On Porn II: Definitions

Porn by Definition

One thing I learned to abhor about academic philosophy was the almost compulsive need to redefine commonly used terms in order to buttress otherwise confusing or inconclusive arguments. By the end of a 20-page discussion of something as unobscure as “justice,” most theorists had redefined the term itself and spend the majority of the paper defending that definition.

That is not what I’m going to do here.

A lot of people try to draw a distinction between erotica and porn. I don’t think that this distinction is useful. In the common vernacular, I’ve heard people refer to porn as erotica and erotica as porn. True, some porn is more focused on the relationship and emotions of its actors than others. I don’t think that a focus on the eroticism rather than the physicality takes a piece of porn out of the realms of pornography.

More importantly, I think drawing a distinction between porn and erotica legitimizes really toxic stereotypes about male and female sexuality. You can read exactly how people separate porn from erotica here and here, among other places. What seems to be common in these dichotomies is that they posit that porn entirely focuses on the physical aspects of sex and is often obscene with no higher aspirations; and erotica focuses on feelings and emotions, and often has high-art aspirations.

If you feel that this dichotomy mirrors a similar one, you’re not mistaken. The differences assumed between pornography and erotica are the very differences we falsely assign male and female sexuality. Female sexuality is art, and more acceptable for public consumption (witness the proliferation of images of the female form versus the concealment or non-erotic cultural assumptions made of the male form). The sexuality of women is all about emotions and feelings, not about being attracted to the physicality of sex or the body of her partner. Female sexuality is inward-looking and passive. On the other hand, male sexuality only consists of the obscene and degrading. It wants nothing to do with feelings or emotions, just raw physicality. Men can have sex with people whom they’re only physically attracted to, women cannot. Men don’t have any use for love, unlike women. The nude male body is obscene in order to shock, or something that is unremarkable, common, and ugly. There’s nothing artistic about men.

Do I think that the way the divide between porn and erotica mirrors the divide between the common assumptions made of male and female sexuality is a coincidence? Hell no. I think that the porn/erotica divide is another toxic manifestation of gender values in our culture, and entirely useless. There is a very real association of erotica with femininity, and porn with masculinity. The very words themselves conger images of roses, love, and passion versus bodily fluids, full-frontal nudity, and gratuitous focus on the “obscene”.

Likewise, from an artistic standpoint, it’s entirely false to say that a woman’s body and her desires (or what they are idealised to be) are only “high art” while a man’s body and his desires are obscene and serve no other purpose other than to arouse, shock, and satisfy cheap physical needs. I have no erotic desire for the male form myself (since I’m a lesbian), but straight women obviously do legitimately desire the bodies of their male partners. Likewise, the idea that men want nothing to do with the feelings and emotions of sexuality is degrades the humanity and agency of men. It posits that men have no use for love, which is obviously false, and pretends that male sexuality is inherently obscene, disgusting, uncontrollable, and animalistic. Men do look inwards while expressing their sexuality, just as women look outwards. But our cultural messages claim otherwise, robbing both genders of their agency and pathologizing those who express their sexuality in ways not sanctioned by the zeitgeist.

Thus, for the purpose of this series, when I speak of “porn,” I speak of any form of media that depicts some sort of sexual behavior (in the case of more obscure fetishes, this may be more subtle and altogether exclude physical intercourse) with the intent to cause sexual excitement for the purpose of obtaining sexual satisfaction or selling the pornography itself. I think that caveat about satisfaction and selling the porn is useful, because without it, we might have to consider advertisement that relies on arousal to sell an unrelated product “porn.” In the common sense of the word “porn,” I get the feeling that nobody actually thinks that models in bikinis selling beer is considered porn — unless they are using the term “porn” with a negative connotation in order to critique the ad.

What I also want to establish here is that I feel that this definition of porn (which is adapted from the Merriam-Webster Dictionary), most closely approximates what most people really mean when they call something porn, smut, or erotica. And for the purposes of this series, I will consider all of these terms more or less equivalent, or at least different forms of the larger category of media we think of as “porn.”

Likewise, I don’t want to use the baggage associated with the erotica/porn separation, or the inherent negativity invoked by the word “smut.” I think pornography, by definition, is entirely neutral. Here I speak only of the theory of pornography. Considering only the definition of porn — and internalizing no negative or positive cultural messages about sexuality — ought to isolate the meaning of the word from the baggage associated with it.

Of course, the baggage associated with it is precisely what I discuss in this series. But there is something to be said with being semantically clear without redefining words in order to suit my following arguments. Here, I hope I have captured what the common American actually thinks when they call something “porn” without making any connotations of whether or not it is obscene or artistic, masculine or feminine, and divine or sinful.

To be continued in On Porn Part III: Fiction vs. Non-Fiction…

Posted on July 26, 2011, in Feminism, Porn Nation and tagged . Bookmark the permalink. 3 Comments.

  1. I really like this pair of articles. Are you going to continue?

  2. Sorry, meant “are you still planning to continue”, and am asking because the two posts are only days apart.

  1. Pingback: On Porn I: Introduction and Disclaimers « XXBlaze

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