It’s tempting to dismiss claims that erotica and porn are different as attempts by men to rationalise their viewing of sexualised images that objectify women. But is it that simple? What are the differentiators—if any—between the two?

Let’s start by asking an even more fundamental question. What is pornography?

The Oxford Living Dictionary defines pornography as ‘Printed or visual material containing the explicit description or display of sexual organs or activity, intended to stimulate sexual excitement.’ The English term originated in the mid-19th century—around the time the camera was invented—and derives from the Greek pornographos, ‘writing about prostitutes’.

Content and intent

So the term ‘pornography’ defines both content—sexual organs or activity—and intent—sexual stimulation. On that basis, erotica fails to differentiate itself from pornography on either or both of the latter’s definitions.

However, other tests can be applied. It should be remembered that the term ‘pornography’ was coined during the Victorian era, a time of extreme sexual prurience where even a well-turned table leg had to be covered with frilly lace lest it offend the local vicar or corrupt a fair damsel by prompting thoughts of a sexual nature.

It should be remembered that the term ‘pornography’ was coined during the Victorian era, a time of extreme sexual prurience where even a well-turned table leg had to be covered with frilly lace lest it offend the local vicar or corrupt a fair damsel by prompting thoughts of a sexual nature

Light and dark

Visually, erotica differs from porn in that the body—male or female—is often partly or even entirely in darkness. With porn, by contrast, the body—and definitely the female body—is always fully lit and often over-lit.

While some parts of the body, such as bums and breasts, catch the light, others—the female genitals in particular—shroud themselves in shadows. This creates a sense of mystery that increases stimulation not through what it reveals but what it hides.

Another visual differentiator is fun. Many genres of porn are built around the denigration and degradation of women. Even mainstream genres often feature images of women with a male hand around their throats, having their hair pulled or otherwise suggesting they are having sex against their will.

Playfulness

Erotica has none of that. Its images give a strong sense not only of consensual sex but also of mutual respect, joy and even fun. They often feature a playfulness that is absent or forced in traditional pornography.

The final differentiators between erotica and porn cannot be seen in the images, yet they are perhaps the most telling of all. In The Sex Myth, scientific researcher and former escort Dr Brooke Magnanti documents how, over the last decades, the ‘power in porn’ has shifted irrevocably from men to women. The days of male porn moguls are well and truly gone. Women control much of the income generated by the adult industry and are increasingly exercising creative control. And what they are filming has more in common with erotica than porn.

Spectrum

Whether you recognise a difference between porn and erotica will obviously depend on your own point of view. Personally, I don’t see them as two separate things, more like two ends of the same spectrum. Traditional male-created porn caters significantly to emotionally damaged male sexuality with its underlying violence and misogyny. Erotica represents a much healthier iteration of the collision between the camera and the nude body. In filming sex as in everything else, the more women are in charge, the more wholesome everything gets.