I Know It When I Read It: Erotica vs. Porn

I was recently having a discussion with a writer friend about my efforts to write an erotic novella.  I noticed very quickly that whereas I always used the term “erotica”, she always said “porn”.  It rankled me.  Eventually I expressed my enranklement and she explained that erotica is just porn dressed up in a more marketable guise.

I beg to disagree.  I believe that there is a significant difference between the two genres, though there is a point at the extremes of both where they overlap.  This is not a judgment call or anything to do with morality, but simply that, as a writer, I have no interest in crafting porn, just as readers of erotica and readers of porn have different tastes and come to the page looking for different experiences.

Pornographic fiction and erotic fiction share one major thing in common: hot, graphic sex.  It’s my opinion that while in porn the sex is the reason d’etre, in erotica it is the icing on the cake, sometimes the filling as well, but never the whole cake.

In porn, there is a setting; a roadside bar, an office, a castle on the hill. There are characters defined by easily identifiable labels; bored housewife, rebellious biker, lonely traffic cop.  There is a very brief set-up; bored housewife stops at seedy bar and meets rebellious biker.  There is action; hot, graphic sex on a pool table.  That’s it.  Erotica has these things as well, of course, and depending on the style of the writer and the subgenre, these elements are developed and complicated to varying degrees.  In erotica, the setting becomes a more richly detailed world designed to heighten the senses and provide both opportunity and challenges.  The characters become actual people that transcend labels. They have lives beyond looking for sex. They have complications and maybe as many reasons to avoid their destined mate as to jump their bones.  There’s not only action, but plot.  Here things really diverge. In porn, there is very little resistance between contact and coitus.  Readers of porn aren’t interested in watching characters overcome obstacles to be together. As a matter of fact, I’d guess the reason they prefer porn is that they are tired of obstacles and just want to have fun. Porn is lust at first sight. Complications, if they exist, involve questions like “how many bikers will this pool table support?” not “if I have sex with this stranger, will it be the end of my marriage?”

Essentially, erotica offers two major elements that porn does not: Romance and suspense.  By romance I mean a developing relationship at the core of the story.  By suspense I mean obstacles, doubts and delays that get in the way of the romance, or in other words, the grand human mess that is human intimacy.  Erotic fiction ranges from pure fantasy to gritty reality, but always, there is some element of that most delightful state of being: anticipation.  You might scoff and say there’s no suspense in romance because we know damn well who’s going to boff who.  Well, that’s just like saying there’s no suspense in your average mystery because we know the detective will solve the crime.  The suspense lies in the journey. What twists and turns shall we endure? What challenges will the lovers face? How often will their fatal flaws get in the way? Will X panic when he falls in love with Y? Will Y go back to her old boyfriend, or run away with Z?  It’s all deliciously complicated, frustrating, and if done well, arousing.

And speaking of sex.  Porn goes straight for the hot sex with a sprinkling of story on the side. In erotica, it is the story that makes the sex hot.  It hardly matters who does what with which parts, or how large or slippery those parts are. The reader has already slid beneath skin of the characters and ridden out the storm with them. The sex will be hot!

I believe that we all dream of that perfect mate, that awesome, mind-blowing connection with another human being. That’s what erotica offers that porn doesn’t.  The purely realized fantasy of love achieved, love expressed in its rawest form; hot, graphic sex. Dirty sex. Kinky sex. Sad sex. Angry sex.  There is physical bliss but there is also emotion. Doubt. Fear. Longing. Rejection. Joy. Erotica removes sex from the realm of simple fantasy to that of complicated fantasy. Characters in erotica earn their orgasms, by golly.

Maybe I’m splitting hairs, but in this world we market and shop in, labels are important. While I might click on a book labeled erotica, I’d never click on one labeled pornography.  So maybe my friend is right? Maybe it’s all just lipstick and fishnet stockings and fooling the search engines?

Call me a romantic, but I don’t think so.