The Naked Maja (c. 1800–1803) by Francisco de Goya.

The hoopla around the Fifty Shades Trilogy has quieted down, although I suspect that as soon as the movie version is near, it will all start again. That book series got people talking and writing about erotica versus pornography.  That is a topic that comes back every few years and has been coming back for a few thousand years.

One article I was reading said that when women use explicit materials, they choose erotica. When men and women look at materials together, they tend to look at erotica, but when men look at materials alone, they look at pornography.

But what is the difference?

Erotica (from the Greek “eros” meaning desire) is any artistic work that deals substantively with erotically stimulating or sexually arousing subject matter. That sound pretty close to pornography – except for the artistic part.  All forms of art may be considered erotic – painting, sculpture, photography, drama, film, music or literature.  Erotica has aspirations to be art. Pornography might aspire to make money.

But didn’t the Internet change that? I am making the assumption that most of the pornography viewed today is viewed online. I am also assuming that there is enough of it available for free that the sales of commercial pornography have probably fallen in the past few decades.

But even if sales are not down, there is a huge amount of just photographs available on legitimate and popular websites like Tumblr and Flickr that would be termed either erotica or pornography.

How do we distinguish between the two?  The painting The Naked Maja by Francisco de Goya is high-art and I don’t think any modern viewers would call it pornography. Would Édouard-Henri Avril, a painter who also did illustrations for erotic literature under the pseudonym Paul Avril, be considered an artist of erotica or a creator of pornography?  His illustrations may not be as high of an art as Goya, and they depict a bit more of men and women in the sexual act. Does that move the line towards porn?

I looked for a few definitions of these terms online. Pornography gets descriptions like “graphic”, “sexually explicit” or “meant to arouse a quick, intense reaction” and it is often coupled with negative adjectives like exploitative or degrading. I’m not going to defend porn. But my curiosity is the line that erotica crosses to become porn. What is at the edge?

An older definition of erotica might have included terms like “nonviolent, non-degrading, consensual” and a newer term in the definition might be “intimacy.”  While pornography seems to consciously ignore interpersonal connections, erotica tends to focus on it.

I really have not read a page of any of the Fifty Shades books – although my wife did and I could grab her Kindle if I wanted to.  You see the phrase “Mommy porn” attached to it and other books and that seems to have a lot to do with relationships.

What if you write a story with some porn staples, like multiple partners and S&M, but add into the context of a committed relationship? Does the relationship turn the porn elements into erotica?

Men have been told for centuries not to expect to understand women, but one thing that some of these articles tell me is that women’s physical arousal and mental arousal are two different things.  Unlike for men, where the two are pretty closed in sync, women can be mentally but not physically aroused, or vice versa.

Painting by Édouard-Henri Avril.

Édouard-Henri Avril (1849 – 1928) French painter and commercial artist.
Under the pseudonym Paul Avril, he was an illustrator of erotic literature.

Another couple of generalizations I took away from reading some very unerotic articles about erotica are that it tends to be positive something that might be considered pornographic when viewed alone, could be seen as erotic if viewed with a partner.  Context again.

Men might see viewing or reading this content as an act within itself. But women might see it as a way to improve their sexual relationships in another separate act.

It is so confusing.

So, if you look at images tagged by their owners as “erotica” on Flickr, you will get a wide range of things – some of which I would define as erotic and some that I would tag as porn.  Some of it I wouldn’t term as either. (I was told that you get more explicit results if you have an account and are logged in. Not sure about that.)  How much of that reaction is context and how much of that is just me?