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CategoriesErotica and SexualityThe I Column

Porn, Not Erotica

I’ve never liked the term erotica, although I’ve not been sure why. Actually, that’s not entirely true.  I knew that it had something to do with bad memories of boring feminist porn which I swore never to see again because it was so goodie-goodie and dull.  More seriously, I now realise that my dislike of the word erotica relates to its inability or unwillingness to hold precisely that which is precious about porn.  I’ll explain what I mean with the help of research I have been doing for a book I’m writing, called Fantasy Frames: Sex, Love and Indian Politics, to be published later this year.

In response to an anonymous online survey that I conducted for the book, several sexual fantasies were shared in considerable detail by 30 respondents. I had invited only friends and acquaintances to respond to the survey because I was hungry for details which strangers might not have made the effort to share. More than half the respondents identified as feminist. Less than half were from the BDSM community. All the respondents were urban and educated.  I would like to share here two of the fantasies and how the respondents felt about them, including about porn related to their fantasies.

The first fantasy was shared by a woman. Her fantasy involved being held down by a woman, kissed by another woman while being forcibly taken from behind by a man, in a public space. In her fantasy she is always wearing a sari, which remains unruffled, without any undergarments.

This is how she described her feelings about the fantasy – “The only thing that troubles me is that I’d like the sex to be forced. I don’t understand, and find myself very troubled that I find that hot. I’m the clichéd independent woman. I haven’t been able to make sense of it. (Porn feels like) an equal combination of hot and disturbing.”

The second fantasy was shared by a transman, who was assigned gender female at birth. His fantasy was that of an “extremely hardcore gangbang” involving other guys and him.  While the women were never in distress, they were always docile and obedient.  What turned him on the most was knowing that the women’s only desire was to fulfill all of his, and his friends’, desires.

This is how he described his feelings about the fantasy– “As an avowed queer feminist, I have a considerable amount of shame around this fantasy…I am somewhat surprised because my actual/non-fantasy sex life does not reflect these acts or even desires…

(Watching porn like this is) hot, hot, hot!! I get off to it constantly and instantly. Entirely satisfying because my mind is free to wander without being bogged down by my body.”

These fantasies (as well as many of the others which were shared as part of the survey) speak to me of why porn is important.

Porn is able to express the ‘yummy yucky’ nature of many of our fantasies.  I use the term ‘yummy yucky’ because I feel it captures a mix of that which is both “hot and disturbing” (as described by the first respondent). The vast majority of respondents to the survey shared combinations of feelings of experiencing both desire and disgust (often directed at the self), or of being excited by precisely that which they fear/dread. By making us connect with the mixed-up nature of our desires, porn challenges binary ways of thinking about the sexual.

Porn can also turn upside down notions that we hold about ourselves. It can help us see contradictions not just out there, at a safe distance, but within ourselves. This is not surprising given thatporn that turns us on, reflects our fantasies, which perhaps seldom, actually never, follow the diktat of our sense of self, values or politics. Feelings like not being able to “understand”, of being “surprised” by one’s fantasies as were expressed by the two respondents above, were shared by a majority of the respondents to the survey.  Bewilderment such as this is understandable given that we often fantasise precisely about that which is taboo. (As the psychoanalyst Bruce Fink puts it rather succinctly, “Prohibition eroticises.”) Particularly disturbing was being turned on by fantasies involving humiliation, extreme objectification, coercion or rape. For instance, the fantasy shared by the first respondent broke several taboos, including sex in public and sex with more than one person, but the“only thing that troubles” her is that she would like “the sex to be forced”.  With respect to the other respondents in the survey too, it was when fantasies broke liberal, “modern” taboos which demand that we respect dignity, mutuality, and rights, that they experienced the most conflict about their fantasies.  When we are turned on by porn that breaks such taboos, it is bound to challenge our ideas about ourselves.

Might this discomfort also be a productive place to be, one in which we can see that we are not as rational as we would like to believe we are? In keeping with the feminist mantra “the personal is political”, might there be an invitation here to connect with the messiness of our desires? Might this also help us understand the messiness in all aspects life around us, including when the majority vote against the logic of their economic self-interest?

It can be scary to confront one’s taboo desires (and who knows what other desires are yet to manifest themselves). Might it be easier then to take cover behind erotica – safer, more dignified, neatening out any seeming contradictions with feminism? And I say seeming contradictions because I believe there are none. Or at least, no more contradictions than our use of products or services by any other commercial industry which (like porn) is replete with gender stereotypes and exploitation of labour.  Rather than taking cover behind erotica, might it be worth considering that since fantasies stem (largely) from the unconscious, like dreams, they are what they are?

To conclude, I don’t like the term erotica is because it seems unable or unwilling to hold that which porn offers us – a chance to recognise the play of yummy yuckyness, contradictions and the limits of reason.

Cover Image: Pixabay

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Jaya Sharma is a researcher and writer based in New Delhi, India. She has been working on issues of gender and education for over twenty years. She is founder member of Nirantar, a Centre for Gender and Education based in New Delhi. She has also co-founded queer activist forums based in Delhi. She has worked on issues of sexuality with a focus on building linkages between the queer movement and other movements such as the women's movement. Jaya was actively engaged with issues related to Sexuality Education through research and advocacy. She was also intensively involved with NGOs working with rural women from marginalized communities, through workshops and educational material on sexuality. She seeks to draw upon her experiences and activism as a queer, kinky, feminist in her writing.

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