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What is Erotic and What is Pornographic?

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The question - What is erotic and what is pornographic1? - is a very interesting one and deserves to be discussed. It is also quite a complex question. As some people believe there is a very fine line between the two, there can be no simple answer. One point of view is this: eroticism is the exploration of the feelings and emotions inspired by sex and sexuality. Pornography however, focuses entirely on the physical act - be this in writing, photography or film.

Pornographic images, for instance, tend to dwell entirely on the sex act. They are voyeuristic in nature and only involve the user in the most alienated way - as an onlooker. At best, the onlooker can project his or her fantasies onto the image but has no real control over what they are seeing. The sex act itself is staged and controlled by someone else or by the formula employed in that particular brand of pornography. Something rarely done by the people it depicts.

The above is also true of so called 'Interactive Pornography.' Here we have a predefined number of outcomes, all of which dwell on the physical act. The same applies to written pornography. The stories in pornographic magazines for instance, all use a string of 'Buzz words' to describe various parts of the anatomy and sex acts. These words and descriptions are used for the sole purpose of titillating the reader. What we read is, 'It felt so good when he did this...' as opposed to, 'It felt so good when he did this because...'

Therein lays the difference. A piece of erotic writing will try to explain or explore why something feels so good, or indeed, bad. Pornography does not. One of the key points about eroticism is that it can also uncover the darker side of sexuality. It has the ability to do this in a much more analytical way. Pornography depicts what some of us may consider a distasteful sex act and presents it in a titillating manner. Whereas eroticism can take the same sex act and question the pleasure gained from it. So in a sense, eroticism is capable of involving the reader in the making of moral judgements. Eroticism can explore a wide range of emotions and emotional responses. Fear, pain, longing, belief, love, hate, rejection, and acceptance – the range is endless. Pornography - by its very nature - is incapable of doing any of this in a meaningful way.

Pornography objectifies sex and turns it into a set of categories – anal, oral etc. Some people think pornography has a very clinical feel to it. They believe much of what hardcore pornography depicts resembles medical procedures.

The vast majority of porn follows a formula. It starts with a woman undressing, goes through a number of sexual positions (always the same ones, in the same order) and ends with the male orgasm. This is also true of gay pornography. Pornography which deals with so called 'fetishes' has its own formulas. Although pornography objectifies both men and women, it is interesting to note that the overwhelming body of pornography depicts women in a passive, submissive role. Where women are the dominant partner, this becomes a 'kink' or a 'fetish.' But that's another discussion.

The point is – sexuality covers a wealth of human emotions and unlike pornography, erotica doesn't seek to limit these. That is not to say that eroticism is not sexually arousing. It could be argued that erotica can be more arousing because it involves and stimulates in ways that pornography cannot. Human beings are complex physical and emotional creatures. The two things are not mutually exclusive. They intertwine and make human beings what they are. In order to become aroused, a person first has to think. At this point pornography takes away any need for thought and concentrates entirely on supplying a physical need. Erotica stimulates on a mental level and allows a person to explore their own feelings.

To finish, here is an example. A researcher once carried out an experiment involving several very different images. He asked three men and three women to look at the images and describe to him what they saw. Two of the images were taken from pornographic magazines, the other two were abstract paintings by Picasso. Their descriptions of the first two images dealt entirely with the physicality. One was simply a picture of a man and woman having sex. The other was a picture of a naked woman. Although there were variations in the way the men and women reacted to this particular image, none of them went beyond the physical. The women commented on her breasts, one said she had a nice face and one wished she could be that slim. The men reacted as you might expect. All of their descriptions focused on the sex act. They projected their fantasies onto the picture. However, the Picasso paintings drew a much broader, emotional response. One of the paintings, although abstract, clearly depicts a woman masturbating. All of the subjects discussed what the woman might be thinking (something the painting hints at) and how she was feeling. They also spoke about what the artist was thinking and why he had chosen to paint the picture this way. All of the subjects found the painting arousing, considered it be erotic and used the image to express how they felt about masturbation. The last image provoked a similar response. What this experiment made clear, is how the erotic works on so many other different levels to the pornographic.

1The term 'pornographic' is a generic one and not a legal one. It comes from the Greek meaning 'harlot' and 'graphos' meaning 'writing'. Webster's Dictionary defines it as meaning 'a depiction of licentiousness or lewdness: a portrayal of erotic behaviour designed to cause sexual excitement'.

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