Towards a Definition of Eroticism (Draft)


When I started this blog, I decided to make my intellectual journey through the PhD process public. I did this partly because, as a creative writer, I started writing on the net and have often felt that it was the possibility of interaction that drove me to take up writing in the first place. Another reason I decided to make this rather public show of my process up the circular staircase of the ivory tower was to encourage other writers of erotic fiction to do the same thing. At the end of this stage of my research, what saddens me is that more erotic writers are not entering the academic world, and that critics still refuse to consider erotic fiction as worthy of their time or their critical insight. What keeps me pursuing this public mode of study is that, after almost a year of search, I am still stunned by the dearth serious scholarly work on contemporary erotic writing in the English language academy (the French have studied, written and theorized about it for years), although I must offer a shout out to the good people at IASPR, who do examine it within the context of popular romance fiction. I feel a desperation, in completing this. A sense that time is running out for those of us who reject the postmodernist belief that eroticism, like spirituality, is an infantile construction we no longer need, now that we have webporn.

My first order of business, once my initial thesis proposal was accepted and I was allocated supervisors, was to begin working on a definition of Eroticism. Not a dictionary definition – although that’s always a good place to start – but an investigation into the history of the concept, how it has changed over the years, and what the future holds for it. Especially relevant to me is what place it might have in serious fiction in the future.  It’s been a maddening, thrilling, incredibly illuminating challenge. And I offer it here, in draft form, for  your derision, enjoyment, bafflement, or whatever.  Please feel free to comment at the bottom of the page, find spelling mistakes, grammar errors, challenge my opinions, berate my woeful non-inclusion of some vital reference…. and if you’d like to get your hands on any of the texts I reference, please email me privately. Proposals of illicit rendezvous are also gratefully accepted.


Difficulties arise almost immediately when one seeks a concise definition of eroticism. The OED offers two: “erotic spirit or character; also, the use of erotic or sexually arousing imagery in literature or art,” and a medical/psychological definition: “a condition or state of sexual excitement or desire; a tendency to become sexually aroused, usu. by some specified stimulus.”[1. “eroticism, n.”. The Oxford English Dictionary. 2nd ed. 1989. OED Online. Oxford University Press. 28 January 2013 <>.] Merriam Webster offers three entries: “1. An erotic theme or quality; 2. A state of sexual arousal; 3. Insistent sexual impulse or desire.” [2. “eroticism, n.” Merriam-Webster Dictionary Online. Merriam-Webster Inc. 28 January 2013. <>.] Etymologically, a noun formed by the adjective ‘erotic’ taken from the French ‘érotique’: “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.” (from the Larousse Dictionary Online)

(Rough trans: Relating to love; dealing with love: erotic poetries; evoking sensual love, sexual pleasures and inciting sexual desire; voluptuousness, licentiousness: An erotic dream.)

Taming the Beast: The Social Construction of Eroticism

Ancient Greece possessed a number of words describing different types of love, based primarily on the relationship between the loving parties. The four main types are: agápe,éros, philía, and storgē. [3. “ἔρως (Eros). “Liddell, H. G., & Scott, R. A Greek-English Lexicon. 22 January 2013 <>] Although the definition of éros is that of sexual love, Plato’s Symposium managed to de-sex it by proclaiming that sexual desire was best put to loftier uses:

“…being not like a servant in love with the beauty of one youth or man or institution, himself a slave mean and narrow-minded, but drawing towards and contemplating the vast sea of beauty, he will create many fair and noble thoughts and notions in boundless love of wisdom.” [4. Plato. Symposium by Plato. (B. Jowett, Trans.) 22 January 2013 <>]

From the very beginning of the European philosophical discourse on sex, we are urged to sublimate our sexual desires to less physical, loftier and more intellectual or spiritual ends. This process of sublimating, reconceptualising and metaphorizing the human sex drive is central to the notion of eroticism. Inherent in its definition is a resistance to our biological reality. As Octavio Paz describes it: “Eroticism is a form of the social domination of instinct.” [5. Paz, O. An Erotic Beyond: Sade. Harcourt Brace, 1998.]

It appears that the human sexual urge has always troubled us: it doesn’t resemble the sexual drives of other animals in that it’s not limited to seasonality or reproductive possibility. [6. Bancroft, John. Human Sexuality And Its Problems. Churchill Livingstone/Elsevier, 2009.] There are many biological, anthropological and behavioral theories as to why we evolved to have the urge to have sex even when reproduction cannot be effected. [7. Gangestad, S W, and J A Simpson. “The Evolution of Human Mating: Trade-offs and Strategic Pluralism.” Behavioral and brain sciences 23.04 (2000): 573–587.] Of more salience, however, is that we don’t conceive of our sexual drive as other animals do. We have, from prehistoric times, sought to impose control on this drive through limits and taboos (against masturbation, incest, homosexuality, transvestitism, bestiality, pedophilia, etc.) and ritual structures (coming of age, courtship, marriage, religious celibacy, etc.) and the proscriptive and performative modeling of gender roles. These controls have acted upon the way our sexuality is played out, not only socially and publically, but also privately and in relation to the self. [8. Brown, D. Human Universals. McGraw-Hill Companies,Incorporated, 1991.]

In his essay, “A History of Erotic Philosophy,” Alan Soble offers a packed, concise summary of how the canon of western philosophy dealt with the human sexual urge. With very few exceptions – notably, Marcuse – the overwhelming majority of philosophers and theorists, no matter how radical their ideological differences, appear to be almost unanimous on the issue of our sexual drive: it needs to be curbed, civilized and sublimated. [9. Soble, Alan. “A History of Erotic Philosophy.” Journal of sex research 46.2-3 (2009): 104–20. Web. 16 Nov. 2012.] What is consistently lacking is any robust rationale for why it requires such regulation. Certainly many philosophers warn of the dehumanizing aspects of using humans as sexual objects, but it must be said that this objectification has always occurred. It has not been primarily as a consequence of allowing our sexual urges free rein, but of economic predation. We’ve been using each other as beasts of burden since civilization began. Furthermore, it is doubtful whether the controls we have imposed to avoid this sexual objectification have succeeded in achieving their goals. There are compelling arguments from Marx [10. Bartky, S L. Femininity and Domination: Studies in the Phenomenology of Oppression. Routledge, 1990. (Bartky uses Marx’s theory of alienation to explain the objectification of women).] to Beauvoir [11. Fallaize, E. Simone De Beauvoir: A Critical Reader. Routledge, 1998.] and Foucault [12. Foucault, Michel. “We Other Victorians.” The History of Sexuality: Volume 1: An Introduction. New York: Pantheon Books, 1978.] to suggest that the controls set in place have simply institutionalized this objectification rather than avoiding it and, within the field of psychoanalysis, it is questionable as to whether humans possess the even capacity to desire without objectifying what is desired. [13. Lacan, Jacques. “The Mirror Stage as a Formative Function of the I as Revealed in Psychoanalytic Experience.” Écrits. Routledge, 2012. 1-9. Print.]

Although the existence of sexual taboos has been theorized to serve to “establish and defend strong ethnic, religious, or institutional boundaries,” [14. Davies, Christie. “Sexual Taboos and Social Boundaries.” American Journal of Sociology 87.5 (1982): 1032–1063.] the further perils of unfettered human sexuality to systems of labour control and productivity have been extensively examined by Burrell in “Sex and Organizational Analysis.” A survey of the historic control of sexuality, Burrell concludes that the motivations for this control have varied throughout history. But “under capitalism, desexualization is encouraged because both time and the human body become commodified and therefore exploitable. Sexuality and labour power are not compatible. Indeed, they may well be antithetical. Sexual relations are wasteful, in terms of commodity production.” [15. Burrell, G. “Sex and Organizational Analysis.” Organization Studies 5.2 (1984): 97–118.] Foucault is in agreement: “if sex is so rigorously repressed, this is because it is incompatible with a general and intensive work imperative.” [16. Foucault, Michel. The History of Sexuality: Volume 1: An Introduction. New York: Pantheon Books, 1978.]

What would society look like today had we not believed our sexual drive to be a threat to social stability? Had we not inherited and internalized thousands of years of the by-products of those fears? Had it not been for the ways in which we have complicated the issue of our sexual drive, we would surely not have eroticism.

Bataille, Bauman and Paz are in agreement: eroticism is a collective social response to the excessive nature of the human sex drive. It “protects society from onslaughts of sexuality but it also negates the reproductive function” says Paz, [17. Paz, O. The Double Flame: Love and Eroticism. New York: Harcourt Brace, 1995.] “All ‘history of sex’,” says Bauman, “is therefore the cultural manipulation of sex.” [18. Bauman, Z. “On Postmodern Uses of Sex.” Theory, Culture & Society 15.3 (1998): 19–33. Web. 20 Nov. 2012.] Over time, it has accreted layers of meaning and complicated sex so completely that its function as a way to perpetuate the species is almost lost beneath the mountain of cultural clutter. Žižek, addressing Hegel’s exploration of human sexuality, goes even further, claiming that:

“What Hegel misses is how, once we are within the human condition, sexuality is not only transformed/civilized, but, much more radically, changed in its very substance: it is no longer the instinctual drive to reproduce, but a drive that gets thwarted as to its natural goal (reproduction) and thereby explodes into an infinite, properly meta-physical, passion. The becoming-cultural of sexuality is thus not the becoming-cultural of nature, but the attempt to domesticate a properly un-natural excess of the meta-physical sexual passion. THIS is the properly dialectical reversal of substance: the moment when the immediate substantial (“natural”) starting point is not only acted-upon, trans-formed, mediated/cultivated, but changed in its very substance.” [19. Zizek, S. “Ideology III: To Read Too Many Books Is Harmful.” 2007. Web. 20 Nov. 2012.]

I feel that perhaps Žižek’s claim of total substantive change might be somewhat exaggerated, and something of a human-centric conceit. One need only spend a couple of moments watching humans mate to realize that, no matter what our intentions, we do still fuck very much like animals. But what is undeniable is that we do have a tremendous desire and have invested a great deal of thought and energy into setting our sexuality apart from that of other animals.

We have mythologized the dreaded spectre of our nature. As with our mortality, dreams, happiness, love and pain, erotic desire continues to resist explanation, not because we can’t explain their biological mechanisms, but because language resists our attempts to confront our emotional responses. [20. “A Meditation on Transgression: Foucault, Bataille and the Retrieval of the Limit.” CTheory. 1998. Web. 8 Jan. 2013.]

For two thousand years, Christianity harbored these mysteries under its great cloak, using a language of theology, 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 and hows of all these things. The Age of Reason took its cue from Aristotle’s Nichomachean Ethics, proclaiming man incapable of rational thought under the influence of the erotic urge. [21. Aristotle. “Nicomachean Ethics by Aristotle – Volume 7.” The Internet Classics Archive. 2009. Web. 6 Feb. 2013.] It offered us instead the language of science, of medicine and the technologies by which to frame our relationship with eroticism in the light of cool reason and control it through knowledge. [22. Foucault. 1978]

Although it was Nietzsche who is generally credited with proclaiming the death of God, [23. Nietzsche, F et al. Nietzsche: The Gay Science: With a Prelude in German Rhymes and an Appendix of Songs. Cambridge University Press, 2001.] it may be argued, I think, that the Marquis De Sade killed God first in giving us a vision of what our sexual urges, unmitigated by taboo, or law, or religion, might look like. [24. Sade, Marquis de. Justine; Or Good Conduct Well-Chastised. Disruptive Publishing, 2005.]

“…let them boldly fling off and spurn the shameful irons wherewith others presume to keep them subjugated; they will rapidly conquer custom and opinion; man become wiser, because he will be freer, will sense the injustice that would exist in scorning whoever acts thus, and will sense too that the act of yielding to Nature’s promptings, beheld as a crime by a captive people, can be so no longer amongst a free people.” [25. Sade, Marquis de. “Philosophy in the Boudoir.” Squashed Philosophers. Web. 22 Jan. 2013.]

Sade may have believed he was offering us a glimpse of how ‘free people’ might act upon their sexual urges, but I am not sure he succeeded. Just like anyone else, Sade inherited and internalized of all the controls imposed on sexuality. I would argue that Sade’s fantasies of how one might behave unencumbered by them are instead a window onto his reaction to the weight of those repressions and the shock of their imagined absence structured, as Deleuze has suggested, in the language of bureaucratic power. [26. Deleuze, G, and L Von Sacher-Masoch. Masochism. Zone Books, 1971.] Sadeian eroticism, like a cartoon ball, is no less distorted after the bounce than when it was squashed as it hits the ground. It is forever distorted by the power-knowledge that has helped to construct and shape it. [27. Foucault, M. The History of Sexuality: The Use of Pleasure. Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, 1990.]

Nonetheless, what cannot be denied about Sade is his temerity to ask the question: what does sex look like freed from the constraints of religious prohibition and the rules social order? That to most of us it looks less like something pleasurable and more like a bad night in Guantanamo Bay might be attributed to his seething, underlying rage at the rather despicable hypocrisy of world he lived in, for it is, Michelson insists, “the gearwheel of social action in Sade’s vision.” [28. Michelson, P. Speaking the Unspeakable: A Poetics of Obscenity. State University of New York Press, 1993.]

The novelist Angela Carter defends the excess, the violence, and the cruelty in Sade’s work because it makes explicit the hidden consequences of this hypocrisy. She reminds us that “our flesh arrives to us out of history” and that sexual relationships are “the most self-conscious of all human relationships, a direct confrontation of two beings whose actions in bed are wholly determined by their acts when they are out of it.” [29. Carter, Angela. “Polemical Preface.” The Sadeian Woman: An Exercise in Cultural History. London: Virago, 2000. 3–37.]

This, I believe, might constitute an important aspect of erotic writing. [30. I am using the term ‘erotic writing’ as opposed to erotica or pornography because, as so many scholars in this field have remarked, these terms are extremely subjective. Here I borrow Ian Frederick Moulton’s definition of ‘erotic writing’ as “any text, regardless of genre or literary quality, that deals in a fundamental way with human physical sexual activity.” (Moulton, I.F. Before Pornography : Erotic Writing in Early Modern England. (p. 5). Oxford University Press, 2000.)] It appears on closer inspection, at least in European texts, that the writer’s personal animosity towards perceived injustices in their societies are almost always reflected in their work. It might seem redundant to say that we take our social grievances to bed with us since all narratives are culturally contextual, but it seems to me that their anger, disappointments and feelings of alienation are particularly present, often boldly embodied, in their erotic texts. And that this is just as true in the contemporary writings of Philip Roth [31. Roth, P. Portnoy’s Complaint. Random House, 2010.], Brett Easton Ellis [32. Ellis, B E. Imperial Bedrooms. Pan Macmillan, 2010.] and Michel Houllebecq [33. Houellebecq, M. Atomised. Vintage, 2001.] as it was in Sade’s works. [34. Abecassis, Jack I. “The Eclipse of Desire: L’Affaire Houellebecq.” Mln 115.4 (2000): 801–826. Web. 5 Feb. 2013.]

The Godless Subject: Eroticism as a Languageless Void

In his book on “Eroticism: Sensuality and Death,” George Bataille expends considerable time and effort to defending his subjective approach to eroticism; it would be impossible, he insists, to make a full examination the erotic experience any other way. [35. Bataille, G. Erotism: Death and Sensuality. City Lights Publishers, 1986.] He describes eroticism as an inner experience – a space where, despite the ‘death of God’, transgression, even if only a mental one, plays an essential role. What occurs, if fleetingly, is a transcendence of the ‘discontinuity’ of the selves of the participants. [36. Ibid. (p.16)] For Bataille, the moment of this transcendence reveals the limits of self and, with it, the limits of language. What he is describes has much in common with ecstatic religious experience: an extreme which, as Susan Sontag points out in her defense of the literary aspects of Bataille’s ‘pornography’, “few people regularly, or perhaps ever, experience their sexual capacities at this unsettling pitch.” [37. Sontag, Susan. “The Pornographic Imagination.” Radical Styles of Will. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1969. 57.] Moreover, Sontag argues that this type of writing, for all its narrowness of subject matter, offers us “a peculiar access to some truth… about sensibility, about sex, about individual personality, about despair, about limits.” [38. Ibid. (p. 70)]

In his essay, A Preface to Transgression, Foucault not only underscores that this eroticism is reached through transgression, but deepens the discussion of how unstable language becomes past the limits. Barthes echoes this in The Pleasure of the Text, distinguishing what he calls ‘the text of pleasure’ and ‘the text of bliss’. “The place,” he says, “where the death of language can be glimpsed.” [39. Barthes, Roland. The Pleasure of the Text. Trans. Richard Miller. New York: Hill & Wang, 1975. Print.]

This modern discussion of what eroticism is and what happens to language in its presence would not have taken the form it has without the influence of scholarship in the fields of psychology, anthropology, and linguistics. Freud placed of the sexual urge and the ‘pleasure principle’ at the core of human psychological development. Claude Levi-Strauss argued for a universality to the structure to the human mind, and how we actively create culture. Ferdinand de Saussure presented us with language as a system of signs by which culture is disseminated. It is against this backdrop of scholarship that the ontology of human eroticism has been attempted. Most notably in the work of Lacan’s continuation and elaborations on the work of Freud, his theory of the three orders (the Imaginary, the Symbolic and the Real), and his understanding of human desire and the concept of ‘jouissance’. This is particularly relevant in to eroticism. The often insatiable and changeable nature of erotic desire (as opposed to satisfaction of the sexual urge) is addressed by Lacan by characterizing each of our desires as a sublimation – object a – of a greater, unattainable desire – the object-cause of desire. [40. Žižek, S. The Plague of Fantasies. Verso, 2009.] Furthermore, the transgression so integral to eroticism described by Bataille and Foucault is framed as a revolt against The Other. [41. Rabate, Jean-Michel. Jacques Lacan: Psychoanalysis & the Subject of Literature. Palgrave, 2001. Print.] The disintegration of language at our greatest erotic moments may be accounted for, Lacan suggests, by our departure from the order of the Symbolic in extreme experiences, and our proximity to the Real. Žižek remarks on the contemporality of Bataille’s investigations of eroticism and Lacan’s ‘passion of the Real’ contained in his “Ethics of Psychoanalysis”. [42. Zizek, S. “Ideology III: To Read Too Many Books Is Harmful.” 2007. Web. 20 Nov. 2012.]

Writing eroticism

In “The Pornographic Imagination,” Sontag offers a set of guidelines by which erotic writings may be judged as important works of literature: intention, structure, style and content. The intention of the text must be to do more than simply sexually arouse the reader. It must contain a solid narrative structure. Its use of language needs to exceed a simple, utilitarian function. It must concern itself with the complexities of the contextual human experience. She argues that there are a number of ‘pornographic texts’ that do this, and more. Moreover, she suggests that these fictional journeys to the limits of erotic experience force us to ask important questions of ourselves, of our natures, of the way our sense of self and other is constituted. They have the ability to confront us with paradoxes in the same way any important piece of literature does.

If we are to accept that erotic writing has something valuable to communicate as Sontag claims, how can we speak or write of it when this is the precise place where language fails us? How can we produce any decipherable narratives of our expeditions into that languageless place beyond transgression? Both Lacan and Barthes offer a solution to approaching Barthes’ ‘bliss’ or Lacan’s ‘jouissance’. It cannot be written of directly, but one can circle it, write around it, depending on the fact that it will be there for the reader in the ruptures, the cracks, the joins of language.

Perhaps more creatively and enigmatically, Octavio Paz offers the analogy that sex is to eroticism what language is to poetry. I believe this functions as more than just an analogy, but an insight into how language must be used to approach the ecstatic. It requires a willingness to break language – both its grammar and its semiosis – out of its everyday, utilitarian confines.

Pre-20th Century erotic writings seem to have been constructed for private pleasures. They were often printed and distributed privately for the use of the individual who could obtain and afford them. [43. Perkins, M. The Secret Record: Modern Erotic Literature. Masquerade Books, 1992.] However, in the 20th Century, overtly erotic texts were produced for public consumption, challenging what had previously been a ‘secret library’. Novels like Ulysses, Lady Chatterley’s Lover, The Story of the Eye, Lolita, Little Birds, The Story of O, Maurice, etc. often demanded the serious consideration of literary critics specifically because of their explicitness. In essence, their explicit focus on what had previously been secret was their transgression, and therefore was their literary merit. It might be argued that, for the reader, the eroticism of these texts wasn’t simply its explicitness, but the transgression of reading something labeled as obscene.

To this point, I have been referring for the most part, as Sontag does, to texts that are considered erotic because of their explicit depiction of sex or sexual desire. But from a psychoanalytical perspective, all narratives containing conflict – and therefore desire, because there must be desire in order to conceive of something as an impediment to it – have an implicit sexual core. [44. Freud, S. The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud. Trans. James Strachey. Hogarth. 1953-74] Many explicitly sexual texts apparently attempt to resist eroticism (medical texts on human sexual functions, graphic documentary descriptions of rape or violence or, more problematically, novels like J.G. Ballard’s ‘Crash’ (Ballard uses purposefully medical language for the sex scenes in the novel and he seems to have vacillated over whether the novel was intentionally erotic or not) [45. Dery, M. “Interview with J.G. Ballard.” Rage Magazine. Aug 1997: 62-69. Web. 5 Feb. 2013. <>.] even as they are read as erotic texts by some readers. Their very studied ‘unerotic’ presentation, and language used to underscore it, may afford readers a sense of transgression in using them for unintended erotic purposes. Similarly, other subject matter which is relegated ‘out of bounds’ for erotic interpretation – religious writing on martyrdom or ecstatic spirituality, for instance – might be construed as erotic by some readers because there is an element of transgression in ‘reading’ them against their grain.

Over-exposure and the fatigue of meaning-making

In a post-modern world, says Bauman, “the self-sufficiency of eroticism, the freedom to seek sexual delights for their own sake, has risen to the level of cultural norm, changing places with its critics, now assigned to the Kunstkammer of cultural oddities and relics of extinct species.” [46. Bauman, Z. “On Postmodern Uses of Sex.” Theory, Culture & Society 15.3 (1998): 19–33. Web. 20 Nov. 2012.] And, although he goes on to argue that cultural ‘norming’ of eroticism affords it greater substance, it could be just as easily be argued, as Zizek [47. Zizek, S. “Masturbation, or Sexuality in the Atonal World.” 2008. Web. 4 Feb. 2013.], Boodakian [48. Boodakian, Florence Dee. Resisting Nudities: A Study in the Aesthetics of Eroticism. New York: Peter Lang, 2008. Print.], and Schehr [49. Schehr, Lawrence R. “Introduction.” L’Esprit Créateur 44.3 (2004): 3–4. Web. 20 Nov. 2012.] do, that this ‘norming’ is the death of eroticism. Speaking of Michel Houllebecq’s novels, Zizek says:

“Houellebecq depicts the morning after Sexual Revolution, the sterility of the universe dominated by the superego injunction to enjoy. All of his work focuses on the antinomy of love and sexuality: sex is an absolute necessity, to renounce it is to whither away, so love cannot flourish without sex; simultaneously, however, love is impossible precisely because of sex: sex, which proliferates as the epitome of late capitalism’s dominance, has permanently stained human relationships as inevitable reproductions of the dehumanizing nature of liberal society.” [50. Ibid. Zizek. Web 2008]

From both historical and cultural perspectives, the popularity of public confession of the intimate as mainstream entertainment (in celebrity focused tabloids, chat shows and reality TV) and the development of almost universal online instant publication (via sites, blogs, online photo archives, amateur video sites, etc.) on the internet, has both reinforced this ‘norming’ and required a reassessment of the boundaries between private and public sexual space. Feona Attwood surveys what has become this no-man’s-land of the intimate on the web. [51. Attwood, F. Making Sense of Online Pornography. Peter Lang, 2010.] Meanwhile, Dagmar Herzog has investigated how this ‘norming’ plays out in the real world:

“…even when two people were in bed with each other, they were really just having sex with themselves or with their own fantasies. Others claimed that growing numbers of people were apparently more concerned with the ego-trip of being a hot object of desire than with the physiological sensation of orgasm.” [52. Herzog, D. Sexuality in Europe: A Twentieth-Century History. Cambridge University Press, 2011.]

In the epilogue of her book, however, Herzog warns that this lamentation of an increase in emotionally dissociative sex carries an irony. In her estimation, most sex throughout history has been no different. [53. Ibid. (p. 219)] And so, with one bold stroke, she tells us to grow up. That eroticism (bliss, joissance and all its attendant adornments of ecstatic or transcendent experience) has been a fairytale, part of a modernist grand narrative, we’ve been telling ourselves all along.

What none of the postmodern theorists answer (or even bother asking) is why, in literature, in art, in film, we seem so invested in our efforts to keep this fairytale alive.


Stoller points out that eroticism is a matter of aesthetic taste. [54. Stoller, R J. Observing the Erotic Imagination. Yale University Press, 1985.] A legitimate criticism of my proposed research might be that, this being the case, my investigation of how eroticism is treated in contemporary literary fiction is an exercise in subjective futility. Also, it could be argued that, in a mediascape where literary genre and marketing have utterly converged, literary fiction cannot be interrogated for its eroticism since we have a genre – erotica – that offers us eroticism aplenty. [55. Squires, C. Marketing Literature: The Making of Contemporary Writing in Britain. Palgrave Macmillan, 2009.] Finally, there is the argument that there are few transgressions or private spaces anymore, and therefore no fertile place for eroticism to grow.

To this first objection, I would argue that although we have the capacity to find almost anything erotic, some generalizations can be made. Culture and history have always formed prevailing understandings of what is erotic, and they continue to do so. To the second, my response is more complex. To accept a determination of content-as-genre is to radically limit how writers choose to express themselves, and how they choose to combine subjects and voices. Furthermore, the continuing existence of the Literary Review’s ‘Bad Sex Awards’ suggests that literary fiction is expected to offer the reader a narrative that holistically encompasses the human experience and that eroticism is an important and influential part of that experience. [56. Beckman, Jonathan. “Bleak Encounters –” FT Magazine. 2011. Web. 31 Jan. 2013.

The third argument – that eroticism is part of a modernist narrative and no longer has anywhere to flourish – is by far the most challenging. But, in my view, it is also the place where the best creative research might be done. Simply because authority and prohibition have moved away from the church, crown, clinic or state and towards the corporate does not mean that there are fewer sites of transgression, they are simply very different sites than the ones identified in earlier texts. And those are fertile grounds to explore. Similarly, just because we, as a society have accepted unparalleled levels of surveillance – in terms of our technology, media and the current fashion for constant acts of public confession – does not mean we don’t have private spaces. For every exposure, no matter how seemingly absolute, entails a decision of that which will not be exposed, or cannot be, because it resists the language required to expose it. The inner experience, the one Bataille believed was the site of real erotic experience, is still there and still private.

For the purposes of both my critical exegesis and my practice research, I feel I have made a fairly good argument for defining eroticism as some form transcendent experience fueled by sexual desire, complicated by transgression, and exhibiting resistance to language. And if we accept that eroticism is a place where language breaks down, then we must be prepared to find bliss, as Barthes says, between the cracks and in the silences.


15 Thoughts on “Towards a Definition of Eroticism (Draft)

  1. Love this: “Perhaps more creatively and enigmatically, Octavio Paz offers the analogy that sex is to eroticism what language is to poetry. I believe this functions as more than just an analogy, but an insight into how language must be used to approach the ecstatic. It requires a willingness to break language – both its grammar and its semiosis – out of its everyday, utilitarian confines.”

  2. I enjoyed reading this said found it interesting. However, not only was it interesting to me, it sparked a spindle of thoughts in many directions. Does eroticism define what we expect from a sexual encounter, thus disappointing or validating our feelings on said encounter? I would have liked to see a brief explanation on each of the four types of love so as not to have to stop reading and look up the one I didn’t know…as I was comparing each of the four to the while of the definition of eroticism. Your written work reads as if you are speaking directly to the reader (in this case, me), which I think can be a difficult style to achieve. I think you have achieved it brilliantly.

  3. Your brain is hella sexy.

  4. Essemoh Teepee on February 7, 2013 at 12:12 pm said:

    Your observations regarding ‘wither now goest Erotica’ are fascinating. The impact of previously transgressive activities becoming normative under the influence of the web and trends in the media is still playing out. How does one transgress when transgression is the norm? A comment made by a Midwife on TV in the past few days explaining the noticeable increase in UK birthrates ‘I blame 50SOG!’ amused me.
    Seriously, the discussion point around poetry and erotica is one worth pursuing. The use of language to evoke emotion, but not just pathos or anger but arousal and lust is a worthwhile study. The observation that medical texts can be viewed as erotica by being read with a transgressive mind set tells us something important about the human mind. The words are not the thing, the meaning we attach to them is all. Does that mean that the double entendre is the highest form of erotic writing? Trust the French to come up with that!

  5. I am SO glad you are undertaking this – I am too old, poor and impatient to return to academia at this point, but experiencing it vicariously is giving me new insights – not on my writing, but on my readers. I know what I like, interesting to see why they might like it as well.

  6. Although I can’t really claim poverty, I’m definitely way too old and way too impatient – and it still hasn’t fully sunk in that I am going to be pursuing this for 2.5 more years. I guess I’ll cope with that as it happens. The good thing about being old is that time passes so much faster – which mitigates the impatience part. Thank you so much for reading.

  7. I find all this fascinating, and am so glad you’re sharing it.

  8. Interesting stuff.

    Just one thought. At the end you comment on the argument that ‘there are few transgressions or private spaces anymore, and therefore no fertile place for eroticism to grow’. Surely the point is that society and culture are dynamic, and that (as Durkheim argued a century ago in relation to deviance) wherever there are cultural boundaries of any description, the far side of the boundary is a place where transgressive thought and action can take place.

    Actually the more I think about this the more complex it becomes, because a lot of erotica seems to position itself within what might be terms ‘rules of the genre’. There are certain physicalities it doesn’t address – childbirth, periods, and often HIV and STIs. Often, it doesn’t recognise the real-world consequences of adultery but positions itself with reference to more consensual acts such as cuckolding. And in order to get published it tends to stay broadly within legal boundaries, thus not addressing obviously illegal practices (though you can get away with including them in the context of other types of writing – crime, for example). Clearly there is ‘transgressive’ erotica but the extent to which all erotica is by definition ‘transgressive’ isn’t so clear to me.

    • I thin there is very little ‘erotica’ that is transgressive. But then I think there is very little ‘erotica’ that contains much eroticism in my opinion. Which is what this paper seeks to define.

      Porn, erotica and erotic romance all eagerly pull on the mantle of being transgressive, but most of it is extremely conservative, commercial, and participates exceedingly well within the bounds of the prevailing culture. Its veneer of ‘transgression’ is a sales tool. Similarly, its consumers get to flatter themselves that they’re doing a little intellectual rough-trading. But in fact, very little of it pushes even pushes the boundaries of erotic discomfort.

      • I agree. These are fair points. And insofar as I make a living from writing erotica, I also use ‘transgression’ to position my stuff while ensuring I comply with publisher guidelines…

        • You bring up a very interesting point. Because, for instance, in some cases, erotica publisher guidelines are stunningly out of touch with social realities. Most erotica publishers won’t touch, say, a story involving the erotic experience of a 16 year old, and yet we know from collected data that a large percentage of teenagers have had sexual experiences by that age. Most 16 year olds don’t feel its a transgression – thriling, perhaps, emotionally dangerous, perhaps – but not a transgression. And most parents are fairly realistic about when sexual experiences are likely to begin. So we have a real disconnect between experienced realities and prevailing rules. Which lead to ridiculous events like 14 year olds being charged with possessing child pornography for sexting a picture of their breast to their boyfriend.

          • Those are exactly the kinds of examples I had in my mind. The idea of transgression can carry an erotic charge, which is why writers like to offer particular aspects of a story as transgressive. But transgression has many facets and many areas that might be legally but not culturally problematic and vice versa.

            Some of the ‘transgression’ issue relates to the way erotic aspects work their way into wider narratives. The last successful prosecution for blasphemy in the UK (Whitehouse v Lemon 1977) related to a poem depicting Jesus having sex with his disciples and a centurion having sex with his body after crucifixion.There was a more recent prosecution – I don’t have the reference to hand and can’t remember if it resulted in conviction – relating to an online story that was a fantasy of kidnap, torture and rape of a named singer in a girl band. Part of issue was whether the use of the real, living character constituted an offence against her.

            The other issue of course is the commercial one. If I wrote a story about coprophilia, for example, it might sell well to the small number of people who are into it (if I could connect with that readership) but it wouldn’t be accepted by any of the main erotica publishers because the market is too small for them to see any benefit. And it would probably be deleted by online sellers because from their perspective it could cause more trouble than it’s worth. So from my point of view as a writer, I’d be unlikely to derive any income from writing it.

          • I think it’s probably important to keep the question of whether something is salable separate from whether it constitutes real transgression or not.

            The prosecuted case (I heard about it too) is, in my mind very transgressive in a postmodern context precisely because the singer WAS named, and because it plays with the idea of ownership of ‘idoru’ – manufactured, commoditized personalities in the public sphere. It takes the idea of ‘fuck your product’ to a whole new level.

            The trickier one, of coprophilia, for me, is more a question of how well you can write it. A you say, there are a small number of readers who are going to get off on it because they are already into the fetish, but there lies the paradox of transgression when it comes to a concrete act. Once you’ve done it, it’s not a transgression anymore for you. You can only go through that door once. The real challenge would be writing something that framed the act in such a way that you got non-fetishists to re-evaluate their feelings on it.

            On a personal note, I’ve lived to long in Southeast Asia. I know too much about gastrointestinal parasites. 😛

      • I think “transgressive” is too individualized to call. Someone else’s huge transgression (to them) might be nothing at all to me. Admittedly, I’m jaded. In erotica, the reader is tantalized if the protagonist believes s/he is transgressing, regardless of whether we consider the act itself to be so.

        • Although I partially agree that there are individually decided transgressions, most people take their understanding of what might be a transgression from those designated as such by their society – from the prevailing laws, morals and ethics in the culture. It would be nice to believe that we all create independently arrived at rules of right and wrong, but we don’t. 40 years ago, I would bet that a man having sex with another man would have generally been considered a transgressive act. But today, far fewer people consider it a transgression. That’s not because we suddenly each, individually got smarter, but that the mainstream of our culture shifted its position. There are still people out there who believe it is a ‘sin’, but there is no longer a general agreement. The Catholic church may still feel it is transgressive, but it no longer exercises the kind of power it once had to influence the entire population.

Leave a Reply

Post Navigation