A pal of mine asked an interesting question once: what’s my definition of erotica, or of pornography? Other folks have been asked these questions, of course, and the answers have been as varied as those asked, but even as I zapped off my own response I started to really think about how people define what they write, and more importantly, why.
It’s easy to agree with folks who say there’s a difference between erotica and pornography. One of the most frequent definitions is that erotica is sexually explicit literature that talks about something else aside from sex, while porno is sex, sex and more sex and nothing else. The problem with trying to define erotica is that it’s purely subjective – even using the erotica-is-more-than-just-sex and porn-is-just-sex-analysis. Where’s the line and when do you cross it? One person’s literate erotica is another’s pure filth. Others like to use a proportional scale a certain percent of sex content– bing! – something becomes porn. Once again: Who sets the scale?
What I find interesting isn’t necessarily what the definition between erotica and pornography should be but why there should be one to begin with. Some writers I’ve encountered seem to be looking for a clear-cut definition just so they won’t be grouped together with the likes of Hustler and Spank Me, Daddy. While I agree that there’s a big difference between what’s being published in some of the more interesting anthologies, magazines and Web sites Hustler and Spank Me, Daddy, I also think that a lot of this searching for a definition is more about ego and less about literary analysis. Rather than risk being put on the shelves next to Hustler and Spank Me Daddy, some writers try to draw up lists and rules that naturally favor what they write compared to what other people write: “I write erotica, but that other stuff is just pornography. Therefore what I write is better.”
This thought process has always baffled me. First of all, it’s completely subjective. Who died and made you arbiter of what’s erotica and what’s pornography? It sounds like those drawing the line have something to prove to themselves, or hide from okay to hate pornography because what I write is erotica. More importantly, this little fit of insecurity opens the door for other people to start using your own definitions against you. Even a casual glance at the politics of groups out to ‘save’ us all from the evils of pornography shows that they will use any device, any subjective rule (otherwise known as ‘community standards’), any nasty tactic to arrest, impound, burn, or otherwise erase what they consider to be dirty words. You might consider yourself an erotica writer, and be able to show certain people that you are – or, more importantly, convince yourself that you are – but to someone else you’re nothing but a pornographer, just like the stories and writers from whom you’re trying to distance yourself.
So I don’t I’ll tell you that personally, I use all the terms pretty much interchangeably: Porn, erotica, smut, literotica, and so forth. You name it, I use it. Depends on who’s asking. If I’m writing to an editor or publisher, I use erotica. If I’m talking to another author, I playfully call myself a smut writer. If a Jesus Freak gets me out of bed with a knock on the door, I’m a damned pornographer. In my heart, though, I just call myself a writer because even though I write stories of butt-fucking bikers, lascivious cheerleaders, horny space aliens, and leathermen, I’m more turned on by trying to write an interesting story than what the story may particularly be about. Half the time I’m not even aware that what I’m writing is a sex story because I’m having way too much fun with alliteration, character, description, and plot! The fact that what I’m writing may appear in an anthology or book with erotic in the title has nothing to do with how I approach my writing: a story is a story no matter the amount or manner of the eroticism I may include. A good example of my commitment to writing, pure and simple, is that I use my M. Christian name no matter what I’m working on: science fiction, mystery, literary fiction, non-fiction, or even something with erotic in the title.
If there’s a point to all this, it’s that you’re in charge of your own definitions, but try and pay attention to why you define, or why you feel you should. Erotica, pornography, smut, dirty words – be proud of what you write but never ever forget that genres, labels, brands, and all the rest are meaningless. If you’re a writer, you write. And you get to call the fruits of your labor whatever you want because you created it.