Having had two stories* published in Rowan Pelling’s The Erotic Review – now a website since Pelling has moved on and started The Amorist magazine – I’ve been fascinated by the interface between eroticism and pornography. The Erotic Review and, I would assume, The Amorist, bars pornography from their pages, thus making a firm if not clear distinction between the two. I’m not sure what this consists in, apart from eroticism’s, and specifically erotic literature’s, having established a rubicon, a line in the sand. The trouble with lines in the sand is that the merest breeze will eventually efface them. But let’s consider the rubicon, the point beyond which any decision is irrevocable; in this case any decision to go for something that leaves eroticism behind in opting for a blatantly improper and indelicate alternative. Perhaps the difference between them is so slim that it’s impossible to tell one from the other; perhaps pornography is something that calls a spade a spade while eroticism calls a spade an ergonomic device for driving into the belly of Gaia. (Erotic terms often have to be looked up; pornographic ones are self-explanatory.)
Neither the erotic nor the pornographic has its own mutually exclusive agenda. One might say that erotic literature excites the imagination to gird basic impulses with a sense of eternal deferral, whereas the pornographic rampages through the flower-beds to reach what is lusted after. Flirting, peculiarly associated with women, is an example of the erotic; so is any other kind of suggestiveness, especially denoted by clothes in the process of being taken off. Time lapse is the thing. No erotic story ends with its finishing-line breasted, if one might be forgiven the phrase: right to the end, all is left to the imagination, and its protracted exercise is a literary matter. It was one of the 1960s ‘kitchen sink’ writers who distinguished between middle-class and working-class attitudes to sex. The former, he averred, was often hung up about it and even when it was not it required varying amounts of inventive foreplay; the latter simply disrobed and got on with it unceremonially, often against a wall. (middle-class coupling against a wall would be regarded as some form of slumming.) The humour of this, admittedly superior, view of the matter lay in the nature of coitus itself: the same experience, give or take an appreciation of the nether anatomy and an ability to invent scenarios. The implication of such a view resides in its capacity to distinguish between sex as mystery, even spiritual, and sex as ordinary, mostly manual: big deal or no big deal. This is why Freud’s case histories based on the repression of sexual instincts are literary. They are tales of physical and moral anguish. Cutting to the quick has no tale to tell.
I was once encouraged to read the stories of Anaïs Nin to decide if they were pornographic or erotic. There was one which involved a woman, the narrator, in a heaving crowd at some open-air event. She felt something odd happening directly behind her and realised it was a male, whom she couldn’t see because of the crush, in a state of priapic excitement and unavoidably pressing against her rump. It ended with the two improbably negotiating congress by means of unzipping, skirt-raising and sundry re-arrangement of clothing, without anyone around them noticing. That there was something comical, let alone improbable, about this ending seemed to be a factor in most pornography. Laughter is often a posit-coital reaction, maybe at how ridiculous the sex act is. Pornography is about the risible endgame; eroticism is about the equally hilarious seriousness of what leads up to it without the goal itself being mentioned.
Kenneth Clark distinguished between nudity and nakedness in art. Nudity, as practised by people who like taking their clothes off without any prospect of sexual activity or encounter, often like to ‘share’ their nakedness with others, especially easy today with a worldwide audience in cyberspace. It’s called exhibitionism, the act of displaying your unclothed body for others to see. That automatically leads to voyeurism: without an image to trigger it, sexual arousal would not take place. That the gratification for the naked person might come from the neutral (non-sexual) responses of other clothes-shedders is hard to believe; at the very least they would not be shocked as a sexual response; that’s to say, they would not stop dis-robing just because some viewers were sexually excited by the result (or, in the case of the erotic, by the act). Nudity, eroticism, pornography: is this not a chain succession? The so-called ‘nude person’ is often into both the erotic and the morbidly pornographic as interchangeable states.
It would be interesting to discover if these activities are related – i.e., if those displaying their nudity, burlesque, eroticism, and pornography for public viewing (exhibitionism, without the word’s pejorative overtones) are equally comfortable with all four roles as variations on the same broad theme. I suspect they might be, even if they are coy and more circumspect about the last. One can say this without being at all judgemental.
Has anyone dealt with these matters from a gender angle? Except for nudity, the roles are each associated with a division of heterosexual status: the female strikes the pose, as it were, and the male gazes. Popularly, pornography is never seen in the opposite terms, though no doubt they exist. This observation applies to still images of individuals. But it is not the stereotype. A good example is seen in the way popular newspapers display photographs of semi-clad women, never (or never for the same reason) of men. These newspapers as entities are not supposed to be run by a particular group of people for any particular group of readers. So, the implication of a daily ‘page 3’ picture of women is that it is aimed primarily at male readers by a male-dominated editorial team in which the female element is complicit. No such newspaper has ever published pictures on a daily basis of half-naked men; if they did, the attraction would be assumed to be for male readers, or a gay readership. (No doubt the female picture might attract gay females, and the male picture heterosexual women, but that’s not the perceived intention.) Pornography is seen as something women engage in for the gratification of men, but that’s only because the male view of almost everything has always been paramount.
Also interesting is the response to images of those performing the quartet of roles publicly. One supposes it to be an increasingly crude and inappropriate manifestation of sexual arousal, a conclusion that must force one to wonder where, in each display, titillation ends and something more crude begins. ‘Crude’, of course, is a loaded term.
* Celia, Oh Celia, and Images From the Floating World.