Riffing on the opus for the pop-culture critical everyone is beautiful and no one is horny, a phrase recently came to me which turned out to be a paraphrasing of Audre Lorde: everything is pornographic and nothing is erotic.
Eroticism differs from pornography, or even plain sexual attraction, in that it occurs in isolation. Desire within an erotic context is not fixated directly on the person who could fulfill it. Instead, it’s categorically indirect and transposed. Eroticism differs from a fetish in that the associated cue is not a direct substitute for a normative object of desire: this isn’t about kinking on pantyhose or spike heels instead of the person wearing them. Real eroticism is in the transposition: removed from the actual fulfillment of desire, not even referring to it directly, but compounding it nonetheless. Pornography is all those photographers who do goopy baker-miller pink tableaux with vaginal-looking fruit and dildos which they post to their sex-positive lifestyle instagram to shill for mail-order sex toys. Eroticism is seeing a cup someone drank from on the kitchen table after they’ve left your home, and seeing the drop of water clinging to its rim and knowing that it touched their lips, and then every time you use that cup afterward you still think about it.
For true eroticism to exist, there needs to be a lack of ambient sexuality. It can only truly arise out of privation or repression. We wonder why the literary Victorians were so horny; this is why. This is how gay semiotics developed, and why they remain so potent; the cues associated with sex needed to stay hidden, and in doing so they became all the more powerful.
Today’s media environment is maximally pornographic, even as social networks claim to repress it out of an abundance of caution. Sexual liberation was meant to be distilled this far down: instead of making sex shameless, as is correct, sex came to be worthless. It is so ubiquitous that it no market value, yet at the same time seems to be the only thing for sale. Entire industries of artists, influencers and agents exist solely to funnel clients toward sex work; as an ex-model, there is likely a broader post I need to write about this. I go on Twitter to find a meme but the poster has a pinned video of himself ejaculating; someone I follow on Instagram reposts an activists’ slogan over a video of two women aggressively twerking, as if the two have anything to do with each other; everyone you meet casually does porn. In an environment where sex exists in the open and logically draws maximum attention (we are only human, after all), everything has to be sexy in order to be seen. Humor has to be sexy, representation has to be sexy, revolution has to be sexy. It makes everyone act like an addict.
The erotic cannot be reintroduced to this environment; it would be like introducing a species of songbird to a suburban community full of outdoor cats. I’m aware of plenty of creators trying to revive eroticism with poetry and photo work. None of it lands. In a sex-saturated media environment, it’s only more sex, as blatant and flat as everything else.
The reactionary strategy that naturally follows is puritanism, as has taken hold with a strange neo-Catholic contingent of Gen Z. Obviously this is not viable; reactionary strategies have expiration dates. As individuals, if we want to feel again, what we need is to reintroduce a certain scarcity; to fight down the notion that every urge can be fulfilled and erase the easy market incentives to do so.