Some time ago I was asked to define the difference between erotica and pornography. An author was struggling to write one while avoiding the other.
It’s a subject charged with misunderstanding and misinformation. It’s also highly subjective. But it might be worth exploring it as it also may prove quite revealing (if you’ll pardon the inference) about a number of central matters relating to writing.
Contrary to some expectations, the difference doesn’t break down easily across educational lines — in other words, it’s not that educated people prefer erotica and uneducated people go for porn. I’ve known extremely intelligent, well-schooled people with a passion for pornography, and totally unschooled, low IQ people who prefer erotica. Perhaps more interestingly, when the subject comes up (which isn’t often), many people of all types like both at different times— and that gives us our first clue.
In the popular imagination, usually, pornography is ‘stronger’ than erotica, in that it contains more direct imagery. It is often simply a direct description of sexual activity, in graphic and realistic terms, whereas erotica tends to use inference, images and even symbols to depict sexual actions or to imply them. I once read a definition of pornography as ‘anything you fast forward through to get to the best bits’ — again, that leads us somewhere.
Erotica is any depiction (visual, tactile, aural, olfactory, and so on) that elicits — or tries to elicit — a sexual response of some kind, usually muted. It’s possible, then, to read a piece of erotica and misinterpret or miss entirely the erotic element. The more suggestive and explicit the material gets, the greater the possibility of the material being perceived as pornographic (crude, dirty, immoral, or obscene, depending on the reader’s moral code).
I think it was Oscar Wilde who suggested that there is no such thing as an erotic-pornography continuum: there is only excellently rendered versus poorly rendered sexually stimulating material. Which of the types is which? That leads us back to the trail: either erotica is poorly rendered because it skips around the subject and stays partly symbolic, or pornography is poorly rendered because it is too crude. The trail is revealed by the simple question ‘Is the intention of the material to prompt sexual stimulation or sexual release?’
If the intention is to prompt sexual stimulation, this is a Venn diagram circle which is mainly composed of erotica — sexually suggestive, symbolic, evocative, drawing the reader into an embrace; if the intention is to prompt sexual release, this is a circle which is mainly composed of pornography — sexually explicit, non-symbolic, direct, drawing the reader to a physical climax. Where the Venn diagram circles overlap we have the pornography which drifts towards the non-explicit (and so often fails as pornography while succeeding as eroticism) and erotica which drifts towards the explicit (and so often fails as erotica while succeeding as pornography). Perhaps there is a continuum after all.
All very subjective, of course, so feel free to disagree. Add to this the generally irrational and electric attitudes accumulated around the whole subject and you have the tricky topic more or less covered. For an author trying to avoid pornography, the answer becomes relatively simple: stay away from anything prompting physical release and remain in the realm of the suggestive and symbolic. Keep in mind the intention to draw readers into the general field of sexuality rather than the physicality of sexual release, and all should be well.