Erotica comes from the Greek god of love and sex, Eros. According to the author, Aristophanes, Eros fathered humanity.
“Firstly, blackwinged Night laid a germless egg in the bosom of the infinite deeps of Darkness. And from this, sprang the graceful Love (Eros). He mated in the deep Abyss with dark Chaos. Thus hatched forth our race, the first to see the light.”
Eros is human creation. Through him, humanity rises from darkness to light. Erotica, then, is the symbolic form of Eros’s holy creation.
What Is Porn?
In 1857, an English medical journal borrowed the word from its Greek origin. The publication called a growing increase in British prostitution “pornography.”
Soon after, sexual images uncovered in Pompeii shocked the British aristocracy. In their minds, Britain was the height of Roman culture. The uncovered art, though, exposed a dark underbelly beneath their righteous exterior.
In reaction, Victorian authorities created the world’s first “obscenity” laws. They targeted a wide range of erotic art.
What is the Modern Definition of Porn?
Today, pornography is “material (such as books or a photograph) that depicts erotic behavior.”
In 1964, former US Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart added a legal perspective to the definition. He wrote, “I know it when I see it”
In the end, two common themes emerge from modern definitions of porn.
Very simply, porn’s mission is sexual arousal for the sake of profit. In contrast, porn’s identity is not so clear.
In the end, the difference between porn and erotica is very subjective. As a result, standards vary. For example, one community might classify a book containing sexy scenes as literature. A different community might find the same book to be offensive and, in reaction, condemn it.
What’s the Problem with Porn?
Essentially, pornography reduces the human body to a few sexually charged parts. In particular, porn reduces women to one dimensional sexual characters dominated, most often, by men.
At its best, pornography increases sexual pleasure. In some cases, porn offers important sex education for mature adults. Joan Price’s work with porn star, Jessica Drake, for instance, is a prime example.
At its worse, Nicholas Kristoff writes, porn promotes sexual assault. For example, leading porn sites profit from “child rapes, revenge pornography, and ‘spy-cam’ videos of women showering,” In addition, they also post “racist and misogynist content.” Most alarming, “a search for ‘girls under18′ or ’14yo’ leads in each case to more than 100,000 videos. Most aren’t of children being assaulted, but too many are.”
Unfortunately, Erotic art suffers from porn’s considerable negative shadow. It touches everything from classic sculpture to serious film. As a result, erotic literature is most often found in the porn section.
From our perspective, erotica and pornography are very different.
How Is Erotica Different from Pornography?
Again, think of Michelangelo’s timeless sculpture, David. What was the artist’s purpose?
Ironically, the answer says more about us than it says about the artist’s work. After all, Beauty is in the eye of the beholder.
A similar sculpture, The Spirit of Justice, stands in the US Department of Justice main lobby. In 2002, Attorney General, John Ashcroft, covered her figure with an $8,000 taxpayer funded drape . Clearly, the religious AG did not appreciate the statue’s beauty. Sadly, he could not see past her naked breast.
Yes, Beauty might reside in the eye of the beholder. The power to define what we see, though, often rests in the hands of a few.
How Did Erotica Fall from Grace?
Originally, the Eros creation myth combined sexuality with graceful love. In contrast, the tale of Adam and Eve represents sexuality’s fall from grace.
For many, the biblical narrative is a familiar one. Initially, Adam and Eve exist shamelessly naked with each other in the Garden of Eden.
God tells them not to eat an apple from the Tree of Knowledge. As if on cue, temptation appears in the form of a seductive, phallic snake. The snake convinces Eve to pick an apple from the tree. Regretfully, Eve convinces Adam to taste the forbidden fruit.
God, as a result, isn’t pleased. Adam and Eve, suddenly self-conscious, scurry away to cover their nakedness. The Almighty condemns the snake to eat dust. Next, Eve is cursed to “marital subservience and the pangs of childbirth”. Finally, Adam is castigated “to a life of toil and sorrow.”
Humanity’s suffering, unfortunately, doesn’t end there. Needless to say, sex doesn’t fare well in the face of God’s vengeance, either.
How Did Eden’s Shame Spread?
On a mission to find gold in Asia, Christopher Columbus bumped into the Caribbean basin. In his words, he found “Heaven on earth.” The Taino inhabitants were beautiful people. They displayed fundamental Christian behaviors. For instance, they graciously shared all they possessed with their uninvited guests. To Columbus’s surprise, they asked nothing in return. Best of all, they enjoyed a life of plenty in an Eden-like pristine tropical paradise. And they did so naked and without shame.
Columbus was impressed. The Taino not only embodied the best of Christian principles but they were very smart. Remarkably, they repeated back whatever Columbus said to them. Despite all he witnessed, Chris claimed that the Natives had no religion. Yet, he also wrote that they greeted him with cries of “Come, come, see the men from Heaven.”
After baptizing the lost native souls, the Spaniards recreated their own version of Adam and Eve. In the Columbus version, though, they expelled the Taino from Eden. Spreading God’s word, the Columbus gang pillaged paradise. First, they raped the women. For good measure, they chopped off the hands of those who did not bring required offerings of coveted gold.
In the end, the Europeans savaged Eden with a full blown pornographic spectacle.
Columbus Was Only the Beginning
Wherever Europeans went, tragically, they staged an edited version of Adam and Eve’s fall from grace. Their version of the travelling morality play, though, featured a different cast. In the new version, the white guys starred in the roles of snake and vengeful God. Meanwhile, native inhabitants played the expelled sinners condemned to a life of cruel “toil and sorrow.”
Consequently, Europeans stole native bodies, offspring, labor and lands.
Sex, once domain of loving Eros, became a tool of colonial power and oppression.
Is Pornography Racist?
How did civilized Christian European imperialists justify their murderous actions? They created self-serving racist ideologies.
During the 16th Century, Portuguese sailors sailed the coast of West Africa, regularly. Over time, they observed unfamiliar native practices. They had no words to describe what they witnessed. As a result, they coined the term “fetish.” The sailors brought the word home with them when they returned. Eventually, fetish evolved into the Theory of Fetishism.
German philosopher Friedrich Hegel legitimized the theory. Applying it to African cultures, he concluded that Africans were incapable of “abstract thought.” Worldwide conquest of non-white cultures was, after all, a noble venture intent on civilizing “barbarous savages.”
French psychologist Alfred Binet, the creator of the IQ test, agreed. Not only did people of color have inferior brain capacity, but they were “uncivilized savages.” He was appalled by their public nudity and non-European sexual traditions. According to Binet, all Africans were racial and sexual “degenerates.”
Fetishism provided a handy ideological justification for Europe’s colonial sins.
Not to be outdone, the British spread racism and terror throughout their immense empire—from Africa to India to the South Pacific to Asia to America. Repressive “anti-sodomy” laws were a key component of British imperialism. Targeting Native cultures, the laws criminalized all “perverse” traditional sexual activity.
Clearly, the British legacy remains strong today. Yet, more than 80 countries still criminalize consensual sexual behaviors that lay outside white Christian norms. Not surprisingly, over half of those countries were once British colonies.
What is the Relationship Between Erotica and Freedom?
Modern pornography results from repressive historical roots. It mistakenly claims to regain lost freedom. Still, rather than break away from past practices, though, pornography reinforces them.
As Gloria Steinem points out, “pornography involves no equal power or mutuality.” In fact, “much of the tension and drama” is the result of “one person dominating the other.”
In contrast, erotica attempts to free sex and love from centuries of unjust treatment.
So What Is Erotica?
Erotica is art that celebrates the human story. It portrays sexuality as one of many normal activities. Erotica’s goal, in the end, is to return sex to its graceful origins. Logically, it begins by removing centuries of shame that hide its graceful essence.
Ultimately, erotica returns sexuality to its sacred partner, love.
Burton, Neel “The Meaning of Adam and Eve,” Psychology Today, March 28, 2017
Foucault, M., ‘Michel Foucault and the Repressive Hypothesis’, in Kuefler, M. (Ed.), The History of Sexuality Sourcebook (Toronto, 2007), pp. 404-405.
Grossman, Paul “Why Were Colonial Powers Interested in Sexuality?” Midlands Historical Review, March 5, 2018
Krisoff, Nicholas, “The Children of Pornhub”, NY Times, December 4, 2020
Lennox, Corinne and Waites, Matthew “Human Rights, Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity in the Commonwealth”
This Alien Legacy: The Origins of ‘Sodomy’ Laws in British Colonialism, December 17, 2008