An article written thirteen years ago in Psychology Today prompted this blog.[1] The title was benign enough: “What Distinguishes Erotica from Pornography?” Written by a psychologist with a writer’s flair, the subtitle subtlety questioned, “Gazing or Leering? The Erotic Versus Pornographic.” It serves nicely as a rudimentary ethical norm for writers of erotica.  If you are writing erotica, hoping not to be pornographic, just gaze, don’t leer.

The psychologist-author tiptoed in. Any attempt to distinguish between the erotic and pornographic was, he said “Steeped in personal moral, aesthetic, and religious values.” Is it that simple? If erotic writing is moral, aesthetic, or religious, are writers of pornography immoral, abhorrent, or irreligious? I think not. Those benchmarks suggest writers of pornography are bottom feeders, while writers of erotica glide elegantly over the swamp.

Erotica and pornography are different terms that have related meanings. People use both erotica and pornography to portray sexuality. Depiction of sexuality distinguishes erotica from pornography.[2] The focus of this post is not to differentiate one from the other, but rather to identify ethical norms in erotica while dodging pornography. That is largely because pornography can be a crime, while the other is more often a tort. A writer said it this way: “Erotica is brunettes in silk, pornography is blondes in nylon. Erotica is for nice middle class literate people like us, pornography is for the lonely, unattractive, and uneducated.”[3]

Is that fine distinction—literate versus uneducated readers—an ethical norm? If your readership falls into the former, you are writing erotica. If you are writing to lonely, unattractive readers, you are writing pornography. No, that cannot be the case.

Writers see a difference that psychologists ignore—the why and for whom you are writing. Porn stories, they say, are “written for the express purpose of causing sexual titillation. Plot, character development, and romance are primary to these stories. They are designed to sexually arouse the reader, and nothing else.” Erotic stories, they say, are “written about the sexual journey of the characters, and how this impacts them as individuals. Emotion and character growth are important facets of a true erotic story. However, erotica is not designed to show the development of a romantic relationship, although it’s not prohibited if the author chooses to explore romance.”[4]

The way writers see the difference is a clue to the ethical norms in writing erotica. If your writing meets the writing tests, it also meets what few ethical norms there are in this genre. If your writing only causes sexual titillation, pays scant attention to plot, character or romance, then you are outside the ethical ring.

Does it matter?

Yes, if you think ethical norms are a good thing.

No, if you are writing porn.

That’s only my opinion. I don’t write in either genre, so please feel free to ignore my aesthetic attempt to find a norm among the thorns in both genres.

Gary L StuartI am an author and a part-time lawyer with a focus on ethics and professional discipline. I teach creative writing and ethics to law students at Arizona State University. Read my bio.

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