How does "sexual content" differ from erotica and porn?

| Monday, October 8, 2012
Today's Tune: Push It

I think I'm just inviting the spambots right in with this post. I turned off anonymous comments, though, so it's fine. Fair warning: if you couldn't tell from the title, this post will contain blunt talk about sexuality and sex scenes in written and visual media. NO PICTURES THOUGH.

Now that we're coming off of Banned Book Week, I thought this would be an interesting topic for discussion. If you follow banned and challenged books, you'll know that books are often challenged for being "sexually explicit," and that there's been a history of people deeming certain books "pornographic" despite the nature of the sexual content. For example: SPEAK by Laurie Halse Anderson, a book in which a young woman is dealing with the fallout and recovery of acquaintance rape, has been deemed "pornographic" by certain parties looking to ban the book. This is problematic for all kinds of reasons, namely that the scene in question is a completely non-erotic, non-explicit rape scene. To refer to it as "pornographic" equates rape with titillating sex.

Is there a difference between sexual content, erotica, and porn? Yes, I think there very much is.

Erotica and porn have their similarities and dissimilarities. Porn is considered a largely visual medium, though it could be argued that written pornography exists depending on the definition you're operating under. While both contain sexual material intended to arouse and/or titillate, I personally feel there are some key differences. In my mind, pornography is more exclusionary and voyeuristic, opting to take the viewpoint of someone watching people engage in sexual acts from the outside. It's a spectacle, a performance. Erotica, on the other hand, is more internalized and participatory, opting to engage the reader with the act. It's like the difference between watching people have sex from the corner of the room versus actually being inside the mind of one or more of the participants.

This is not to say that there haven't been expertly filmed pornographies in which the filmmaker invites the viewer more intimately into the act, or that there isn't externalized and voyeuristic written erotica. I'm admittedly not super familiar with either genre, so feel free to enlighten me.

Now: how do these differ from sexual content in a book? Well, sexuality is a vital part of humanity. While it's not universally shared, it is something that comes naturally to many people, and most people will experience it at some point in their lifetime. Human beings have a unique relationship with sex; it's not only something to do for pleasure or procreation, but something we use for intimacy, connection, sharing, even power and weaponization. We know that based on our culture and sentience, sex is not just a biological act, but an expression of something that can be wonderful or horrible. It can be lauded or condemned. It can be viewed as a commodity, a shame, a badge of honor, an expression of emotion. The result of the act (pregnancy, STIs, premarital sex, choice of partner[s]) can determine how society views and treats us.

This is why I tend to side-eye people who say things like, "We're just animals and it's just sex; it means nothing" or "Sex isn't something we need to talk about. It's only for certain people in certain situations." We cannot ignore the spectrum of human sexuality, nor can we pretend that sex is completely removed from society and emotional resonance. 

What does any of this have to do with "sexual content?" Well, my point here is that the use of sexual content in a narrative is not always about eroticism. There are many layers to sexual interaction. To view sex through a blanket black-and-white "baser animal instinct" filter is to divorce sexuality from emotion, humanity, interaction, and culture. When all sexual content is viewed as something automatically crass because it involves sexuality, we're ignoring that sex can be an expression of something more; that it can serve to show character growth, personal choice, societal pressure, or any of a multitude of more nuanced themes.

(A quick note: I'm not saying sexuality is the only way to convey these themes or that sexuality is necessary. I just feel it's short-sighted to treat sex as if it doesn't have deeper social and personal connotations, or like it's something that only rutting animals concern themselves with.)

When it comes to YA in particular, growing into sexuality and making choices about sexual expression/health are often big stepping stones for adolescents. Teen sexuality is not all about hormones running wild and rebelling against their parents' warnings (though this is what society seems wired to believe). It's a personal journey that plays a part in figuring out who they are and what they want out of life. An exploration of discovery and heightened emotion. Learning how to interact with each other. Sexual content is often about so much more than sex.

So, for me, this is the difference between sexual content, erotica, and pornography. The latter two are intended for sexual exploration and titillation, though they go about it different ways. The former is a more gray area that uses sex as a medium for character interaction, plot themes, posing societal questions, and more. As such, putting a block on sexual content as a whole is treading on dangerous ground. Every sex scene is not created equal, and when we boil down any exploration of sex to simply "inappropriate porn," we're disregarding all the ways humanity and sexuality intersect.

What do you guys think?


{ Kristan Hoffman } at: October 8, 2012 at 12:04 PM said...

I think you are very smart and eloquent, and I'm so glad you wrote out your thoughts on this topic. I couldn't have said it better myself.

{ JeffO } at: October 8, 2012 at 3:32 PM said...

Very well stated, and I pretty much agree with everything you say.

I read SPEAK some years ago, and I don't remember anything titillating or pornographic about it. Some people are excessively uptight on the subject of any kind of sex.

{ S.E. Sinkhorn } at: October 8, 2012 at 4:54 PM said...

Thank you Kristan, that means a lot :)

Jeff: Yeah, I don't know what the deal is there, other than anything remotely to do with sexuality = blanket bad.

{ Yael } at: October 8, 2012 at 6:56 PM said...

I thought the main difference between porn and erotica was that porn was mainly about the sex, whereas erotica contains sex but is mostly about the plot and characters. (Someone told me this once, so I'm not certain about it.)

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