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The Dartmouth
April 20, 2024 | Latest Issue
The Dartmouth

'Erotica' and 'Pornography'

Whenever I talk to someone about a Dartmouth Film Society movie in the "Sex in the Cinema" series, there is an attempt to divide it up into erotica or pornography. Supporters claim that the movie was erotica, while those who are opposed to the screening of the movie dismiss it as mere pornography. The way in which the two words are used to justify or dismiss something that we like or dislike is symptomatic of a hypocritical society. It usually turns out that the person using these words to mean different things has little idea of how exactly they differ.

The most common claim is that erotica is a work of art, while pornography is not. First, anything that stimulates the senses is art (though those at the Dartmouth Review have a slightly different definition. For them, art is what a bunch of Italian guys did in some church in Rome). There may be good art and bad art, but everything is still art. So this argument reduces to a statement that erotica is good pornography and pornography is bad erotica. To those who hold this view, I would say that the artistic merit of a work has absolutely nothing to do with whether it is morally correct.

Feminists have a different view on what constitutes erotica and pornography. Generally, photographs, movies or articles in which the female body is depicted merely as an "object" is denounced as pornography, while similar photographs, movies or articles which somehow succeed in refraining from treating the female body as an "object" are declared to be erotica and contribute to the celebration of the female body. The criterion here seems to be that if the material was made for the pleasure of men, then it is pornography and hence evil.

On the other hand, if the material was made by women and published along with articles containing words like 'liberating experience' and 'self expression,' then it is erotica and is acceptable. I found no other difference between Playboy's 'Women of the Ivy League' issue and Yale's alternative 'Women of the Ivy League Magazine' which purported itself to be an answer to Playboy's October issue.

The division between erotica and pornography is an artificial one perpetrated by people who find it useful to criticize one and extol the other. The word 'erotica' as used in this context of justification had to be coined to allow nice law-abiding citizens to satisfy their desires without unwanted feelings of guilt. Or perhaps it was coined to allow feminists to denounce pornography without denying women the freedom to do as they please with their bodies.

Let us stop being dishonest about this issue and confront the fact that erotica and pornography are the same. Face it squarely and make the decision: Is it good or bad? But don't tell people that flipping through Playboy magazines is morally wrong while looking at a Renaissance painting of a nude hanging in the Louvre is acceptable.