It is tempting to think that the difference between erotica and pornography is one of scale. The idea is that erotica is subtle, suggestive, evocative. Pornography is blatant, full-on, leaving nothing to the imagination.
As Isabel Allende wrote: “Erotica is using a feather; pornograpy is using the whole chicken.”
Common Sense Definition
This idea makes intuitive sense. But is it right? Using a feather isn’t so much erotic as just teasing. And using the whole chicken, well, depending on the condition of the bird that is either illegal and immoral, or else a waste of a good dinner. The definition sounds amusing. But is it helpful?
On this line of reasoning, if you imply, suggest, and skirt around the subject of sex, then you are being erotic. If you are clear about exactly what is happening, that is porn. In other words, there is somehow less sex involved in erotica than pornography.
But is that really the difference? Erotica is just watered down, low-calorie, decaffeinated, low-fat, half-way porn?
If you obscure the view of sex does that make it erotic? Not at all – it might just make it boring.
If you hint at something, is that somehow more interesting than showing or describing it? Not necessarily.
How We Define Erotica
As far as our stories are concerned, however, the difference is not about how obvious or explicit any given act might be. In fact, if we start discussing sexual acts as the basis for our definition we are immediately making an assumption – that the act itself is what matters. And there, we’d suggest, is the real distinction.
Pornography is all about what, exactly, one person does to another (or what multiple people do to each other). Pornography is about the act, the mechanics – the “what” of the situation.
For us, erotica, on the other hand, is about the people. It isn’t so much what they are actually doing, but who they are, what the situation is, how they react. In other words – it’s about the “who”.
That is not to say that erotica involves fully-formed, realistic characters. To create erotic situations requires characters who will react and act in certain ways, to keep the story interesting, the interactions arousing, the action moving. Nobody would want realistic, typical characters in erotica – any more than you’d want to replace the heroes of an action movie with their real-life analogues. But the characters have to be both plausible and interesting, so that the reader engages with their stories and their experiences.
In porn, by contrast, people rarely expects to engage with the characters. There may occasionally be some sense of context or a scene, but in porn the vast majority of female “characters” are basically either “the woman who really really wants it” or “the woman who isn’t sure that she really wants it, but then decides that she really really does”. If that was as far as we went with characterization in our stories, they would be failures as erotica.
By contrast, if our stories were slightly more or slightly less explicit, they would still be erotic.
So, we might describe acts in considerable detail – and we often do. But that is not what makes stories interesting. Erotic fiction becomes interesting because of the people, and the situations that they find themselves in. For pornography, it is enough to depict actions. For erotica, we have to focus on the people who are involved.