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Words Carry Colors and Sounds into the Flesh, or: The Unexpected Virtues of Erotica
title: partial quote from Delta of Venus / Birdman. above: still from Nine and a Half Weeks

With Fifty Shades of Grey hitting theaters worldwide, articles on erotica and its many artistic manifestations have been published left and right, either condemning the film’s sexual content and the genre itself, or accusing it of being too tame, clamoring for more nudity and boldness. Upon reading such fundamentally different opinions, the following questions kept playing over and over in my head: what exactly is erotica? And how does it distance itself from pornography, or even a mere risqué romance?

There isn’t one clear, universal answer to any of these questions, no exact definition to put the whole discussion to rest. And so we’re often confronted with a conflicting use of such terms, which leads to basic misconceptions and ultimately makes it difficult to discuss each genre’s boundaries and principles. It’s still a very open and controversial discussion, so here are my two cents on the matter.

right: Prigione Di Lacrime by Roberto Ferri
Common definitions of erotica point towards material that elicits feelings of arousal, or simply that contains a considerable amount of sexually explicit content. I’d like to stay clear of these notions since I think they not only fail at capturing the essence of the genre by oversimplifying it,  but also place it dangerously close to pornography – something I consider to be entirely different.

Additionally, what titillates someone is so inherently subjective that it can’t possibly be the defining trait of a genre: just because I didn’t find certain stories in Delta of Venus arousing, doesn’t mean they’re not erotic; and though arousal may often be the author’s intent, that is a completely different thing and, by itself, still proves to be insufficient.

I’d go even further and say that it doesn’t even need to feature extensive nudity nor be overtly explicit, even though it usually is: it is simply a story that is permeated by sexuality; it can have elements of drama, romance, comedy, even thriller, but its core is always sexual.  

left: Catherine Deneuve in Belle de Jour. right: Eiko Matsuda in In the Realm of the Senses
If we think of it this way, a movie like Belle de Jour (1967) can be considered erotic despite its complete lack of nudity, since it is still essentially a story about a woman’s sexual identity and fantasies. On the other end of the spectrum we find movies like In The Realm of The Senses (1976), a Japanese art film that consists almost exclusively of sexually explicit and unsimulated sex scenes. Still, it doesn’t fall into the strictly pornographic, because it is infused with emotion: it is a story of sexual obsession, and ultimately, a tragedy. 
At this point we could say that not only does erotica have a sexual core, but also that said sexuality needs to be backed-up by some kind of reflection on the human condition, a search for beauty – and thus, it can be elevated to art. But this does not mean that the content needs to be positive.

There’s a clear, though sometimes forgotten line that separates fiction from reality, that distinguishes fantasizing about something from condoning it and actually pursuing it. It’s this very line that allows artistic expression to freely explore dark and perverse scenarios that are in real life deemed as immoral, or even criminally condemnable.

So in theory, artistic expression should know no boundaries as long as it remains fictional – if you trash someone and call it art, it’s still a crime – though naturally, everyone has their limits. I drew mine recently upon watching A Serbian Film. It had never happen to me before, but one scene in this movie was too simply much. Still, that’s my limit, and as much as it disgusted me, I believe it isn’t right to restrain the author – you shoot what you want, I’ll watch what I want, it’s kind of my motto on this matter.

yes, Nine and Half Weeks again because this movie is seriously clever, go watch it!

Sounds like a given in this day and age, and yet the Fifty Shades phenomenon showed just how polarized our society can still be on this subject. From those who can’t bring themselves to read it and are shocked by its mere existence (as if erotica hadn’t been around for centuries), to those who are repulsed and offended by its content (shouting accusations of misogyny and reprovable sexual desires), and even to those who actually think the story didn’t go far enough, there’s a range of opinions that, though refreshing in that they ignited a conversation that has been dormant for too long, can also be quite baffling and, in some cases, even worrisome.

In particular the wave of indignation and outrage (so common decades ago), which is inherently related to the that line that distinguishes reality from fiction. I’m not getting into wether the novels are misogynist or not (god knows they sloppily blur many, many lines), so admitting that, for the sake of argument, Christian Grey is an abuser, and because Anna, being infatuated and manipulated, can’t walk away from him, they develop a seriously unhealthy relationship – just how is that relevant to the novel’s merit or admissibility? 

left: Mads Mikkelsen in Hannibal. right: Jamie Dornan in The Fall

Considering it is a work of fiction, I can’t see the issue with having an immoral character in it, even if this male abuser is seen as sexually appealing by the audience. How many women find Hannibal Lecter as portrayed by Mads Mikkelsen in Bryan Fuller’s series attractive? A lot. And yet that guy is a cannibal – are we glorifying cannibalism? What about The Fall‘s Paul Spector (actually played by Jamie Dornan), a misogynist psychopath who gets off on strangling women and bathing them afterwards? I bet at least half the female viewers cried when he was shot. Is this show inciting crime against women?

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Same goes for the alcoholic philanderer Don Draper, the blood thirsty Eric Northman, the cocaine addict yuppie Patrick Bateman (hey, no judging), and that sleek son a bitch Jack Foley. Even Darcy was an insufferable snob before coming around – is their allure perpetuating male dominance? Encouraging female weakness, submission?

If you said yes to all these questions, please do share exactly how little grey matter you consider it takes to not be able to comprehend that these are fictional characters. I’m not saying that fiction can’t influence us to some extent – for some reason we still have age restrictions on movie watching, which should probably also be applied to books, by the way – but to say the complete opposite is simply offensive.

If countless adult women throughout history found male characters like these attractive at some level, it is because a part of them embodies a desire, a fantasy, wether we consciously know it or not. And there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that. Because just like creating a villain doesn’t make you one, finding an immoral (even misogynist) character sexy doesn’t make you any less of a strong woman. Same goes for scenarios of submission, or any other kind of unconventional fantasy women (or men!) might develop.

One of the most compelling reads I’ve stumbled upon recently was Nancy Friday’s My Secret Garden, which consists of a series of letters from various women sharing their sexual fantasies, and Friday’s own thoughts on the matter, bordering on a psycho-sociological analysis.

What you take away from its acceptance of sexual fantasies as a natural and even healthy outlet, can be thoroughly applied to erotica (in fact, they are mostly one and the same) as the fictional exploration of intimate desires and reflections on sexuality: that no matter its content’s nature, erotica is always empowering, never degrading; and it certainly can help you mature and become more attuned with your own sexuality. Shaming women for enjoying it is not only ignorant, it’s wrong – and there is where the real harm lies. 

share your thoughts on this subject below,
be they similar to mine or precisely the opposite!

View Comments (16)
  • Such a great post, Sofia! Truly sorry – I didn’t meant for this to be a novel. Just had so much to say after what you wrote! 😀

    It’s incredibly frustrating and entertaining with how the U.S. treats sex as some wildly new concept that no one has ever experienced before. None of my “friends” seemed to take into consideration my reasons when I told them I was reading/had read 50 Shades. Unless all three books have been read, it’s nearly impossible to talk about the series with others who are only focused on the negative criticism. I do not personally at all believe in the Christian and Ana’s relationship, as both characters are considerably messed up in my own interpretation; however it’s not place to condemn those who do and those who oppose the series. I just wish that women can be considered as more intelligent in what erotica is, means to them, and allow us our little fantasies (whatever they may be) not to be judged.

    • Right?! All this commotion around erotica feels terribly outdated. Women (and men!) would definitely benefit from a bit more knowledge on this, and less tabus/prejudices as well.

      Oh I don’t even try to understand the Christian/Anna relationship. I honestly think it goes through so many twists and turns that it ultimately just confuses me to the point where I don’t know what E.L. James was trying to say with those two. Maybe she just wanted to say they were a mess.

      Anyway, I do agree about accepting different opinions, but when it comes to people who want to “banish” it, or who shame those who enjoy Fifty Shades or even erotica in general, I can’t. Especially because even though I personally didn’t like the series, I think it’s great that so many people read it and probably kept on reading this genre. It’s essentially a good thing.

      Thanks Katy, I always love reading your thoughts and enjoy these little discussions immensely!

    • I agree, the media played a damaging role in making erotica/50 Shades seem like high school juvenile gossip. A lot of women I’ve come across took more from the series than sex, even if the erotica is what first attracted them. It’s a good thing that women have been able to assess what they want and can freely choose in what to read. It’s frustrating that men have so many avenues of “erotica” or porn, and women are essentially meant to feel like it’s foreign.

      The Christian/Ana relationship was very confusing to me too. I felt very blase after reading all three books. Most of the scenes I wanted to see adapted to were non-sexual and more of the “romantic scenes”. The actors did a great job for me, in a lot of regards because the books were…not good. There were some good elements I took away from them, but mostly they both had a myriad of psychological issues and making it up with sex.

    • And they were right to take more from it because the base story is actually interesting. In fact I feel the same way as you when it comes to the adaptation: I wanted it to explore a bit more relationship itself, and add some good character development to it.

      And it wouldn’t be any less erotic for that, quite the opposite, actually. I think a certain depth is what makes it sexy.

  • I love this post Sofia! I totally agree with you. I hate the whole “mommy porn” label as if it’s a joke that women can fantasize and have sex drives. I also feel like the more feminist ideal would be that women can read or watch a fictional story without it somehow changing their whole thought process on relationships. I can get through 50SOG without all of a sudden thinking any behavior is or isn’t acceptable.

    I’d love to hear your recommendations on well written erotica!

    • Thank you, Jess! Exactly, we can read fiction and keep it like that – we have brains, you know.

      So great to hear that, I’ll start working on a recommendations post soon, since the polls went well, too. It will be fun 😀

  • This is exactly what I was thinking when the whole situation about Fifty rose to the surface – abuse. Or for crying out loud, the media wants to blame everything on movies these days and it’s not like the problem has been around for ages. The fact that Fifty is seen as the erotica of our time is really really worrying to me because if a book doesn’t even manage to write the word “vagina” from the female perspective, then the book is a bad one. I can name 100 more reasons the book is wrong but portraying dominant sex won’t be one of them.

    After reading yoru lovely write up, I started to think about my own separation when it comes to erotica and pornography.. I think it’s similar to the distinction you made – erotica is more about the human condition, more about the feeling and emotion while pornography is stricklty about the physical act. Erotica in that way is more deep and can leave a better impact, probably why Fifty became so widley popular, women were getting attached to the idea of a dominant man.

    Ironically, all the characters you named, I find attractive and I don’t think this makes me a weak woman. I love men who are dominant, who take charge and don’t show their true emotions because that’s what I find attractive, the mystery, the unknown. I also seem to gravitate towards psychopaths but that’s just a weird side effect because most of the dominant men the movies and shows seem to give us are killers.. which is ridiculous.. surely there are dominant men who aren’t scarred, out there. Anyway.. this is a long ass reply but I mean, this is a very fascinating topic for me and I get carried away way too easily after a lot of coffee. 😀

    • Mettel, you know I love these comments, so please get carried away any time you feel like it!

      Oh god, the erotica of our time… it’s insulting to all the good authors out there. Fifty Shades is a testament to good marketing, pure and simple. It’s proof that you can be talentless, do shit, and still get filthy rich.

      It really doesn’t make you (or me, we’re on the same team here) any weaker liking those characters. I didn’t get into the real life thing, but even in reality I believe it’s entirely natural to feel attracted to a dominant man, and that that has nothing to do with our inner strength. In fact, and in relation to BDSM in particular, someone on Goodreads reviewed Story of O saying that there’s a clear difference between being sexually submissive, and submissive as a person – which is exactly right, since both are two perfectly separable sections of a person’s life.

      Even if a person is sexually submissive, that doesn’t make her weak, so to say the opposite in regards to a simple attraction or fantasy is just so stupid. Harmfully stupid, that’s why I think it’s important to not let this go so quietly. But considering the world we live in, it’s more than likely that no one will care. Thinking about these things is simply too much trouble.

      Oh about the psychopath thing – yeah, what’s up with that?! Can’t we have one strong male character that doesn’t hate us, wants to kill us or has a childhood trauma? Come on.

    • And I’m eager to please when it comes to these comments you seem to love!

      You know, after reading and commenting, I went straight to my own blog and drafted a post about dominant attraction. I was totally inspired by your post and I’m thinking, if I manage to finish and edit it into something half as clever as your take on erotica, I’ll post it next weekend.

      Anyway, I now have to adjust my post because the idea of sexual submission and actual submission is interesting. I kind of suggest in my post that women seek out dominent men because it is natural to feel attracted to men who are powerful. What ever the reason, 100 million copies of Fifty Shades is an indication that women love a dominant man, if not Grey then the idea of him.. though I guess his money is also part of the attraction but if I get into that then the damn post is going to be a 30,000 word discussion how material domination alters the preception of women into a point where they are blinded by things and money.

    • I’ve thought about the dominance thing from that perspective too, it’s very interesting. I’m sure there are studies on it around the web – checking them out is always helpful (and fun). To me it sounds totally natural too, the search for a strong mate. Today those hunting skills are probably some of the things you mention: financial stability, a superior job, intelligence, strength of character… power, in every sense of the word.

      And here’s a thought: because we know that this alpha-power isn’t related to a person’s worth, we’re probably more afraid to admit just how much we identify with this dominance thing. Obviously also because of the (erroneous) weak perception of women who do, which we talked about, but maybe also because of the values we’ve come to interiorize over the years.

      I thought of this because of your oscar post, where you talk about Redmayne and told him to basically man up? While I was reading it I thought that it isn’t right to demand that of him, or any man, but at the same time… I completely agreed. I can’t help it, weakness bothers me. I don’t find it attractive, at all. I can’t even be true friends with someone like that. I’ve only said this aloud twice, once to a friend, and once to family – the former agreed, the latter looked at me like I was a cold hearted bitch.

      So what I think is, just like people have the right to be who/what they want to be, we have the right to be attracted to who/what we want to and shouldn’t feel guilty for dismissing whatever characteristics we find attractive, even if we know it isn’t fair.

      I strayed a little. Anyway, I’m excited to read your post, you better finish it!

    • Oh man, I’m going to pretty much comment my whole post now (more or less) but I totally feel like women need a stronger mate. It’s, in my opinion, a biological need as women tend to seek out for the protector. It’s not because we are weak, it’s because we are wired that way, we want somebody to hold us and protect us, either it’s our mothers as we are children or it’s our male counterparts as we are grown women.

      Redmayne seemed like, sorry for the use of words here, a pussy when he received his award. It’s not a bad thing, sure, some women are the ones who feel the need to protect rather than being protected and that’s fine, it’s a difference in everybody I guess. But I find it repulsive in a way because I grave for dominance. If a man can’t show power and strenght over others while accepting praise, how can he dominate over me in the bedroom? And isn’t that what all people fundamentally think – about how that or that actor will be in the bedroom? Sure, it’s a bit shallow to think about men in a manner of sexual needs but hey, women have been sexualized since the beginning of time, so I can sexulize men if I want to.

      The thing that bothers me about the whole ordeal around Fifty Shades is the fact that people call it abusive and a sign of rape culture or something. Oh, please.. it’s simply a badly written fantasy where E.L. James just couldn’t think outside her narrow minded brain that the need to dominate and the need to be submissive isn’t based on abuse or rape, but a mere sexual desire that is embedded in the brain. We shouldn’t be throwing shade at the glamorization of abuse, we should be shouting that the book is written so badly it doesn’t even know what it’s trying to say!

      Oh man, now I’ve babbled my way into something I don’t even know how to summarize anymore. This topic is getting out of hand.. I have to rest for a while.. and rewrite my post now because I’ve got tons of new ideas and I need to shuffle them for a while.

    • YES to all of that, I wholeheartedly agree. The “wired that way” argument is a good one since for the most part I don’t think we control who we’re attracted to, or what we find attractive. Deep down. And moreover, I cannot for the life of me understand what some people find so wrong about all of this. We’ve become a society that demands that everything and everyone has to be accepted without reservation (unless it collides with something bigger, like in the case of Fifty Shades), you can’t prefer something or dislike that type of person. Every “group” needs to be protected from the slightest threat, even the ones that AREN’T REAL. But I don’t want to get into this new wave feminism right now, because then we’d never leave.

      I find the “glamorization of abuse” argument to be the most complex in the whole Fifty Shades discussion, and this is mainly because of how poorly the novels are written, yes. For there to be any glamorization there needs to be actual abuse in the first place, and that is simply not clear enough. Because the character development is a total mess. But even so, just the notion of a writer glorifying something is perverse because ultimately I think that this is something for the reader to take away from the novel, not the other way around.

      Anyway, if it does glorify anything, it’s the troubled-past syndrome – it appears we like our fictional men damaged. But that is completely common in romance novels. And when it comes to abuse, there are classics of the erotica genre that deal with atrocious acts that don’t even begin to compare to Fifty Shades, like 120 Days of Sodom, but it’s fine, because it’s just a freaking book. For some reason the concept of fiction seems to be really hard to grasp these days.

      This is all rather complex though, and I definitely need a break now, too! You do that, and maybe try and do some research in addition if you haven’t already, it can help a lot. There’s tons of stuff out there. A year ago or so I was looking for stuff on Patrick Bateman, from American Psycho, and I actually found a psychology essay that analyzed his character.

  • So I’m going to be the only one who doesn’t write a novel’s worth of a comment 😉 This is just such a great post, Sofia, and I feel very inspired to read more erotica fiction now. I actually always wanted to do some kind of personal read-a-thon but never did… Well, right now Game of Thrones will have to do, there’s some erotic stuff in there.

    I like your reasoning considering attractive characters in tv shows etc.- especially the Mads Mikkelsen one. It probably can’t get worse than being attracted to a cannibal but hey, who can resist that face (and those suits).
    Awesome work – I will share this all over 🙂

    • I’m working on that recommendations post, it should be posted in a week or so – hopefully that will help you pick the next novel!

      Oh yeah, we’re all for Hannibal even if he is a cannibal. It just goes to show how easy it is to separate things. Thanks again, Mette 😀

  • Excellent post! I haven’t read Fifty Shades of Grey, but the outrage over a work of fiction seems a bit antiquated. If women (or men) want to engage in such fantasies, I don’t see what the problem is. As you mentioned, they are fantasies, which are a form of fiction. Where’s the harm?

    • oh man, I completely missed your comment – sorry, and thank you!

      That’s exactly right, it’s like decades of fighting for free artistic expression were just erased from people’s minds. We’ve been over this already, guys.

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