Erotic Art vs. Pornography


I think of erotic art and porn as being two different but similar things.

To me, porn is something that reduces its subject to no more than his or her sexuality. In doing that it degrades the person in much the same way that reducing anyone to just one thing degrades them.

For instance: If you reduce a person to no more than the fact they are Black, Jewish, Mormon, a particular nationality, or a member of this or that political party, then in some sense you are degrading them. Likewise, if you reduce a person to no more than his or her sexuality you are degrading them.

Yet, I think erotic art is distinct from porn in the sense that erotic art, as I use the term, reveals someone’s sexuality without entirely reducing them to their sexuality, just as you can acknowledge someone’s race without entirely reducing them to their race.

It interests me that those who would reduce people to just one thing also — perhaps almost invariably — distort that one aspect of them. So, for instance, when the Nazis reduced Jews to “just Jews” they also characterized Jews in unrealistic and lying ways. Again, when the KKK reduces Blacks to “just Blacks” they also lie about what it means to be Black. And when the porn industry reduces a man or woman to just their sexuality, it almost invariably ascribes to them an unrealistic sexuality.

Those two things so often go hand in hand: First, reducing someone to just one aspect of themselves, and second distorting what that aspect means.

I don’t think it can be denied that the human tendency to reduce others to no more than one thing and then distort that thing is a cause of much misery in this world.

Having said all that, I would much rather put up with porn — or even racism, etc. — than with censorship. I think the proper way to take on such evils is through debate in the free market of ideas, rather than through government censorship.

Am I onto something here, or should I drink some more coffee this morning, wake up, and try again?

See also Chanson’s essay on porn — which inspired this one.

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15 Comments

Filed under Abuse, Art, Pornography, Sexuality

15 responses to “Erotic Art vs. Pornography

  1. ordinarygirl

    I fall closer to CL Hanson’s post because I don’t find pornography degrading to women (or to men, but then who am I to judge that?). It may be an exaggeration of one aspect, sexuality, but we often exaggerate an aspect of people in a non-negative way to celebrate that aspect.

    For example, at Mother’s Day we celebrate the love mothers show for their children. But that mother is a woman with many different aspects to her life and personality. Love for her child is a universal, positive trait we isolate on that occasion. But I don’t think anyone would consider that negative.

    I don’t find pornography negative because I don’t find the exaggeration any worse or better. But often love is a trait we as society are able to express without censure. Sexuality is not. Would it not be better if women could be sexual without being perceived as a slut? I think the negativity in pornography lies more in the repression of female sexuality than in any sort of abuse or degradation.

  2. Nita

    The problem with pornography is that it is accessible to children today.
    Also there is pornography which covers incest, sadism and other such stuff. Who is to decide what is normal and what is not? There should be strict laws to ensure that pornography is not available to children. That is my only grouse with pornography. Where adults are concerned they should be free to choose what they find in good taste and what they do not.

  3. decrepitoldfool

    “I don’t think it can be denied that the human tendency to reduce others to no more than one thing and then distort that thing is a cause of much misery in this world.”

    In this sense there is certainly political porn and religious porn and it causes no end of trouble. But I think the harm of sexual pornography to children is magnified by the cloak of mystery and taboo in which we enshroud it.

    Also the tendency to reify a single attribute of a person, perhaps a political affiliation, is a symptom of cognitive parsimony. Or to put it more bluntly, mental laziness. It is at its most harmful when it becomes a shorthand pejorative, but there is even the potential for harm when it is a shorthand idolization, an unrealistic worship leading to attachment and inevitable disillusionment.

    And yet, at any given time we might be focusing on a specific attribute without the intention to neglect other attributes at other times.

  4. C. L. Hanson

    As I said, I’m flattered to be inspiring some serious dialogue :D yet I stick by the response I posted over on my own blog:

    I don’t think one can so easily equate a sexuality-only portrait with an ethnicity-only portrait. Portraying a character as a pure ethnic stereotype (usually for ridicule) is about racism and xenophobia, which is a very different emotion than sexual arousal. It would be more reasonable to compare ethnic stereotypes with gender stereotypes (like the other day when some guy was praising his new iPhone and told me that “It’s so simple that even a woman can use it!” then launched into a story about how his wife gets computer instruction from their 9-year-old son…).

    I also don’t think there’s a clear dividing line between porn and erotica. I was at an art museum in Paris the other day and saw plenty of erotic female nudes. This stuff is as highbrow as they come, yet one could look at it and see women “reduced to their sexuality” if that’s the message you’re looking for.

  5. Rambodoc

    Paul,
    I, too, think you should not equate racist or other collectivist stuff with porn. The latter is not a moral issue. It is no more a moral issue than is ‘is television watching moral, because it can lead to lack of productivity?’. Or ‘playing video games is immoral for kids’.
    You get my point?
    While degradation may be an element in porn, it is by no means objectively quantifiable. That value judgment springs from your religious/philosophical/cultural premises (or lack of them).
    Porn is a two dimensional exaggeration of sexuality. It focusses on the overt depiction of it, while erotic art explores the sensuality of the act.
    As you know, I am against any censorship on this.
    Nita,
    The responsibility of children having access to porn is not the society’s or the porn peddlar’s. It is the responsibility of the parents and teachers.

  6. Paul

    These are wonderful comments! You guys are really helping me understand this issue, and there’s a lot here to think about. Thank you!

  7. aos

    This is one of those issues that at least more me never seems to resove to any lasting satisfaction. I agree with all (?) of you that censorship is no answer and a society that banished sexual images is not one I would like to be part of. However, I have to take issue with rambodoc’s saying that “degradation in porn is not objectively quantifiable”. While all the actors might be enjoying their work, and even if this is what they would do even if they weren’t being paid (which I doubt), a great deal of porn is distributed on the basis of being degradation. When you hear phrases like gagging blowjobs and facial humiliation, you think, oh yeah, that sounds consensual to me.

    If I sound a little angry its because I have a preteen daughter who has to enter an already cluttered sexual minefield and will have to deal with males who have been led to believe that all women want to be degraded; or if she runs across this stuff she might think her own feelings are atypical and tries to conform to these artifical constructions. (Don’t mind them thinking women want sex, get horny, etc..that should be on the table).

    Also, regarding dividing lines, I agree they are somewhat fuzzy and may depend on how well the person observing expresses themselves as much as anything.

  8. Paul

    I’m going to revisit this topic in a future post because you have given me so much to think about here.

  9. Nita

    while i do agree that the ultimate responsibility does lie with parents/teachers, I disagree that they have to take the whole responsibility.
    The society, the government, the porn providers, everyone has a bit of responsibility.
    And well, if mothers and fathers need to lock up their computers, lock up their kids at home etc then I think it’s a sad reflection on our society. It’s a sick society that allows it’s kids to view porn and I feel very strongly about this.
    Because today unless you lock the kids up they are not going to avoid porn.
    Why pretend that kids are not seeing porn and that it’s not affecting them?
    just recently I read about how pre-teens in america think that the acts they see on porn sites are ‘normal’ and I think one commentator here has mentioned that.
    let an adult decide if something is normal or not normal, please let us NOT brainwash our kids!!

  10. Stevo

    It is a fuzzy line. Who are we to make that distinction? It differs from person to person. I appreciate erotica, and what some would label pornography. I have a line as to which is which. Depending on your beliefs and upbringing your line may be in a different place.

  11. David Rochester

    I have always felt that erotica is celebratory,and pornography is exploitative. And perhaps by that I mean: Is the image strictly for the arousal-benefit of the viewer, or is the subject “in” the picture?

    I’ve found that this extremely simplistic definition holds as true for non-photographic images as it does for modern photos and film.

    I’ve never seen joyful pornography, but I’ve seen (and read) extremely joyful erotica.

  12. wake up and try again. *winks* at.you.
    ~c

  13. LOL! Thanks! I’ve been thinking of giving it another go one of these days. :)

  14. I’m afraid I don’t understand why focussing on one particular aspect of someone’s being is necessarily degrading. If I was to talk about your sense of humour without mentioning your intelligence would that be degrading? It is a matter of selection, someone making a film can’t show the entirety of the subject’s being, pornography focuses on their sexuality just as a dance movie would focus on their movement.
    The difference between erotica and pornography is really just a question of ‘taste’. As someone else once said, “The only difference between porn and erotica is the lighting.”

  15. Hi Paul! Welcome to the blog! There is nothing at all wrong with focusing on one particular aspect of someone, as you rightly point out. However, that was not my argument. My argument was a bit different. Namely that there is something wrong with reducing someone to one aspect of them.

    Reducing someone to just one aspect of them implies that we deny other aspects of them. While merely focusing on one aspect of a person does not imply that we deny other aspects of them. See the difference? It’s the difference between saying, “You’re a Jew”, and “All you are is a Jew”. Or, “You’re a Black”, and “All you are is a Black.” Or, lastly, “You’re a sex object”, and, “All you are is a sex object.”

    As for the distinction between erotica and pornography being merely or only a matter of taste, I am aware that’s the conventional thinking, but I’m a bit radical on the issue — I think there is a discernible difference between the two.

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