There Were Bodies Everywhere: What Makes Texts Erotic?

from De Humani Corporis Fabrica Libri Decem (Venice, 1627) by Adriaan van de Spiegel

from De Humani Corporis Fabrica Libri Decem (Venice, 1627) by Adriaan van de Spiegel (you can view the whole of this incredible text online, here)

In his text, The Fiction of Relationship, Arnold Weinstein defines the erotic novel as “the text that focuses on the role of the body in culture; its peculiar needs, the uses to which it is and can be put.” 1   In my attempt to forge new eroticisms, it is necessary to step back and consider why this definition has prevailed and why, in a contemporary setting, it is no longer the case.

Only very recently, from an historical perspective, and in the presence of a demand for market categorization, have writers set out explicitly to write erotic works. A writer sits down to write what is on his or her mind and, certainly, it may have a good deal of sexual content but, as I have argued in my first chapter with the help of Bataille and Foucault, 2 3    a novel about the role of the body is only erotic when the culture it arises in has designated the body a site of transgression. Whether that culture is influenced by Aristotelian ideas of corporeal moderation in favour of the intellect, 4  or by Judeo-Christian values which value matters of the soul above those of the body, the last two millennia of Western culture held attitudes that did indeed make the body a dangerous place where transgressions may occur.  However, since the sexual liberation of the 1960s and the increasing exposure of the body in all forms of media, and with the more recent omnipresence of easily accessible pornography on the Internet, it becomes hard to see how the body itself, or even the body in flagrante, might still be considered transgressive.

We keep telling ourselves that sexualized bodies are ‘naughty’ and ‘nasty’, but are they? How naughty or nasty can anything be when it is so ubiquitous?  How transgressive can viewing one remain when it is used to sell everything from deodorant to insurance? 5 6 It is in the interests of commercial forces to underscore the transgressive nature of sexuality and the naked body, but the very frequency of our exposure to it neutralizes and valourizes it.

I argue that many of the cultural theorists and literary critics of the past, focusing on a text’s body-centricity and explicit sexual content, have failed to escape the gravity well of cultural normativity and have fallen prey to misdirection in their attempts to define the erotic text.  I don’t argue that they were wrong in identifying certain texts as erotic, but dispute the aspects of the text that caused them to be identified that way. So, for instance, Lady Chatterley’s Lover is not erotic because it contains sexually explicit passages. It is erotic because, at the time that Lawrence wrote it, the act of offering explicit textual descriptions of sexual activity – especially between a woman of the aristocracy and her gamekeeper – was considered taboo.  It was erotic because, not only does it portray the characters committing a social transgression (not the act of having sex, but the social positions of the participants), but also it was an act of rebellion to write explicitly about it and publish it. Moreover, it became a transgressive, and therefore an erotic act to own the text and to read it.

What I’m attempting to argue here is that a focus on the body or on sexuality is not ontologically erotic. It is physical and sexual. Dogs mate and we witness it, and, for most of us, it is not erotic. We note it as a biological function.  Similarly, if we watch two people having sex, it is only because the privacy of the act has been culturally dictated that we can consider it erotic. If people copulated on street corners as a matter of course, we would cease to find it erotic.

This doesn’t mean that the act might not trigger our own sexual response. It is common to watch someone eat and suddenly become hungry; and our natural response is to find something to eat ourselves.  It only becomes transgressive, and erotic, I would argue, if we watch someone eat and feel hunger ourselves while fasting during Ramadan.

Eroticism is not a focus on the drive, but on the cultural complications of desire. If our nakedness is now a standard part of prime-time entertainment, if our desire for sex is no longer repressed but instead considered a mark of our social attractiveness and ‘marketability’, if our appetites for non-procreative sex acts are normalized and constantly remediated for all to see, where is the transgression? Where is the eroticism?

It is, I think, to be found in the places our culture locates disgust: in ugliness, in poverty, in loneliness, in abstinence, in dysfunction, in the few remaining aspects of our world that cannot, for reason of transience or liminality, cannot be commoditized and sold.


  1. Weinstein, A., & Reed, D. (1990). The Fiction of Relationship. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
  2. Bataille, G. (1962). Death and sensuality: A study of Eroticism and the Taboo. New York: Walker and Company.
  3. Foucault, M. (1980). A Preface to Transgression. In D. F. Bouchard (Ed.), Language, Counter-Memory, Practice: Selected Essays and Interviews (pp. 29–52). Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.
  4. Soble, A. (2009). A History of Erotic Philosophy. Journal of Sex Research, 46(2-3), 104–20. doi:10.1080/00224490902747750
  5. Gill, R. (2007). Supersexualize Me ! Advertising and “the midriffs.” In F. Attwood (Ed.), Mainstreaming Sex: The Sexualization of Culture. I.B. Tauris.
  6. Streitmatter, R. (2004). Sex sells!: the media’s journey from repression to obsession. Westview Press.

2 Thoughts on “There Were Bodies Everywhere: What Makes Texts Erotic?

  1. If I’m understanding correctly, I think you are saying something like:

    (‘social’ transgression) + (sex) -> erotica.

    If we use ‘obscenity’ as a marker for transgression, it’s interesting that the prosecution in the Lady C trial (in 1960) seems to have focussed on language, counting the number of times that ‘fuck’ and ‘cunt’ appear; you might argue, though, that counsel’s remarks about ‘wives and servants’ is more about the cross-class sex as much as the language.

    Lady C was published at the end of the 1920s, referring to a time immediately after WW1, so it was sort of current, even if WW1 resulted in much social change. ‘The Go-Between’ was published in 1953, but the action is in 1901; it’s (partly) about cross-class sex. Similarly, ‘Atonement’ was published in the mid 1980s, and is set in the mid 1930s; it was certainly influenced by ‘The Go-Between’, and one theme again is cross-class sex. Interestingly, both refer to events about 50 years before their publication.

    But neither of these two is remotely erotic, even if ‘Atonement’ includes a few ‘cunts’. So, was the idea of cross-class sex no longer transgressive in the 1950s, and hardly worth a mention in the 1980s? A shift in cultural values?

    Does the Lady C trial with the (apparent) emphasis on language suggest modifying the ‘formula’ to give:

    (social transgression) + (language transgression) -> erotica

    I’m not in any way suggesting this as a complete or certain argument; it’s more a pointer to a discussion. Today, it might be hard to do ‘language transgression’, and one might have to think of all the ‘last taboos’ that we still hear about to find more transgressions.

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

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