The following was originally written twenty years ago as a report on a pornography panel discussion. The commissioning editor in Montreal, where the talk took place, never used it, but in 1999 I revived the article as one of my Onlooker columns for the Nation newspaper in Barbados when I faced challenges getting my first graphic novel into the country. Attractive Forces was classified as pornography, not as erotica or literature, by the government. More recently, the head librarian at the community college where I teach part-time in Barbados declined to shelve my prose erotica collection, Intimacy 101. She cited as deciding factors its explicit sexual content, the present conservative climate, and the fact that some students on campus were not yet 18. Whatever form they take, both erotica and pornography are still so misunderstood by critics. Writers like Alan Moore, whose work I admire, enjoy and respect, may argue, “Difference? What difference? It’s all about sexual expression, isn’t it?” But that remains the question.
On March 14, 1994, The McGill Daily sponsored a panel discussion on pornography and censorship labelled “Sex in the Media.” Not a Love Story: A Film about Pornography was shown prior to the discussion in one of the campus’ auditoriums.
The panel included Jacques Boivin, the illustrator of the erotic comic book Melody, Susan Dwyer, at the time teaching Philosophy at McGill University, and the late Emru Townsend, the editor of the animation magazine fps, who was billed as a “pornography researcher.”
During the discussion, the panel was asked by the audience to state the difference between pornography and erotica. The panellists had very individual definitions, so the distinction became a sticking point.
In answering the audience, Townsend noted how difficult it was to categorize the two because “one person’s pornography is another person’s erotica.”
This is true enough. We need only look at two celebrated cases for proof.
In 1922, James Joyce’s Ulysses was banned in the United Kingdom under the Obscene Publications Act. Six years later, Lady Chatterley’s Lover by D.H. Lawrence faced similar charges.
Today, these books are considered classic works of art. But at the time of their publication scenes of raw sensuality and sexual reverie in each were considered more than objectionable by the authorities—they were considered pornographic.
I don’t believe in censorship per se. I believe in the responsibility and accountability of the artist to his or her work. I believe in recognizing a work for what it is. I even believe in the advocacy of good taste.
But censorship is not my immediate concern as an artist, and Townsend’s reply was not the whole truth. Censorship is a by-product of the issue, not the issue itself.
My concern is that the issue has yet to be properly addressed.
Pornography and erotica are distinct. Each depicts sexual scenarios; the difference lies in the way sex is depicted and the action’s intent.
Pornography engages the body, demands an undeniable physical response. Erotica engages the mind as well as the body, emphasises the pleasure in the pursuit of the response.
Put another way, pornography cuts to the chase, goes straight for the jugular; erotica is the chase itself, aiming deeper, perhaps for the heart.
Pornography, it seems, is built on fantasy, on the unreal made, admittedly, outrageous flesh. Erotica seems more attainable, more doable, or at least closer to what we’d all want with our partners if they’d give it to us. Certainly, in comparison to pornography, erotica is the genre most aligned with life because of its quest for actual sexual love as opposed to fickle romance. Pornography, with its literal focus on the man’s withdrawing from the woman (or vice versa), is rather, to be harsh, anti-life.
The difference between pornography and erotica, then, is not unlike the difference we often claim between “having sex” and “making love,” and is reflected in the production of either: almost anyone can write pornography, very few can honestly write erotica.
Someone once said there are three sides to the truth: my side, your side and what really happened. It’d be useful to find out what’s really happening, especially in an age when ease of access to all things sexual may be confused with sexual awareness or maturity.
More debate is needed on the difference between pornography and erotica; rational, passionate, articulate debate that focuses on the issue without losing itself in its own rhetoric or ideology or dogma. Let’s talk about what we really want to talk about, whether or not we are alone in our preferences or prejudices, whether or not the way we feel is “good” or “bad,” healthy or harmful, to us or others.