Erotica, Romance, and the Straw Pornographer.

So there’s this article that’s making the rounds on author pages on Facebook: by M. Jane Colette. The short version: one of her friends describes her as a “pornographer” and she doesn’t like it.

If Colette doesn’t want to be called a pornographer, that’s her choice, and should be respected. But the definitional gymnastics she uses to get to “Erotica Good, Porn Bad” are kind of making my brain hurt.

Though the article’s author says she does consume pornography “in a variety of media. Photographs, videos, words,” when her her friend describes the romance genre as “Emotionally exploitative,” rather than addressing the charge directly, Colette engages in some blatant whataboutery, with a side order of equivocation fallacy.

“I’m so glad you brought up exploitation,” Colette writes, and then launches into a stinging indictment of the mainstream pornography industry.

“I am not underpaying a young woman who does not quite understand what it is she is getting into to strip naked in front of a camera and act out someone else’s fantasies,” Colette writes, as if the industrial output of the San Fernando Valley is the sum total of the works created primarily for sexual gratification.

There is indie porn, gay porn, porn created by couples in their own bedrooms and porn made by women who unapologetically describe themselves as pornographers, for the consumption of other women. There is drawn and written porn, where there are no actors to be exploited.

The slipperiness of the definitions made for frustrating reading; maybe because there is no bright line between the two genres. Ultimately, we’re left with erotica being what Colette likes and finds satisfying, and pornography being works that don’t pass her personal test. And, okay, “I’ll know it when I see it” has historical precedent.

But there’s a lot of subtext here, a lot of assumptions floating around just beneath the surface. Her lines of argument at some points seem to almost define erotica, or at least “woman-centered erotica” as being part of the romance genre, which “puts the woman and her desires, love and relationship-creation, at the center of the story.”  As if there aren’t woman who enjoy sex for its own sake, and men who prioritize connections above orgasms.

Colette’s gender essentialism (even though she is careful to point out that “some 20 per cent of all romance readers are men,”) is really frustrating to me. As much as I want to agree with her that writing erotica is empowering for women, she can only make the statement when she defines erotica as being about relationships. And only when she can contrast it to the spectre of pornography, which is (the “just” is strongly implied) about sex.

“You’re changing the world,” Colette tells her hypothetical romance-author reader.  “One kiss, one steamy sex scene—one happily ever after (or for now) ending at a time.”

But trading in “good girls don’t” for “good girls do — but only if it’s love” isn’t some revolutionary idea, and the notion that romantic love is essential to a woman’s happiness is downright retrograde.