Sunday, August 13, 2006

An attempt to put a tiresome debate to rest

Since I'm feeling a bit lazy, I figured I'd repost something I posted to the Usenet newsgroup soc.feminism back in 1997 on the "porn vs. erotica" debate:

...the whole pornography/erotica distinction is a subjective and rather useless one. IMO, “erotic” and “pornographic” are just adjectives for describing different qualities of sexually-oriented materials; the degree that something is pornographic has to do with the physicality and amount of explicitness of the presentation, while eroticism has to do with the mental and emotional aspects of sex. Good sex is stimulating to both the body and the mind and good sexual materials should do likewise; unfortunately, by creating the ossified categories of “pornography” and “erotica”, we end up with material that only focuses on one side of sex. Hence, there’s plenty of erotica which is all about feelings and metaphors, but steers clear of the actual physical act (and often steers clear of the body entirely) and plenty of pornography that shows the act in copious detail, but the sex has a very fake unfeeling quality to it. In both cases, what you end up with is pretty boring. Pornography, erotica, or whatever you want to call it, doesn’t have to be this way, but that’s what were stuck with as long as we take “erotica” and “pornography” to be two mutually exclusive categories, and Steinem, Russell, etc. are doing a real disservice in trying to keep this division going.

This idea of "erotica" (vaguely defined) as the acceptable alternative to pornography used to come up a lot in feminist porn debates. It seems to come up less today, probably because so much of the debate now focuses on women in "pornstitution" and less on the merits (or lack thereof) of the final product. I still see this debate come up a lot in other areas, though, like in discussions of erotic comics or photography (often cast in the language of "porn vs. art") and it still strikes me as just as wrongheaded.

Since I posted this in 1997, there thankfully have been some good directors and photographers popping up on the porn end who are pretty knowledgeable about their technique and actually have a good sense about what's erotic. Richard Kern, for example, who wins my "high art/low art" award for being probably the only person I know of to have their work appear in both Artforum and Barely Legal. Bellezza Video, Little Mutt, Abby Winters, and Tom Hunscher are others come to mind as examples of pornographers with a good artistic or erotic sensibility.

On the "straight" film end, there have been a bunch of "art" films over the last 5 or 10 years that have been incorporating explicit sex. 9 Songs, in my opinion, was clearly the most successful from an erotic point of view, mainly because it was pretty unapologetic about showing explicit sex in a joyful, arousing way. Unfortunately, many of the other explicit arthouse films of the last few years have been absolute depression-fests which seem to want to "legitimize" the use of explicit sex by putting it in a punishing, anti-erotic context. Baise Moi and Anatomy of Hell come to mind immediately in this regard. (Both French films, actually, which brings to mind a quote I heard to the effect of "Americans behave badly when the don't think about what they do, while the French behave badly when they think about it too much.")

There's some interesting stuff on indie pornographer Tony Comstock's blog about what makes a sexy film and what makes good porno. This is another blog I highly highly recommend, BTW.