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  Eroticism comes from Eros, the Greek god of sexual desire, and means either the erotic spirit or nature (in which case it is the same as ‘erotism’) or works of art designed to produce a sexual stir (in which case it is the same as ‘erotica’).

The first meaning is interesting because of the questions it raises about the state of human beings compared with other creatures. So far as is known, most living species use sex for the purpose of procreation only: however rampant and frequent their coupling, it is the result of an instinctive urge to replenish the species, and nothing more. Human beings seem to be one of the very few species to use sex also for pleasure and to celebrate loving relationships—in some circumstances, to the point where the possibility of procreation is an unwanted inconvenience. We know, because we can see them doing it, that monkeys masturbate, but we have no idea what they think as they do so, much less if it at all resembles human thoughts in a similar situation. Furthermore, eroticism seems to be more about anticipation or remembrance of sexual pleasure than about actuality. It seems to be about an idea—and as such, it must be restricted to humans, the only creatures (again, so far as we know) that have ideas.

Eroticism in the sense of erotic art poses questions of a different kind. It is clear that pornography can be erotic (that is, cause sexual arousal), but it is equally the case that by no means all erotic art is pornographic. To think this would be to bracket a Donne love-poem (for instance) or a Renoir nude with Raped on the Railway: a True Story of a Lady who was first Ravished and then Flagellated on the Scotch Express (popular reading, the British Library assures us, with its gentlemen readers in Victorian England). A simple distinction might be to say that pornography is crude eroticism, eroticism subtle pornography. But this (though a standard view among ‘anti-permissiveness’ campaigners) again seems to miss the essential nature of eroticism. Pornography is explicit, eroticism celebrates a mystery; thus, the contract with the reader or spectator is different. Pornography uses sexual images to incite the consumer to orgasm; eroticism incites him or her to think about sexual relationships, those being described or suggested and those of his or her own.

Such a distinction fits many cases: the temple art of India is erotic, not pornographic, the descriptions of sex in the average airport ‘bonkbuster’ are pornographic, not erotic. But it still leaves many works of art trembling in no-man\'s-land. Is a girlie calendar erotic or pornographic (or possibly neither, falling into that large and dismal category of ‘soft’ that is, not-quite ‘porn’)? What of works of ‘high’ literature? (The last pages of Ulysses or the whole of Nabokov\'s Ada, not to mention his Lolita, come to mind.) Is there any difference, apart from social context, in the performances of a Turkish belly-dancer and the stripper at a Western stag night? There are a million erotic encounters in films, and the erotic qualities of actors are a key ingredient in a film\'s success. But these are not the same as the encounters, and the qualities, of performers in blue movies. Fairy tales often have erotic undertones, but this hardly makes them pornographic.

Perhaps the answer is as before, that pornography evokes an objective response (essentially, voyeurism) and eroticism a subjective one (reflection on the mysteries and pleasures of one\'s own sexual nature and relationships). A group of seven-year-olds in the US on whom, unbelievably, experiments in this area were done in the 1950s reacted to hardcore pornography (scenes from blue movies) by laughing, to erotic material (it was Douanier Rousseau\'s picture of the tiger in the jungle, and a scene from Cocteau\'s film Beauty and the Beast) with bafflement and, in some cases, alarm. This seems to confirm that if the difference is, truly, one of subtlety, then the subtlety lies not in the pornographic or erotic material itself, but in the response it evokes in each one of us. KMcL

See also gender; self.Further reading Anne Carson, Eros the Bittersweet.



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