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?
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.
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.
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?
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?
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.
be they similar to mine or precisely the opposite!