“At the heart of pornography is sexuality haunted by its own disappearance”

How have representations of sex become so banal, so unthreatening, so uncritical? Because the body and sexuality are liberated as signs and only as signs. Through the sign-system, Baudrillard contends, ‘sexuality itself is diverted from its explosive finality’ and transformed into ‘promotional eroticism’ or ‘operational sexuality’.

Jean Baudrillard: Against Banality” by William Paulett

I’m having to keep my mind on two things these days – my paper on the function of the Happily Ever After convention and trying to carve a cohesive and intelligible statement for what the critical portion of my PhD studies will examine.

There have been myriad discussions on this blog about the nature of erotic fiction and how it differs (or should differ) from pornography. I’m not the only erotic writer to wrestle with this question, but it has haunted me for almost as long as I’ve been writing.

I have said often that I am extremely interested in sex and sexual desire as a lens through which to look at the human condition. That there is a unique exposure that occurs in authentic moments of erotic desire that can strip away all our contrivances, our courtesy, our sophistications. And please don’t get me wrong: I write with the intention to arouse. But not at a specifically genital level. My aim is to prompt the reader into what I would call an aroused state of self-reflection.

At the same time, we find ourselves in a culture of pornography – constantly bombarded by sexual imagery as a way to sell things: sex, of course, but almost everything else as well. The memes and the language of porn has become so ubiquitous, it eclipses the act it was designed to represent – erotic acts shared between people.

I am not your run of the mill romantic. I don’t think that people have to be in love in order to have the best kind of sex. I do, however, think there needs to be an acknowledgement of the humanity of the other.  Some essentially complex value in the desired. I think most people would agree that there is genital sex, and then there’s the kind of sex that fundamentally changes you. And that kind of sex is not the kind you find in a particularly casual encounter.

I want to pause here and explain that objectification and dehumanization can be very erotic. But only when it is intentional. Only when the essential importance of that humanity is there, like a ghost, in its very intentional absence.

One of the great problems in trying to write the kind of erotic fiction I try to write is that the grammar of the erotic has been, for the most part, appropriated by a consumer culture that has employed it with the aim of commodification.  Originally pornography was not free. It was sold, like the services of a prostitute are sold. It was sexual stimulation in exchange for money.  The language that had once been used only behind bedroom doors, only in secret diaries, only in whispers, became the public language of the porn industry. So did the acts. But of course, because early pornography sought to establish its authenticity to its audience, it developed some incredibly strange memes in order to prove that what was being portrayed was ‘real’. The most obvious example of the is is the ‘money shot’ or the ‘come shot’, devised in order to prove that a real ejaculation had taken place. There are, of course, more subtle ways in which pornography attempts to establish its realism – with extreme close-ups of penetration, vaginal spasms, etc.

These memes, along with the language of the explicit, first became the preserve of porn and then, by a strange reversal of phenomenon, were fed back into people’s concept of what real sex should look like. Now you can see amateur ‘money shots’ on PornTube – where ordinary people are intent on showing what great sex they are having by adopting porn memes. It’s not that we don’t believe they’re really having sex. The ‘money shot’ or the ‘cream pie’ is no longer about proof of the real; it has become the real.

How does one write authentic representations of desire when the grammar of desire has become inextricably bound to the marketplace? When the depiction of a face-fucking no longer bears the semiotics of a purposefully sexual objectification but now simply triggers a memory of the last porn film you saw?

Jean Baudrillard was a French sociologist, philosopher and cultural theorist. His works are notoriously hard to read and his lectures aren’t much easier. But one of the things he talked about was how pornography – the over-exposure of sexuality – makes realism in sex impossible. I don’t agree with him. I think he came to believe that the media and people’s interior lives had become intertwined to the point where they were indistinguishable. Personally, I think he just spent too long studying examples of incidences where it had. I still believe there are lots of people still having very real sex that doesn’t look anything like pornography. But I think his point was very well made. I’ve met a lot of people who can’t seem to tell the difference between commercial representations/reenactments of sex for the purpose of performance and entertainment, and the authentic experience of humans who want nothing but each other’s pleasure.

I think it is my job as a writer of erotic fiction to keep producing representations of the complex, messy and sometimes unlovely beings we become when we really do experience erotic desire and when we do have real erotic experiences.  And to point out that, when we do this, there is not just pleasure, but many other things.

p.s. if you’d like to have a little taste of Baudrillard, YouTube has a series of his talks on “Seduction, Sex and Pornography“, but again, I warn you, he’s hard to understand and not just because of his French accent. However, there are a number of writers who’ve distilled and summarized his ideas very well. And one of them, William Pawlett’s book, is online in PDF form: Jean Baudrillard: Against Banality.

  13 comments for ““At the heart of pornography is sexuality haunted by its own disappearance”

  1. December 29, 2011 at 9:09 pm

    I’m reading Baudrillard at the moment too.

    I am not sure I agree with your interpretation of him. I think he used pornography as an example of visual culture, I think he used it as a metaphor for our current relationship to the ‘real’ rather than making a specific comment on the state of pornography. I could, of course, be wrong.

    I like Tony Duvert’s analysis: ‘pornography is other people’s erotica’.

    I deliberately write pornography and I think pornography can be literary. I am not into the distinction between ‘porn’ and ‘erotica’ as a value judgement at all.

    • December 29, 2011 at 9:18 pm

      Yes, QRG, I am pretty resigned to the fact that we will never agree. And my take on Duvert is that, if anyone has read my work and thinks its pornography, then they haven’t actually read any. Because I fail utterly at what pornography is supposed to do.

      • December 29, 2011 at 10:18 pm

        I don’t think it is up to writers to decide if they ‘fail’ or achieve anything. I think it’s up to readers. The reader is the writer! to quote another poncy French theorist.

        • December 29, 2011 at 10:50 pm

          I think it’s perfectly reasonable for writers to make a judgement as to whether they fail to achieve something, since they are the ones who set out to achieve something. If my writing is so poor that you mistake it for a nothing but a masturbatory aid, then quite clearly, I have failed in what I aimed to achieve. And yes, I get to make that judgement.

  2. December 29, 2011 at 11:10 pm

    I disagree. But then I would! But I’m definitely with Derrida – and Barthes here. The ‘death of the author’ has been just as much an aspect of contemporary culture as Baudrillard’s observations about pornography and visual culture.

    • December 29, 2011 at 11:15 pm

      The death of the author concerned meaning making. Not an inability to recognize whether something is science fiction or romance.

      • December 29, 2011 at 11:46 pm

        ‘science fiction’ and ‘romance’ are ‘meaning making’ in action. Genre is part of our perceptions of narrative.

        I find that writing has blurred its genres hugely nowadays. And its media – fanfic for example is largely produced by online communities as you know. In some ways the medium is the message with the use of avatars, internet handles etc as part of the narrative of the fiction.

  3. December 30, 2011 at 6:01 am

    I adore you site…intelligence in the realm of sex writing is sketchy at best…but when I find it, I glow with appreciation. I completely agree with you on the difficulty presented in writing about sex in a way that will avoid the conjuring of superficial porn scenes. It is just plain sad that so many people view sex as either “making love”, “baby-making”, or “fucking”. There is a special place somewhere in all of that psychology where real human sexual connection occurs. It’s just too bad more people don’t see it, because it’s a powerful thing.

    Love reading your posts! Keep ’em cumming.

    • December 30, 2011 at 8:19 am

      It is just plain sad that so many people view sex as either “making love”, “baby-making”, or “fucking”

      Perhaps it’s because they feel they have to label it one of those things. And when it doesn’t fit, they don’t know how to frame it?

  4. December 30, 2011 at 6:50 am

    “I’ve met a lot of people who can’t seem to tell the difference between commercial representations/reenactments of sex for the purpose of performance and entertainment, and the authentic experience of humans who want nothing but each other’s pleasure.”

    There’s an awful lot packed into those three lines. I think part of the problem is our reliance on commercial representations for information about what constitutes an authentic sexual experience. I’m in my late forties now and have accumulated longer lists of experiences (both personal and involving contact with commercial representations), so it is getting easier to sort through all of this. In my twenties and before the internet, it was more difficult to appreciate the differences.

    On an intuitive level at least, I think we all know when we are having authentic experiences regardless of our age or level of experience. I think it is far more challenging to be accepting of those insights if they don’t “fit” well with our own expectations of what’s acceptable and fly in the face of cultural stereotypes of the day.

    Suddenly I’m thinking of a scene from Brokeback Mountain where Heath Ledger’s character learns of the death of his lover/friend and is almost brought to his knees with anguish. At that moment he no longer doubts his feelings and was confronted with the reality of what had passed between them, but it was too late. Sometimes, the epiphany is that tragic.

    I think you are absolutely right that it is a writer’s job to:

    “…keep producing representations of the complex, messy and sometimes unlovely beings we become when we really do experience erotic desire and when we do have real erotic experiences.”

    Anyway, once again, you have given your readers much to think about.

    • December 30, 2011 at 8:13 am

      On an intuitive level at least, I think we all know when we are having authentic experiences regardless of our age or level of experience. I think it is far more challenging to be accepting of those insights if they don’t “fit” well with our own expectations of what’s acceptable and fly in the face of cultural stereotypes of the day.

      Yes, I agree. And it is where I part company with Baudrillard’s ‘death of reality’. Authentic experiences are actually there, all around us, and intuitively I agree that we know it. But as you say, processing them and making meaning of them can be harder. I think your example of Brokeback Mountain is perfect.

  5. January 2, 2012 at 2:04 am

    I often get so frustrated with the clean ease and carelessness with which people approach sex and erotica. I also find my own writing trivial when it doesn’t at least touch on the deeper complexities. For me to feel the importance of a piece of art it needs to have some of this complexity within it, because that feels like the only way to say something true about the human condition.

    Conversely, I have my faith reaffirmed constantly when I meet people who clearly crave the real, people who are conscious enough to recognise that sex has become commodified and thus find most of it to have lost it’s erotic luster. Those who are seeking something beyond sexual gratification. (Not that there is anything wrong with seeking sexual gratification alone, it’s just not then that I see something unique.)

  6. August 2, 2017 at 12:51 am

    Thank you for your work, RG. Your insights are so helpful as I develop my writing intentions.

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