Erotic Interlude #7: If It's Not Important...Why?
By Hapax Legomenon

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When I met Lisa at a cafe, I expected feedback about the most recent story I showed her (Erotic Notion # 7: The Porn Star and the Choir Boy ). It was a harmless little piece, but Lisa wanted to talk about porn from a feminist perspective. (Did I mention she majored in Gender Studies?)

"Ultimately," Lisa said. "Erotica isn't important. It's just a retreat from the burdens of living."

"I wouldn't disagree," I said. "But that's true for all fiction. "

"No, literature is different from erotica," Lisa said. "Literature offers perspective and fresh insight into life as we know it."

"But many literary works have no social significance. Jack London or fairy tales are what they are – nothing else. Fun tales to keep you entertained."

"Then they have no value," Lisa said. "Fantasies ought to have value. Stories that are merely pornographic just trivialize sexuality."

"Sure," I said. "That's the point."

"You may say stories about the promiscuity of prepubescent girls are harmless, but they distract readers from sexual exploitation when it actually happens. Maybe porn doesn't cause sexual abuse (not in normal people anyway). But it undermines your sense of outrage. If you served on a jury during an aggravated rape case, and you had read or watched dozens of rape fantasies in your personal life, wouldn't that influence your unconscious attitudes?"

"Please," I said, "let's not talk about these things. It's a neverending debate."

"Why not? First, you say erotica doesn't have any positive value. Then you don't want to talk about harms. But if nothing is redeeming about erotica, why have it at all?"

I didn't have an easy answer here. When talking about porn and erotica, it's hard to have rational debate; I can talk only about what I feel. It seemed futile to try to construct a philosophical and sociological defense of erotic literature compelling enough to shoot down the sociological harms.

"Erotica," I said, "is simply a description of the sexual things we imagine, whether we are actively involved in them or simply a spectator to them. Then, these descriptions are molded, refined (and yes, censored) to produce experiences which not only titillate but leave an indelible mark on the brain."

"But the human brain can only store so much," Lisa said. "The time spent contemplating orgies is time the brain could be thinking about the Middle East or homelessness or ecological devastation. If I were homeless or hungry, how would erotica make a difference? Why would I care?"

"The homeless man might disagree. These sexual experiences (real or imagined) can be the only positive thing in his day. His erotic imagination could be his last remaining luxury."

"Maybe. But why should you write it? Your time would be better spent going to a social function or making human contact – real human contact – not the glistening hypothetical kind you find in fiction. Fundamentally, the act of writing an erotic story is an act of isolation. Masturbation and isolation. Why would you – or anyone else – do it?"

"That is a gloomy assessment, to put it mildly," I said, chuckling. "I suppose you could indict most artistic expression in the same way. Perhaps what justifies this isolation is the attempt to use stories to connect with society. Maybe some people just write for themselves, or maybe some intend to write for others without ever really succeeding. Writing erotica is an attempt to put the scariest and most irrational impulses into words. Writing (and rewriting) allow us to reformulate these impulses and yes, to humanize them. There are risks in using words to capture these secret thoughts. Yes, I admit that. But when you write, you are expressing confidence that humans can express or read about these things without turning into savages. It is this faith and optimism that ultimately redeems the erotic writer."

"Or ultimately what dooms him," Lisa said.

Written, August, 2006

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"When talking about erotica, it's hard to have rational debate; I can talk only about what I feel. "
Pollaiuolo, Daphne and Apollo,
Herbert Draper , Lamia, 1909
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