Desire Desires Desire: Why Erotica and Porn are Different

This essay sets out to look at the ambivalence many women have to porn and why this has had an impact on reader expectations of erotica.

The porn vs erotica war has been going on for years. It is often represented as a battle between the forces of repression and those of emancipation. I think that used to be the case, but it’s very hard to perpetuate that representation when porn has become so accessible and mainstream. 1 That being said, although women have become more willing to consume porn and willing to admit they do, 2, it is my personal experience that there is a significant number of women who, for many reasons, either don’t consume it or consume it but won’t admit to it.  Certainly, it is almost impossible to get an accurate number on how many women lie about their porn consumption habits,  3 but clearly they do, and what that would suggest is that there is still significant discomfort with the subject.

And yet, what is clear is that many women avidly consume media that is purposefully sexually arousing.  As of February, 2014, the Fifty Shades of Grey trilogy has sold more that 100 million copies.  4 Without wishing to be snide, it is not the high quality of the prose that is generating these sales. I don’t feel I am going too far out on a limb to suggest that women (and men) are buying it for its sexually explicit content and its ability to arouse the reader.

There are a number of reasons why many women are reluctant to consume porn, or admit to its consumption.  One of the most common reasons may be that very little porn is made for women.  I contend there is a contortion of the mind women must perform in order to fully enjoy consuming male-centered porn.  5 and some women, despite being interested in watching or reading sexually explicit material, just can’t perform the contortion.

The reasons may be ideological. Some feminists and women of deeply held conservative beliefs feel that, on principle, most porn objectifies women. From the feminist perspective then, consumption would be an ideological betrayal. Women with religious objections consider porn to be an offensive representation of both women in particular and sex in general – debasing what should be a ‘sacred’ act.

Another reason why some women don’t like porn is the absence of emotional content and/or context.  They  need either context or emotional content or both, along with the sexual explicitness, to effectively turn them on.

From my own idiosyncratic perspective, the only porn I find ‘works’ for me is the visual, close-up, purely genital stuff. The minute I can see the people in the video it stops being effective.  Zizek said that the prohibition of pornography is that we can have it, but at the expense of a good narrative. 6  I think this explains its ineffectiveness for me. Porn always has a narrative;  even when it doesn’t seem to have a narrative – it’s just two people fucking –  there still is a narrative, it’s just a simplistic and boring one. I suspect it is the simplicity or stupidity of the narrative that I find distracting. A clinical close-up of a pair of genitalia at work spares me, at least, from most of that.

A fair number of women out there would like to consume sexually explicit media, but much of it falls short of their needs. And so, they turn to erotica or erotic romance to have their needs met. They are essentially searching for porn, but not the kind of porn that’s available and, in what has become a very consumer-driven market, they have turned to erotic fiction and begun to demand that it resemble the porn they want. And this disconnect between what they can’t admit to wanting or what the pornography industry seems incapable of producing for them, and the existing literary genre of erotic fiction has meant that authors are pressured to service their readers very much in the way that prostitutes are expected to service their johns.

Recently, a friend of mine, Lisabet Sarai, who writes erotic romance encountered the strange dilemma of being told, by her publisher’s editor, that there was too much plot in her novel.  7 A number of erotic fiction writers have commented that they are pressured to make sure there is a sex scene in every chapter. I was recently on a panel at a conference where Hazel Cushion, founder of Xcite Books, said that, if there wasn’t sex in the first few pages of the novel, she wouldn’t consider publishing it. Meanwhile, over at Goodreads, I’ve received one star reviews of my published work specifically because it didn’t have a happy ending.

All this amounts to a huge change in what readers expect when they buy a book in the erotic fiction genre. A survey of the canonical works generally considered to be in the genre in the 20th century makes it clear: none of them would qualify: Anais Nin, Marguerite Duras, Anne Desclos (Pauline Réage), Jong, Miller, Bataille, Nabokov, even Anne Rice. The works of all these writers have far too much plot, too much conflict, not enough sex, and few happy endings.

I think there is a tremendous marketing opportunity out there for a savvy publisher or pornographer to come up with a new genre name and make a fortune. Because the conventions of the material that is sought after are so clear and easily discernible: lashings of explicit sex with a hint of an emotional underpinning, safe kink, little or no plot, no conflict and a happy ending.  Oh, wait…

Conversely, it may be time for many erotica writers to cede the field and consider a new name for what we write. Revisiting the canon, it is clear that although erotica did contain explicit sex, its focus was erotic desire. To paraphrase Lacan, ‘desire desires desire.’ The genre was never about satisfying the sex drive. It was always about how erotic desire complicates us. Literature that focuses on the subject of desire requires strong conflict and cannot, in all good conscience, leave its readers with a happy ever after ending.

To portray desire with any realism, a writer is duty bound to deal its fundamentally ambivalent core. The achievement of what we desire will never completely satisfy us. Any literature that portrays it otherwise is really closer to porn – pure fantasy. Yes, we achieve moments of satiation or fulfillment but, sooner or later, we realize that what we got isn’t exactly what we desired. This is the profound truth of desire: it cannot be completely or permanently sated.

This sounds utterly depressing, so let me state it another way: desire is a desire to be a desiring person. There is a pleasure in the wanting, in the anticipation of gaining the object of desire. Moreover, it has a curious quantum aspect to it, of being intensely narcissistic and intensely other-oriented at the same time. Most of all, we desire to be desired by the other.

Desire is both a journey and a destination. Desire is the journey to get to a place of desiring.  The object of our desire is uniquely human; the multi-faceted masks of sublimation. It’s not tragic. It’s a process, just like living. When I read these works of ‘erotica’, with their absolute fulfillments and their happy endings, I’m reading about death, not desire.

Because the end of desire is death.

Notes:

  1. Sarracino, C., & Scott, K. (2008). The Porning of America: The Rise of Porn Culture, What It Means and Where We Go From Here. Beacon Press.
  2. . Attwood, F. (2005). “What do people do with porn? Qualitative research into the consumption, use and experience of pornography and other sexually explicit media”. Sexuality and Culture, 2(65-86).
  3. Shire, E. (2013). “Why Americans still can’t admit to watching porn”. The Week. Retrieved June 05, 2014, from http://theweek.com/article/index/251042/why-americans-still-cant-admit-to-watching-porn 
  4. Flood, A. (2014). “Fifty Shades of Grey trilogy has sold 100m copies worldwide”. Guardian. London.
  5. Remittance Girl, (2014) “The Gaze, Erotica and the Aesthetics of a Hog-tie”. ERWA Blog. Retrieved Jun 5, 2014, from http://erotica-readers.blogspot.co.uk/2014/04/the-gaze-erotica-and-aesthetics-of-hog.html 
  6. Žižek, S. (1992). Looking Awry : An Introduction to Jacques Lacan through Popular Culture. MIT Press.
  7. Sarai, L. “The Negotiation”. ERWA blog. Accessed June 5, 2014, from http://erotica-readers.blogspot.co.uk/2014/05/negotiation.html 

4 Thoughts on “Desire Desires Desire: Why Erotica and Porn are Different

  1. This is a very well thought out and well-written piece. Thanks for posting it.

    As a male author of a plain-vanilla sex, political-erotica novel that tracks mainly from a hetero male’s point of view, I guess I feel relieved that “men are so simple” (what the heroine in my book declares when capturing the heart/lust of a player). It was easy and quite a kick to write my book, which is mainly for guys, not gals. In contrast, your words here amplify my appreciation for how difficult it is to master female sensuality, at least at the mass level.

    Meanwhile, I have copied this column to my “inspirational sources” file because it reaffirms for me how much more sophisticated females are in the “desire” department. That’s a blessing and a curse, it seems, but I will be bearing your words in mind while composing Vol II of my series.

    I like this: “The genre was never about satisfying the sex drive. It was always about how erotic desire complicates us. Literature that focuses on the subject of desire requires strong conflict and cannot, in all good conscience, leave its readers with a happy ever after ending.”

    I commend you for sticking to your values when composing erotic literature. My books try and lure in straight male readers, so they tend to be a bit more “porny” than those authored by women. It’s an uphill task to build that market, but I’m sticking with it because I think healthy demand in fact can be cultivated with time and patience.

    But “sensual complexity-wise,” I’ve got an easier row to hoe than traditional erotica authors who write for what is, at bottom, a predominantly female readership (yes, men fall in love with their eyes — they view porn films and centerfolds – while women fall in love through their ears — they read romance/erotica novels).

    To that end, I commend you for sticking to your guns on your side of the erotica-writing fence, despite a dispiriting one-star review here and there.

    This, by the way, is a gem: “When I read these works of ‘erotica’, with their absolute fulfillments and their happy endings, I’m reading about death, not desire.”

    P. A. Trate

    • Thank you for your erudite and considered response.

      Quite honestly, I don’t buy the ‘erotica is for women’ thing. Certainly Anais Nin, D.H. Lawrence, Henry Miller and Vladimir Nabokov weren’t writing for women. Nonetheless, the works they wrote came to serve as the literary canon of 20th Century erotica.

      Have men become stupider? I don’t believe so. And men who are only stimulated with their eyes are going to opt for visual porn, and they’re not going to read you or me. So pandering to the myth of the visual male is a cop-out. Both men and women who want visuals will easily find visuals. Textual erotica is not a substitute for it. It has a different role to play, I think, of inviting the reader (male or female) to consider the context of their erotic desires and how it alters their lives and their understanding of the world around them.

  2. This adds enormously to the porn v erotica debate and put some things straight in my mind. I have also written on the subject and would like to share it: – http://chloethurlow.com/2014/06/porn-v-erotica/

  3. Pingback: Resolved? Erotica Vs Porn | Strange Flesh Press

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