“You should get an agent! … why sit in the dark, handling yourself?” -Scott Walker, Bish Bosch.
Now there are a plethora of such opinion polls, studies and surveys investigating America’s relationship to pornography but very little committed to erotica. This is primarily because there is very little effort made by most academics to powerfully differentiate the terms. This is a shame because it is absolutely essential to have a embedded descriptor for upward moving sexual art. If the same question would have been asked but in place of “pornography” the words “contemporary romance novels” was inserted (which can be, by and large classed as erotica) instead, I guarantee the results would be far more favorable towards the medium. For one might put a adult romance novel out of sight of ones children but in familiar company one is unlikely to blush (especially woman who make up the vast market share of the romance fiction industry) given the mediums fundamentally Aphroditic qualities. Yet these very same individuals would be aghast to have a friend walk in on them watching the Dionysian displays of “hard-core” pornography; there is a very potent distinction here which bares further elaboration, a inherent impulse, instinctual and deeply rooted understanding of what constitutes a healthy and socially conducive sexual-artistic fabric, even if it is masked by hypocrisy. What hypocrisy? You might rightly ask. We’ll tackle that in part 3. – Dionysus or Aphrodite? The Porn/Erotica Distinction, Prt 2.
We last left off in our endeavor to better grasp the interplay between civilized society, porn and erotica by contemplating hypocrisy. The hypocrisy is simply this: Most sexually mature males and females watch pornography but most will either refuse to acknowledge this or declare that they do not watch pornography at all. Moreover, most individuals now, in some capacity, participate in pornography via the transmission of nude and lascivious photos and video over the internet. As of 2011, 1-in-5 teens had sent a naked picture of themselves at least once (according to studies conducted by the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy). According to a 2013 Pew poll only 12 percent of Americans who utilize the internet ever watch pornographic videos which, when factoring all known website aggregations for pornography consumption during this time period, means that around 88 percent of Americans lied to Pew (with women lying more significantly than men).
Yet readers of scintillating erotic fiction are more than happy to express their interest in the medium; the phenomenal popularity of Fifty Shades of Grey well attests to this peculiar demarcation. What is the difference between, say, ‡ Fifty Shades of Grey and the film, Riley Goes Gonzo 2?
On the surface they appear to differ only in two primary areas: 1. nature of the sex-acts shown, 2. narrative complexity.
The nature of Riley Goes Gonzo (RGG) is contained in the name as “gonzo” refers to pornography which attempts to place the viewer directly into “the action.” The filming style was credited to pornographer and porn “actor,” John Stagliano and is generally characterized by close-up shots of dangly bits, wobbly lumps and a total lack of narrative trajectory. RGG emulates this genre convention as the film is essentially just 5 sex scenes spliced together without any narrative coherence, there are no characters, just performers and nothing is really said other than occasional pillow-talk. There is not much in the way of aesthetic style other than a constantly flashing neon-overlay effect which achieves nothing other than the further devastation of the eyes. The intensive focus in the film was upon the moaning of the primary actress and the grunting of the male performers and the hammering-jig-sawing of body parts and splattering effluvia. A purely Dionysian exercise of pleasure seeking and the mind-obliterating ecstasy of wild and uninhibited sex; a total collapse of subject and object into one linear process. Sex not as process itself but only a portion thereof, the act of insemination but never the insemination, the man taking the woman but never the steps leading up to it nor the consequences thereof. The purpose of the piece: arousal and nothing else besides. The lustful act – in reality but a portion of the total process – now the totality.
Fifty Shades, though it received largely scathing literary reviews (Salman Rushdie famously said of the novel, “I’ve never read anything so badly written that got published. It made Twilight look like War and Peace.“) stands in stark contrast to the almost mechanical and orgiastic themes of RGG. Despite Fifty Shade’s sleazy, cheezy and all-around smultzy tenor, it has both a coherent narrative and fleshed-out characters (see what I did there) and the vaguest of “messages.” The story follows a young, shy college student by the name of Anastasia Steele who falls for a young, mysterious and wealthy magnate named Christian Grey who just also so happens to mentally troubled by his past relations and attempts to work through these problems through acting out BDSM fantasies (which are graphically described in the novel). The story is largely vacuous but has moments which touch upon the aberrant, yet exciting nature of sexual deviancy and the need to overcome past trauma.
It is this coherence of themes which primarily and markedly separates these two pieces of fiction. Both are sexually explicit (“hardcore”) but both are not thematically explicit, the latter attribute being intrinsically tied to the sense of the communal. It is difficult to say whether or not this point of demarcation constitutes the vector of divergence for social acceptability but it would be profoundly unlikely for it to have no bearing at all; clearly it does. For after all, both products are exceedingly concerned with explicit sexual acts, the primary difference, the central difference, is that Fifty Shades places the sex act within the context of a world where the act necessitates consequence outside of its own self-generative pleasure, whereas with the porn film, the self-generative pleasure is the measure of the world itself. It is then, within this framework, that shame builds itself, for the viewer instinctively knows that it is not “real sex” or “sex within the real world” and also understand that the shoring away of responsibility from the act itself necessitates a profound degree of narcissistic self-gratification (to say nothing of the time-spent in idle self-absorption), what we would posit as the focal source for the knee-jerk response to hardcore pornography usually expressed in the linguistic formulation of “tastelessness.” Taste, or aesthetic sensibility is a trajectory of being which originated and was further cultivated within civilized society and thus required a concern for the members of that very society; recall that our word “idiot” finds it origin in the Greek idiōtēs meaning, “private,” or “one’s own.” In Greek society those who refused or were unable to engage in public discourse were considered “idiotes” whereas the fruitful and engaged public were referred to as “polites.” The Latin arcanum, idiota, meaning, “layman” and then, later, “uneducated or ignorant person” as well as the French, idiote, are strikingly similar in their connotations. Both Latin and Greek societies looked upon the society in terms of gestalt, or the whole (more or less), with each component, working in tandem with their other component parts in order to form a more harmonious whole. One realized that one’s own well-being, standard of living, et-cetera, were all, largely, predicated upon their fellows upholding a similar vision and doing what was necessary to build upon and preserve it. With the passing of such societal and civilization norms and attitudes the sovereignty of the state gives way to the sovereignty of the individual and thus the sovereignty of discursive erotica gives way to anti-discursive pornography. The problem inherent in the hedonistic trajectory of pornographic consumption (other than its negative side-effects, which we will not here endeavor to elaborate upon) is the continuation of hermetic isolationism and further societal atomization which will, given sufficient time, render obsolete the very fabric, the very social essence, which gave rise to both the medium and the product as well as the ability to consume it.
We would thus submit that Dionysus’ dismemberment, by hands titanic, is long overdue.
‡ both filmic examples were chosen due to their popularity in their respective industries.