You can, right now, walk into a bookshop and pick up some explicit pornography. It's not a new thing - the Marquis de Sade has been welcome on people's bookshelves for quite some time, despite the sex acts in his books being far more shocking than what you'd find on PornHub. Yet the word 'porn' is rarely applied to the written word. Authors and sex bloggers like myself are elevated to a higher status via the means of the word 'erotica.'
There are certainly some erotica writers who are uncomfortable being labelled 'porn' - even some who'll try to actively distance themselves from the people who get aroused by their writing. Last year erotica author Geraldine O'Hara explained her relationship to her writing in tones of pearl-clutching outrage:
"Oh, I write it, of course. But I'd never think about doing it."
As if there's something inherently wrong with her readers for enjoying the exact thing she makes a living from. But why would that be uncomfortable for a writer? If I write an explicit scene about getting spanked at a fetish party, chances are I want people to enjoy it in exactly the way I do: I want them to get hot over the sensations, understand the desire to do these things and - yes - get sexual release if that's their kind of thing too.
So what's the difference between porn and erotica? It depends on who you ask. Ask someone who's never read any erotica and they'll probably tell you that erotic writing is less graphic than the videos you'd see on screen. Ask an erotica fan and they may say that with words you can explore far more than you can on camera - conjuring semi-impossible bucket-list fantasies, or introducing body types, creatures and scenarios that defy the laws of biology and physics.
Visual porn has somehow become synonymous with 'dirty' or 'bad' - many assume that because it is arousing, arousal is all porn has to offer. Erotica on the other hand is seen as more substantial - it can be wrapped up in a love story like 50 Shades of Grey, or deeply political like Erica Jong's Fear of Flying. Yet I'd argue that those who see this divide have probably not watched much porn. Or at least, not much good porn. There are many amazing porn producers - ethical, feminist, radical producers - making porn films with a message as well as a money shot. Porn that challenges the status quo, features people with diverse body types, and showcases fascinating kinks. If there really is a political difference between porn and erotica, then these producers might argues that it's erotica which needs to raise its political game.
What's left then, to distinguish porn and erotica? Gender, perhaps? I've had this debate with people before, and they've argued that the key difference between erotica and porn is that men prefer pictures and women prefer words. I used to believe this myself, until I realised that's ridiculous: different individuals have a startlingly diverse array of pornographic tastes. It's hard to untangle exactly what people prefer because our society is so geared up towards selling one thing to guys and the other to girls. Porn site adverts almost universally assume that the viewer is a man, despite the fact that 24% of PornHub's viewers are women. And despite the assumptions made my advertisers who approach my site, sex writing isn't just for girls: 60% of the people who visit my sex blog are men.
So what's the real difference between erotica and porn? Not much, really, although the veneer of respectability afforded to erotica means I'm less likely to be censored than my colleagues with cameras. I can write an explicit, real-life BDSM scene in which I'm whipped in a deliciously hot way, and because I've wrapped it in a cool love story I won't get a letter from the government. My friend Pandora Blake, on the other hand, who makes ethical spanking porn, had her site ordered offline by the regulator for scenes far less intense than the ones I describe in my book.
Porn is material created with the explicit purpose of turning people on: it's a genre of art and entertainment like any other. If we were talking here about romance, we wouldn't make such a significant distinction between those who made movies and those who wrote books. With porn, as with any other genre, some people use a camera to capture their story, and others use words.
So call it what you like, but I call it porn.Suggest a correction