in every possible context—well beyond what should be its only use, as the adjective for constructed and performed entertainment that is designed to arouse and to be masturbated to. (It always amuses me when people talk about "watching" porn, because nobody's "watching" porn—they're wanking.)
But "erotic" is too limiting a word for a very, very large area—the area that Techcrunch journalist Jon Evans correctly identified as where MakeLoveNotPorn operates (and is pioneering in)—sexual content that isn't porn. Which is why at MLNP we're building a new vocabulary for #realworldsex, so that one day, we will have many more words beyond "erotic" and "pornographic," as multitudinous, rich and varied as is this woefully under-talked-about, under-written-about, under-articulated and therefore under-described universal area of human experience.
Twentieth-century French philosopher Georges Bataille, author of the 1928 erotic novella Story of the Eye—dismissed as paperback porn in some circles—has discussed the intricacies of labeling eroticism—and how it can reinforce social inequalities—in relation to his transgressive libertine predecessor, Marquis de Sade.
In the book Erotism (1957), Bataille writes: “The kind of sexuality he has in mind runs counter to the desires of other people… they are to be victims not partners. De Sade makes his heroes uniquely self-centered; the partners are denied any rights at all: this is the key to his system... communion between the participants is a limiting factor and it must be ruptured before the true violent nature of eroticism can be seen.”
The difference between pornographic and erotic is about the same as "promiscuous" versus "normal": we tend to be more likely to label things that make us uncomfortable as "pornographic," and things we’re turned on by as "erotic." While, yes, we can broadly say that things that are more hardcore are more likely to be "porn" and things that have more artistry are more likely to be "erotica," I find that the labels are very often subjective and say far more about the person applying them than the work itself.
Before I started performing and creating my own porn, I was an art model who specialized in the "erotic nude." I heard a lot of fuss about this difference between art and porn. I was heavily invested in the answer, lest anyone accuse me of posing for pornographic pictures. American master photographer George Pitts, who was the first man I shot for professionally and to whom I was a muse when I first started this work, told me, "Pornography is erotica without sufficient compassion for it's subject." I heard a similar sentiment echoed throughout the various studios I shot at.
But then I came to work in porn, and found many, many artists, some of whom performed, some of whom directed, but all of whom had a great deal of compassion for their subject and a very specific vision of what they wanted to arouse in the viewer. I've even met a few who went so far as to have a disruptive desire to create content that was/is challenging and subversive. What I came to realize is that the word choice here, in many ways, is merely one of class. What the average man on the street finds arousing is "pornography," and what the wealthy, cultured, or intellectual man finds arousing is "erotic," couched in an artistic sensibility that surrounds his base desires in a nimbus of respectability. If the intention of the cultural artifact you are making is to arouse the sexual desires within the viewer, it is pornography.
Top 10 searches in the United States on porn websites in the last month
sunny leone fucking
Rachel Kramer Bussel
Author, blogger, and event organizer; Editor, The Big Book of Orgasms: 69 Sexy Stories; Six-time winner of Gold Independent Publisher Awards (Ippy) for Erotica and Sexuality/ Relationships
The line between "erotic" and "pornographic" is largely one of marketing and judgment. I say I write erotica, and that's how my books are marketed, but it wouldn't be incorrect to also say I write pornography. Generally, if someone is trying to sell their erotic work as being "better than" something that's pornographic, I want nothing to do with it. In a nutshell: erotica is socially acceptable, pornography ia less so.
That's changing rapidly, and pornography, specifically porn movies and videos, are becoming more openly discussed, especially among younger generations, but I think anyone who believes they can draw a hard and fast line between the two is mistaken. Both, after all, are designed to arouse, but they may take different routes to that same destination. Both are also subjective terms; what's erotic or pornographic to one person may be utterly mundane and unappealing to another person. I'd say rather than trying to parse the differences, people should find what turns them on, however it's officially categorized, rather than worrying about this largely false distinction.
The most popular search terms on Pornhub.com by New York City users
Journalist; blogger, "All About Sex," Psychology Today; publisher, GreatSexAfter40.com
That's a matter of wildly divergent opinion. For those who enjoy pornography, the two terms are synonymous, though "erotic" may encompass some images that aren’t porn, for example, paintings of female nudes in museums. For those who dislike pornography but appreciate softer erotica, porn means graphic fucking and sucking by people who have no real relationship beyond that, while erotic suggests the dreamy love scenes in R-rated movies. And, for those who are sex-negative and object to all media depictions of sex, erotica is questionable and porn is reprehensible.
Marissa Nelson, LGMFT
Licensed Graduate Marriage & Family Therapist; CEO, XOXO Therapy
While I believe that this is a subjective experience and that many things that are erotic to some may be lewd or crass for others, I think the difference between what is erotic versus what is pornographic begins with our initial neuro-association with each term. When most people think of "erotic" it elicits sensuality, essentially being tantalized and teased by whatever the art form is, whether prose, or whatever stimuli is evoking a response or provoking the senses. It is typically suggestive and not overt, leaving much to the participants' imagination, and as such, leading to the continuity of pleasure, lust, and desire.
"Pornographic" on the other hand is automatically sorted as essentially "in your face" sexuality, mostly as a means of sexual consumption. It is the explicit act of sexuality that is being revealed for you. Most would associate it as less sensual, and more gritty—the "erotic's" rawer older brother.
I am more intrigued as to where someone's desire lives in relation to the two. For many, acts that are seen as "pornographic" are more "erotic," a turn-on that allows them to surrender to pleasure. For others, they need to feel sensual so that desire can take over and allow them to open themselves up to a more robust sexual self. Wherever people fall on the scale, I would just want my clients to have an awareness of what works best for them. After all, it’s all about pleasure in the end.
Kim Kardashian is the most popular "porn star" on Pornhub.com according to New York City users
Robert Weiss, LCSW, CSAT-S
Senior Vice President, Clinical Development, Elements Behavioral Health; author,
Cruise Control: Understanding Sex Addiction in Gay Men and Sex Addiction 101: A Basic Guide to Healing from Sex, Porn, and Love Addiction; Co-author, Always Turned On: Sex Addiction in the Digital Age
Something that might be considered mildly arousing in France or Italy could easily be considered highly pornographic in the US. Something that we here might view as mildly erotic (let's say for an R-rated movie in the US), we would consider it pornographic —if viewed by an 11-year-old. Ultimately, these terms are more socially and culturally bound than they are clinical.
Frances Cohen Praver, PhD
Clinical psychologist, psychoanalyst, relationship expert; author, The New Science of Love: How Understanding Your Brain’s Wiring Can Rekindle Your Relationship and Daring Wives: Insight into Women’s Desires for Extramarital Affairs
Whereas the erotic and pornographic both deal with sex, they are vastly different.
The erotic is sensual, suggestive, tantalizing. Your imagination goes to work to create whatever sexy scene you desire. It is your creation.
In contrast, the pornographic is lascivious, lecherous, in-your face and devoid of imagination. The most erogenous zone in the body is the brain, and imagination is a way to use your brainpower for the ultimate in lovemaking.
It’s as though the erotic is the foreplay, and the pornographic is the sex act itself: the steak without the sizzle.
Georges Méliès' 1897 film Après le bal (After the Ball) featured the first known nude scene in cinema
Illustration: Yulia Goldman