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Pornography, Erotica, and Erotic Romance - A Quandary

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My first encounter with pornography occurred as a ten-year-old innocent. A friend discovered her older brother’s cache of pornographic comic books and shared them with me. We spent hours perusing his collection, a cache of crudely drawn sexual encounters between men with giant penises and voluptuous women who were eager to pleasure them. There were also stories, lurid tales of back door rendezvous between male predators and women, some of the ladies already sexual, others, chilly virgins in need of defrosting. Dirty words accompanied the images, the kind of sordid pillow talk only heard inside the bedroom or on the street.  Pornography may have been forbidden fruit, but even as a child, I found it exciting.

In the intervening years, like many young women, I shared glimpses of Penthouse, Hustler, and a few adult films with adventurous friends. I read the erotic fantasies of balding, pot-bellied everymen in the Penthouse Forum, imaginary sexual encounters between average Joes and insatiable and usually nameless women who satisfied the man’s every erotic need. It wasn’t until I enrolled in an university women’s study class that I took an objective look at the issue of pornography versus erotica.


The professor started the course with classic selections of the Victorian-era classic My Secret Life, the raunchy and often distasteful adventurers of an upper-class Brit and his lower class prey. The chapters often dealt with the rape of chambermaids by wealthy men who discarded them like rubbish when they’d finished using them. My Secret Life even detailed the anonymous protagonist’s same sex adventures with working class young men whom he joyfully reduced to rent boys. The sex was repetitious and repellent, and the author lovingly detailed violent assignations between the wealthy villain and innocents. As distasteful as some of the fables were, I found some of the fumbling encounters with bustled beauties, the ripped night chemises, and roving hands examining private parts, exciting.   

The class watched old-fashioned stag films in of all things then switched to watching adult movies including the infamous Deep Throat. We discussed the brief period in the early 70s when pornography moved from the shadowy world of The Pussycat into the light of real theaters.  There were those who predicted adult films would merge with Hollywood offerings, but the window was brief and the melding of the mainstream and pornography never happened.  The expensive sex-spectacular, Caligula, failed at the box office. Reality reared its head.  Men used pornography to pleasure themselves in private or with a partner. Being sexually aroused on a public place, especially when sitting next to a strange woman, was off-putting to men at the least. Pornography went back in the closet for decades.

Some religious leaders have a disdain for anything sexual outside of marriage and have branded both pornography and erotica part of the decline of civilization as we know it. The disgust of many feminists including icon, Gloria Steinem, toward pornography is palpable. Steinem went as far as calling pornography a male-on-female crime and declared, “Pornography is tantamount to female slavery. It’s all about passive dominance and pain." In her writings, Ms. Steinem argued men held all the cards in the pornographic world. "Blatant or subtle, pornography involves no equal power or mutuality. In fact, much of the tension and drama comes from the clear idea that one person is dominating the other."
  

Many of my friends and classmates felt Ms. Steinem’s comments ignored the role women played in the adult film industry, both in front of and behind the camera. The media often portrays porn producers as sleazeballs with greasy ponytails and oversized pinkie rings, but women are often the prime movers behind adult films.  Those who hate pornography also ignore the very real world of gay pornography. When asked about same-sex pornography, Ms. Steinem  wrote, “Whatever the gender of the participants, all pornography including male-male gay pornography is an imitation of the male-female, conqueror-victim paradigm, and almost all of it actually portrays or implies enslaved women and master."


Perhaps I might agree if pornography only involved an unwilling woman forced to gratify male desires, but I found the issue more complicated than Ms. Steinem did. Pornography, at least pornography with a story, often folds into erotica and romance. There is plot, dialogue, characters, and often, a happy ending.  Erotica aimed at the female audience is usually on the written page as opposed to centerfolds and videos. Women, it seemed, prefer to read their erotica rather than just look at it. While men often use their “little” head when it comes to titillation, women use their “big” head to visualize their pleasure.  The whole conqueror-victim argument went askew when I read BDSM erotica written by women. The class dissected Story of O, the famed French novel written by Anne Cécile Desclos, a French author, translator, editor, and journalist best known by her pen name, Dominique Aury. While I had issues with the masochistic sex, the whips, chains, masks, and brandings, some women found it titillating and ignored feminists who scolded them for enjoying it.


Anne Rice wrote about the domination of men and women in her Sleeping Beauty trilogy. She wrote detailed passages of rape, group sex, bisexuality, whipping, branding, and humiliation subjected to her characters, both male and female. When she first published the trilogy, Rice went through heated battles with the BDSM community. Critics put off by the sexual acts accused Ms. Rice of depravity. Still, the trilogy, which included The Claiming of Sleeping Beauty, Beauty's Punishment, and Beauty's Release, became her most successful work outselling Interview with a Vampire. Readers ate it up and Rice recently announced a planned fourth book in the series.


The whole male/female domination thing got more confusing when the class read best-selling romances written for a female audience. The flowery language was never graphic, but the authors got her (with few exceptions, romance writers are female) point across. Big, well-endowed studs dominated the feisty heroines, who, at some part in the novel, felt a stirring in their nether parts and damned their bodies for betraying them. The storylines often included the hero humiliating and spanking the heroine for being a headstrong wench, and topped it off with a full-on rape that ended with the saucy female protagonist’s massive, teeth-shattering climax. The hero suddenly realizes he loves his passion pot and they ride, drive, sail, or gallop off into the sunset. The violence seemed acceptable for generations of readers and kept women titillated. Younger writers emerged and raised the bar as far a sexual content with powerful, non-virginal female protagonists who claimed their sexuality.

The internet changed the dynamics of pornography, erotica, and erotic romance. Adult content sites opened with amateurs and lovers of pornography didn’t have to visit sex shops or order DVDs, and enjoyment became as close as their computer screen. Adult videos and on-line pornography still has more male fans than women; the percentage is roughly 72% male, 28% female, the reverse of the 70% female and 30% male who read romance; however, statistics are fluid and subject to change.

There has been a sea change in the past few years on how women view pornography.  It’s a possible reflection of the soft-core content of many shows on premium cable television and the accessibility of erotica on notebooks and cell phones. The erotic romance, Fifty Shades of Grey, like the other provocative books, Beautiful Bastard, and Gabriel’s Inferno, started as Twilight fan fiction and attained its initial success as an e-book. Fifty Shades of Grey made publishing history, spawned dozens of imitators, put erotic romance on the map, and is a major motion picture franchise. Sylvia Day’s Crossfire series attracted millions of readers, as did works of a number of new writers who have pushed the erotic envelope. Even Gloria Steinem has noted a place for erotica. She wrote, “Erotica is as different from pornography as love is from rape, as dignity is from humiliation, as partnership is from slavery, as pleasure is from pain. I want to pass a newsstand and see erotica, real erotica, which has to do with love and free choice, not pornography." 

I personally think women like looking at erotica as well as reading erotic romances. Cable shows like episodic and popular, Outlander have put erotica on the map. The drama has millions of fans worldwide and features nudity, simulated sex acts, sleek cinematography, and seductive music. The producers of Outlander created content for a largely female audience and since then others have taken up the niche. Cinemax broadcast Co-Ed Confidential, a 13-episode, college-themed sex series and the erotic urban writer, Zane, has created her own niche with Sex Chronicles, graphic adaptations of her short stories also on Cinemax. She was involved in the adaptation of her erotic novel Addicted.  A number of successful erotic romance authors have announced bringing adaptations of their novels to premium cable. 

The difference between erotica and erotic romance is a profound one. Erotic fiction often presents multiple characters in a sexual context. Erotic romances focus on one couple, usually a successful alpha male and the woman who is instantly attracted to him, one he grows to love. The authors often write in the first person from the female’s point of view and the sex is always consensual. The sexual descriptions and language can be extremely graphic, the carnal couplings on every other page, yet successful writers make sure the majority of the sexual encounters occur between the protagonist and the object of her/his desire. In addition, the erotic passages include emotion, and the story is the development of romantic love. Like all romances, they must have a happy-ever-after-ending with the couple pledging their undying love. 

Premium channels have been upping the sexual factor on their higher-profile series. Shows such as HBO's True Blood, Game of Thrones, and Big Little Lies feature nudity and sex scenes more explicit than an NC-17 movie with a theatrical release. Though producers haven’t created these shows for a female audience, with the explosion of best-selling erotic romances, who knows what we’ll see on cable in the future? 


Perhaps, sex-friendly feminist, Camille Paglia said it best. “If you live in rock and roll, as I do, you see the reality of sex, of male lust and women being aroused by male lust. It attracts women.  It doesn’t repel them.”

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