The Thing That Goes Bump In The Night In Our Beds: Towards a definition of Eroticism

sculpture by Barbara Falender

sculpture by Barbara Falender

I’ve been given the task of defining ‘eroticism’ as the first step towards constructing my thesis. When I sat in my supervisor’s office and jotted this down, it wasn’t that I assumed the task would be easy, but I didn’t quite grasp the complexity of the journey I had agreed to embark on. The task wasn’t to define eroticism in literature, but in the general. And there is no better place to start, I think, that to look at the etymology of a word.  Here you might think the OED would be the holy grail, but you’d be mistaken.

eroticism, n.

Pronunciation:  /ɛˈrɒtɪsɪz(ə)m/

 1. Erotic spirit or character; also, the use of erotic or sexually arousing imagery in literature or art.

1881   Sat. Rev. 9 July 53/1   The religious eroticism of Redi.
1885   Sat. Rev. 11 Apr. 483/1   This martyr [Mme. de Montifaud] to eroticism.
1957   T. Talbot tr. J. Ortega y Gasset’s On Love ii. 43   A theory of eroticism ought to begin by an explanation of its most perfect forms.
1969   Daily Tel. 10 Feb. 10/4   He [sc. Thomas Mann] puts the German character on the operating table..: the loneliness, the smug provincialism, the Wagnerian primitivism, the eroticism.
1978   I. B. Singer Shosha vii. 135   There is no reason why..even our friend Haiml’s blend of eroticism and Hasidism could not exist in a play-city or play-world.
1989   Encycl. Brit. XXV. 358/2   Eroticism was more explicit in the sensuous nudes..of François Boucher.

 2. Med. and Psychol. A condition or state of sexual excitement or desire; a tendency to become sexually aroused, usu. by some specified stimulus.

1899   T. C. Allbutt et al. Syst. Med. VIII. 373   The sexual appetite in both sexes is usually reduced or absent, but eroticism and self-abuse may be associated with the condition.
1924   H. Ellis Stud. Psychol. Sex (ed. 3) II. iii. 81   Ferenczi again..accepts ‘the psychic capacity of the child to direct his originally objectless eroticism to one or both sexes’, and terms this disposition ambisexuality.
1975   Obstetr. & Gynecol. 46 315/1   Androgens increase eroticism.

Really not terribly informative, not exactly definitive either.

From the American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language



1. An erotic quality or theme.
2. Sexual excitement.
3. Abnormally persistent sexual excitement.

The American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language, Fourth Edition copyright ©2000 by Houghton Mifflin Company. Updated in 2009. Published by Houghton Mifflin Company. All rights reserved.

From the Collins English Dictionary

eroticism [ɪˈrɒtɪˌsɪzəm], erotism [ˈɛrəˌtɪzəm]


1. erotic quality or nature
2. the use of sexually arousing or pleasing symbolism in literature or art
3. sexual excitement or desire
4. a tendency to exalt sex
5. Psychol an overt display of sexual behaviour


Collins English Dictionary – Complete and Unabridged © HarperCollins Publishers 1991, 1994, 1998, 2000, 2003

Clearly it was necessary to step back to the adjective ‘erotic’

erotic, adj. and n.

Pronunciation:  /ɛˈrɒtɪk/
Etymology:  < Greek ἐρωτικ-ός, < ἔρως, ἔρωτ-ος sexual love. Compare French érotique.

 A. adj.

  Of or pertaining to the passion of love; concerned with or treating of love; amatory.

1668   P. M. Cimmerian Matron in W. Charleton Ephesian & Cimmerian Matrons ii. Pref. sig. G2v,   That Erotic passion is allowed by all learned men to be a species of Melancholy.
1776   C. Burney Gen. Hist. Music I. 69   These modes had other..dependent on them; such as the Erotic, or amorous.
1823   tr. Sismondi’s Lit. Eur. (1846) I. xvi. 448   The lyric and erotic poets of his country.
1850   J. Stephen Ess. Eccl. Biogr. I. 158   Arising from these erotic dreams, he suspended at her shrine his secular weapons.
1865   W. F. Hook Lives Archbps. III. i. §9. 101   The common language of civility, as addressed to a lady, was erotic.

 B. n.

 a. An erotic or amatory poem.

 b.  [after nouns in -ic suffix, repr. Greek -ικὴ (τέχνη).] A ‘doctrine’ or ‘science’ of love.

1858   Sat. Rev. 5 266/1   A lecture on popular erotics from the authoress.
1862   Sat. Rev. 8 Feb. 150   Religious erotics are something worse than an offence against taste.
1872   M. Collins Two Plunges for Pearl III. viii. 193   Instruction in the famous science of erotic.
1888   Athenæum 18 Aug. 214/2   A strange doctrine of ‘spiritual wives’—a mystical erotic.
1888   Athenæum 18 Aug. 215/1   The sublime erotic, free from all passional instincts.

Let me skip to the meat – it’s an anglicisation of the French ‘erotique’.

From the online Larousse Dictionary (French)


adjectif (latin eroticus, du grec erôtikos, de erôs, amour)

  • Relatif à l’amour ; qui traite de l’amour : Poésies érotiques.
  • Qui évoque l’amour sensuel, les plaisirs sexuels et incite au désir sexuel ; voluptueux, licencieux : Rêve érotique.
  • Qui traite de sujets sexuels, qui fait appel à l’érotisme : Film érotique.

We need to take a trip back to Ancient Greece, to ‘eros’. The Greeks had no single word for ‘love’, but four: agápe, éros, philía, and storgē. And, although the typical denotation of éros is that of sexual love, Plato via his Symposium and Phaedrus managed to de-sex it by suggesting that all that sexual desire was best put to loftier uses, like the pursuit of the good, the beautiful and, ultimately, wisdom. At the very beginning of European philosophical discourse on sex, we’re already urging ourselves to sublimate it to less physical ends. And in one way or another, we’ve been stuck with this tension ever since.

The human sexual urge scares us. It doesn’t resemble the sexual drives of other animals in that it’s not limited to seasonality or reproductive possibility. The instinct might be aimed at reproduction, and there are a number of behavioral theories on why we evolved to have the urge to have sex even when reproduction could not be affected, but whatever the biological sciences come up with for an explanation, the fact remains that we don’t see our sex drive the way animals see it. We have an urge far in excess of our biological requirements, and we have, from prehistoric times, been driven to impose control on it. With the impositions of limits and taboos (against incest, bestiality, pedophilia, etc) and ritual structures (coming of age, courtship, marriage, etc) which define the boundaries and control how our sexuality should be played out within any given society.

It is interesting, just for a moment, to imagine what our society would look like today had we not believed our sexual drive to be a frightening and dangerous thing. Had we not inherited thousands of years of the products of our fears about it. But one thing is clear, if it had not been for the way we, as humans, have complicated the issue of our sexual drive, we would not have eroticism.

Because all the writers, critics, thinkers, philosophers and poets I have been reading agree: eroticism is our collective social response to the excessive nature of the human sex drive. And, over time, it has accreted meanings that have complicated sex so completely, that its function as a way to perpetuate the species is lost beneath the mountain of clutter. So, even when we talk about ‘sex’ were not talking about a biological instinct, but the incredibly elaborate, rococo abstraction that we have made it.

We turned what scared us into something mystical. And this isn’t unique. We’ve turned most of the other things that have scared us into mystical things also: thunder, earthquakes, death, dreams, violence, pain, even relativity and quantum physics. All the things that we have problems explaining. And as we began to have the ability, through science, to explain some of these things, once we demystified them, they have lost their ability to inspire awe. We know how thunder is caused, and we’ve dispensed with Thor. We understand plate-tectonics, and Poseidon (or Namazu, if you’re Japanese) is consigned to the dustbin of washed up gods. At the most recent end of the timeline, I’d posit that we really do consider, in the Barthian spirit of defining an author, poor Einstein is still up there doing duty as a god for those of us who can’t get our heads around the theory of relativity. And quantum physics scare most people so much, they just pretend it doesn’t exist, other than the brave few who apply themselves to writing its mythologies in the form of hard Science Fiction.

But other phenomenon, like death and dreams and pain and sexual desire, continue to resist explanation. Not that we can’t explain the biological mechanisms of any of them, but because that biological explanation doesn’t even begin to address our emotional response when we are confronted with their realities. For two thousand years, Christianity has harbored these mysteries under its wing, offering us images of heaven and hell, revelations and ecstasies, sacred sacrifice and base profanities. One God, one basket in which to lump all our mysteries, and a set of religious explanations of the whys of all these things.

Then along came Nietzsche who told us, better late than never, I suppose, that God is dead. Although, when it comes to the subject of eroticism, it’s might be argued that the Marquis De Sade killed him first, in giving us a vision – the only vision, in fact – of what our sexual urges, unmitigated by taboo, or law, or religion, might have looked like. This is an argument I disagree with: Sade was as much an inheritor (and probably took them more seriously) of all the controls imposed on our sex drive, and his fantasies of how one might behave, unencumbered by them, are twisted and mutated by the history of those repressions and the shock of their absence. Like a cartoon ball, its shape, after the bounce, is no less distorted than it was when it was squashed, as it hits the ground. Sadean sex is simply eroticism distorted in the opposite direction.

Nonetheless, what we cannot take away from him is his temerity to ask the question: what does sex look like freed from the constraints of religion and the rules social order? That it looks less like something pleasurable and more like Guantanamo Bay might be put down to his seething, underlying rage at the rather despicable hypocrisy of world he lived in.

And the same thing can be said for Nietzsche, Bataille, and Foucault. The same can be said for Duras, and Nin and Carter. Their understandings of eroticism, their visions of it, cannot be untangled from their disappointments with how the world is and what society, through history, has done to us. Not just regarding sex, but with everything.

Reading Freud, Lacan and Zizek, it is clear that, when they do manage to crawl out from under the weight of Greek mythology, they can’t manage to purge their understanding of sexual desire from their own individual disappointments with their societies either. To put it bluntly, Freud tells us to repress it, Lacan tells us we can’t have what we want because it’s an imagined Thing that doesn’t exist, and Zizek tells us that it’s all infantile fantasy layered over a great big field of shit anyway.

But there is, I think, a wonderful, terrible poignancy to those failures. Somewhere underneath all the historic and dialectic detritus, it suggests some essential, universal longing, as a species seeking simple sexual pleasure, to feel free of our encumbrances. And yet we never do. We cannot stop ourselves from dragging all this baggage into the moment of our sexual pleasure, no matter how rational, insightful, critical or analytical we are. Our intellectual prowess doesn’t help us. It only serves to make those encumbrances all the more obvious.

I am not a philosopher. I’m just a writer. I can’t imagine what a world free from our fear of our sexual natures would look like, because there is no world without ‘us’. We are our cultures. We are inseparable from the evolving and complex structures we’ve built to cope with the things that scare us.

My job, as I see it, is to marvel at and tell stories about the strategies we have for attempting to scratch the itch of our instincts through the thick fabric of our social constructions.

11 Thoughts on “The Thing That Goes Bump In The Night In Our Beds: Towards a definition of Eroticism

  1. Obviously, we’ll be discussing this in a few weeks. I’m still struggling for my own definition, but I’ve come to believe that eroticism at least includes non-physical arousal. While physical arousal can be a part of the experience, what makes something erotic is when non-physical arousal elements come into play. Otherwise, it’s merely rutting.

    • Oh, for sure. It’s our fear of rutting that seems to be the generating engine of eroticism. We want to rut much more than we need to, to perpetuate the species, and eroticism is all the ways we’ve gone about trying to cope with that. Including all the prohibitions against sex. There is something incredibly fetishistic about celibacy.

  2. Some rather random thoughts:

    There are (at least) a couple more greek words about ‘love’, mania and epithumia. The latter means a strong desire, when positive, and ‘lust’ when negative.

    And if we look for the meaning of eroticism by going back to the greek roots, we remember that for centuries greek and latin were the mark of the learned, so when they needed a new word, they were ‘programmed’ to look in greek or latin. They didn’t consider ancient egyptian or sumerian; these civilisations were too old, too little understood, to be considered ‘proper’ so they were under the radar; and it’s a sort of failure (and condescension) of western thought to believe that thinking began with the ancient greeks.

    Early christian doctors of the church considered Aristotle et al as ‘honorary christians’, reinforcing the idea that thought began with the greeks. There’s an argument (and book) about how Christianity closed the western world to new thinking — even today we struggle at times to escape.

    These christian doctors had some very strange views on women — I drew up a short, and not at all representative, list ( ). I’d say that later writers knew this subconsciously, their views encompassed all that they had learned, even if they rejected much of it. But then I tend to the scientific rather than to the ‘literate’.

    “The human sexual urge scares us. It doesn’t resemble the sexual drives of other animals in that it’s not limited to seasonality or reproductive possibility.” Er, no. Bonobos are our closest relations in the animal world, and they are at it all the time; I don’t accept that our innate sexual drive is ‘excessive’. And no, I don’t agree that from pre-historic times that we have [all] been driven to control. What we call primitive societies don’t have these controls; these controls seem to me to be another manifestation of Judeo-Christian morality. If you haven’t seen it, Sex at Dawn by Ryan and Jethá is good on sex without western culture.

    I’m still uncertain about ‘control’; I have the feeling that many people didn’t accept this and didn’t act on it, even if it was the prevailing, imposed, orthodoxy.

    When it comes to definitions, I’m a follower of Humpty Dumpty at times — ‘words mean what I want them to mean, nothing less’, though this isn’t very practical in the real world.

    My definition of eroticism? I could say it was that [literature or art] whose purpose was sexual arousal. That seems a bit simplistic, and I think you are going to have to give a narrative description rather than a pithy phrase if you want to describe what it means to you.

    • “What we call primitive societies don’t have these controls; these controls seem to me to be another manifestation of Judeo-Christian morality.”

      Then how do you explain taboos against incest, or intercourse during menstruation, or bestiality? These taboos both pre-Christian and almost universal. Do your anthropological research. Almost all ‘primitive’ societies have an abundance of customs, laws and prohibitions regarding sexuality.

      Also, what about all the proscribed sexual behavior in certain strands of Hinduism. These pre-date Christianity by over 1000 years. Just because something isn’t a manifest limit doesn’t mean it’s not a control. The positive injunction to marry is just as much a control of behaviour as the negative injunction not to masturbate.

      As regards bonobos, there are a number of issues. 1) Finding ONE species that does mate outside of season (out of all the ones who don’t) really doesn’t derail my arguments and 2) we didn’t know about bonobo behaviour from most of our history so, as a society, could not observe another species that mates for any reason other than reproduction. 3) Our reaction to our own abundance of sexual desire would be, one can safely assume, based on observed differences between us and other species we were most likely to observe. Not bonobos. 4) luckily, bonobos don’t, to our knowledge, suffer from existential angst, compare themselves to other species or indulge ruminating on the nature of themselves the way we do. And when that data saying they do becomes available, it still won’t matter, since we started angsting over our sexual drives long before that.

      “My definition of eroticism? I could say it was that [literature or art] whose purpose was sexual arousal”

      So. Porn, really. Well, you have the honour of lining up behind the vast majority of Western intellectuals who agree with you.

      And, taking a big breath and letting my temper show: it is really rude and condescending to characterize the product of my research to ‘a pithy phrase’.

      • Incest and menstruation taboos: the Egyptians didn’t have this taboo, at least the pharoah’s didn’t, and for much of human history women hardly menstruated — though I don’t know where or why this taboo originated.

        Bonobos are genetically most similar to humans, even if they are a recent discovery, so their behaviour has been suggested as most closely similar to humans. Other apes are far more distant; very few mammalian species are monogamous.

        I did look up eroticism in Chambers and the Oxford Dictionary of English Etymology, neither of which were of much use; the ‘pithy’ definition came from one of them, but I didn’t mean it to be anyway comprehensive — hence my idea that a simple definition isn’t possible.

        I certainly didn’t mean to disparage your research, and I apologise for the offence.

        • “Egyptians didn’t have this taboo, at least the pharoah’s didn’t”

          The Egyptian population did. The pharaoh’s could get away with it because they were considered Gods. Gods can trespass into the world of the profane and return unscathed.

          Buddhism and Hinduism both believe that sex during menstruation is polluting. They are both far older religions than Christianity. Probably older than Judaism, which is theorized to have gotten its concept of Niddah from earlier belief systems in the area.

          There is a tendency to romanticise non-Judeo Christian cultures as less prohibition-bound and more sexually free. But there is absolutely no indication that this is the case. They are simply different rules. And it’s always worth remembering that the practice of female circumcision pre-dates Islam by a long way. And whether the traditions are prohibitive or proscriptive of sex under specific circumstances, it is still social control.

          And regarding women menstruating less: starvation and physical over-exertion can do that to you. But I don’t see the relevance to my argument. Whether they bled once a month or once every three months, a social prohibition to abstain from sex at that time is still a control.

  3. //t is interesting, just for a moment, to imagine what our society would look like today had we not believed our sexual drive to be a frightening and dangerous thing.//

    The words frightening and scared are words you use to describe our collective response to sex. I wonder if that’s true. Dangerous, yes; but scared? I’m trying to think of an example but mostly I read sex as being associated with the dangerous, the debasing and the animalistic. I guess if “sex” also connotes gender then we see women being burned at the stake or tortured to death by Catholic inquisitors. That might reflect a fear of “women”, I guess, but men were also tortured and burned at the stake. I’ll be interested to see how you develop this idea.

    //eroticism is our collective social response to the excessive nature of the human sex drive. //

    Interesting assertion. I guess I would want to know what is meant by “eroticism” in this context. Is it a response or is eroticism an outgrowth? — or do you mean the same by “response”. When I read the word response I hear it in a military context (as in defensive), which I may not be interpreting correctly.

    //And no, I don’t agree that from pre-historic times that we have [all] been driven to control. What we call primitive societies don’t have these controls; these controls seem to me to be another manifestation of Judeo-Christian morality. //

    I also disagree with Korhomme. I’ve been genuinely surprised by the degree of control exercised by even the most primitive societies — and cruel ones at that. On the other hand, there have been periods and clusters in different cultures where we can find moments of real liberalism, gender equality and sexual openness. Instances have sprouted up in every religion (including Christianity) but the pendulum always seems to swing in favor of conservative prohibitions.

    //Somewhere underneath all the historic and dialectic detritus, it suggests some essential, universal longing, as a species seeking simple sexual pleasure, to feel free of our encumbrances.//

    I wonder if that’s true. Maybe I’m a bit more jaded. I wonder if sexuality is like politics. I wonder if it’s also possible that half our species (or more), do not and will never want simple sexual pleasures free of encumbrances. It’s the encumbrances they want. They want them with a desire, zeal and ferocity that makes them willing to kill. I don’t know that this is simply a matter of nurture. I think it might also be nature. The conservative and the liberal brain, the literal and the metaphorical brain, the fundamentalist and the free-thinking brain, are not just products of culture and learning, science tells us, but actual structures in the brain.

    • (Answering my own question.)

      Fear of Erotica: The fear that the erotic impulse will subversively undermine prevailing cultural and religious power structures. I think this especially applies to religion. The erotic impulse could be seen as a direct challenge to the patriarchal power structure of many religions. Eroticism, perhaps, can be seen as an equalizer and therefore as a direct threat to patriarchal hierarchy.

      Tcha… I’m good with that.

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