The difference between erotica and porn

Attention paid to Fifty Shades of Grey is muddying the waters of erotica, and porn.
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Attention paid to Fifty Shades of Grey is muddying the waters of erotica, and porn.

OPINION: As a true child of the 80s, I spent at least part of the 90s reading Jean M Auel's Clan of the Cave Bear and its subsequent series. Even at the time, I knew it wasn't great literature. The covers were embarrassing – women in scrappy furs staring soulfully over plains of grass and rock – and to a Kiwi kid who grew up watching Shortland Street, it had little relationship to my own experience, although given that I was only reading them for the sex scenes, that didn't really matter.

As an introduction to erotica, it was fairly tame.

Not much in the way of kink, and heavy on the painful metaphor. However, I had to read hundreds of pages to get to the parts about sex, and in the first book, that was mostly rape, or at least, highly unpleasant sex.

By the time it got juicy, it was clear that whatever your feelings about the quality of the writing, Auel made sure you were damn well going to experience the character's emotional responses as well imagine her physical sensations.

READ MORE:
* Aotearotica: New journal explores Kiwi erotica
* Why you should boycott the Fifty Shades Darker movie
* How 'Fifty Shades Darker' inches toward sex positivity
* Fifty Shades of Grey romance 'fuels abuse'

 
 
Laura Borrowdale is the editor of Aotearotica, a journal of literary erotic fiction.
Iain McGregor/Fairfax NZ

Laura Borrowdale is the editor of Aotearotica, a journal of literary erotic fiction.

These days, as I can tell you after nearly 10 years in the classroom and a significant number of NCEA reading responses marked, Kiwi teens with a taste for the salacious are picking up books like Fifty Shades of Grey, that ubiquitous tome, which offers them what passes for erotica these days... a quick dip into a personality-free plot as a way to serve up some fairly brutal sex.

It's here that it's important to think about what we're being served. We as a society are not good at discussing sex, and yet the argument over what counts as porn and what is erotica is still raging. It might be futile, but at least the act of differentiating these genres opens that conversation and helps to sort out what some of the problems are with writing, and reading, about sex.

If you're trying to describe the difference between pornography and erotica, it's useful to think about a Venn diagram of sex writing. One circle represents a critical response to sex, and this could take the form of academic writing, creative non-fiction or extracts from literary novels. Although the style might vary, this circle would, in essence, hold the kind of writing that attempts to analyse or make sense of sex as a human experience, and it's potentially not very sexy at all.

The other circle holds the kind of writing whose sole purpose is to arouse the reader. It's very sexy.

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However, erotica, real erotica, actually sits in the overlapping segments of the circles, that place that manages to create thought, and to arouse.

The reason there's so little of the good stuff, and so much of the stuff like Fifty Shades? It's easy to turn people on, but it's hard to make them think. And trying to do both at once ramps up the skill level required even further. Essentially, an erotic author is attempting to send the reader's blood both north and south simultaneously, which is why when it succeeds, it truly is a feat of literary endeavour.

"There's nothing wrong with reading about sex, but make it good sex," says Laura Borrowdale.
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"There's nothing wrong with reading about sex, but make it good sex," says Laura Borrowdale.

We value it so highly that even when it fails, we recognise the attempt. The tongue in cheek Bad Sex Awards have run for years, and some of the world's most celebrated authors are nominated. Despite winning these awards for terrible writing, the authors' reputations never truly suffer, as implicitly, it's understood that this is one of the hardest things to write well, and simply trying deserves kudos, even if it fails.

The problem with pornography, and the reason that it is damaging, is that it doesn't try. It's out to get us off in the most expedient way possible, and all that critical analysis stuff, all that development of real issues for real people, well, it kind of gets in the way.

Without it, we are able to consume more and more, as our consumption is quick and thoughtless. And our consumption of other people becomes quick and thoughtless also, as surely the swipe frenzy on Tinder and other dating apps prove.

Another way to see this problem comes from author Elizabeth Benedict in The Joy of Sex Writing.

She describes pornography as explicit – who does what to who where with what plus a lot of adjectives – whereas the erotic is writing that is specific. Erotica takes the time to create specific characters with specific needs because in sex, as in all areas of life, one size does not fit all.

This explicit, yet generic, nature of pornographic writing means we are never asked to experience anything from someone else's point of view.

The reader can project themselves onto a blank body, gaining a sense of the physical but nothing more. Pornography normalises this, and increasingly shows sex that is violent, punishing towards women and minorities and, sometimes barely, or not at all, consensual (ahem, Fifty Shades of Grey). Given that this out there and easily accessible, the lack of erotic writing to both provide an alternative model and to combat them is worrying. And our inability to hold sensible conversations around sex is even more so.

Aotearotica, the journal I founded, has made a space to create thought and to arouse, but also to open the conversation around issues such as the impact of pornography and an increasingly sexualised society.

Visual editor Oliver Rabbett and I felt that something that is such a key human experience deserved the quality of thought that we devote to other things. And clearly we weren't alone.

Volume One sold out within a month of its release and Volume Two, which was published early this year, has already sold more copies than the first.

We're still slightly flabbergasted by it all, but the response to Aotearotica shows that there is a market out there for excitement without exploitation, sex without the ick factor.

There's nothing wrong with reading about sex, but make it good sex.

Make it the kind of writing that enables empathy and respect, and that turns your brain on, as well as your body.

LAURA'S TOP EROTICA PICKS

LITERATURE

The Line of Beauty or The Swimming Pool Library by Alan Hollinghurst

Fingersmith or Tipping the Velvet by Sarah Waters

The Crimson Petal and the White by Michael Faber

• The work of Mary Anne Mohanraj

Delta of Venus or Little Birds by Anais Nin

Written on the Body by Jeanette Winterson

• Hera Lindsay Bird's self-titled book of poetry

COMICS

• Work by Milo Manara

Lost Girls by Alan Moore and Melinda Gebbie

The Sculptor by Scott McCloud

Work by Dylan Horrocks

Woerk by Barry Linton

 - Your Weekend

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