Revisiting the erotic

Silhouette of statue of Eros.jpgWith the carousel of New Year’s resolutions beginning, I am reconsidering the place of the erotic in our lives, the kind that Lorde raises in Uses of the Erotic: The Erotic as Power (1984). 

It is more than an expression of sexuality, she says: “The erotic is not a question only of what we do; it is a question of how acutely and fully we can feel in the doing.”


What does it mean to live an erotic life? The etymology of erotic comes from Eros: this Greek god was born from a union of Earth and Sky, signifying the paradox of love, longing and desire – their beauty, terror and hope. Ultimately we have to start with ourselves: 

The erotic is a measure between the beginnings of our sense of self and the chaos of our strongest feelings” writes Lorde.  In the confusion of this “between” we start to recognise the maps we might follow to and from our feelings and can experience the pleasure of experimenting with our erotic nature. [my italics]

Still the erotic remains misunderstood, relegated to a curtained corner and regarded as sexuality’s deviant sibling; a plaything, an excuse to fetishise: a particularly nasty episode in western history is the stereotyping of black women who have been regarded as hypersexualised and diseased, subject to pseudo-scientific experiment and both feared and fetishised (think Saartjie Baartman, exhibited in a freak show for her African shape). This continues in a different, related form; the pornographic term ‘hot black momma’ is a shadow following black women, whether involved or using porn or not.

The trouble is our bodies are still equated with the act of sex in the eyes of the majority; erotica’s in-your-face sexuality cements this association. Actually the erotic moves beyond sexuality. Our work is to revision the erotic in ourselves so that it brings power to our lips, cheeks, eyes, bodies as we choose, and isn’t just experienced as a reflection of others desires or disapproval.

The erotic is serious: to exercise power, to aggress, to listen to your body, to act on your feelings without shame – these are erotic’s heavyweight components. To aggress is to reach out and get you want, at home, play and the workplace. In her recent blog post on The F Word (Sex tips: deepening the divide), D H Kelly points out the “mythical differences” between genders that the sex industry exploits for financial gain.

In addition, wider society benefits in many ways from this split, we live it daily. For example “female aggression” remains noteworthy: contemporary studies continue to isolate women’s aggression, reworking it as one pole of which male aggression is the other. In reality, it is (like all feeling-states) on a continuum, from physical violence to assertiveness – all of us capable of all shades of aggression: (Kinsey’s sex research studies long ago linked sexual arousal and aggression in women and men.) One example of this false division of “male and female aggression” is recent research on indirect aggression in the workplace that berates women for operating aggressively, moreover with slyness. The female author says:

When we aggress against somebody, we do it indirectly […] When men aggress against others, a lot of times it’s direct, it’s verbal.

This kind of behavioural science is regressive, whatever its moral source of inspiration. Women as we know use all forms of aggression and do not have the monopoly on indirect forms. We alI know plenty of men who act passive-aggressively or who chat nastiness about others.

Is it relevant to focus on living a life passionately when the majority world remains stalwartly patriarchal: in Thailand expats grope bar workers with impunity; a woman’s touch on a monk symbolises his defilement. To overplay the role of the erotic seems trite. Who is the erotic for – the time-privileged, the breadwinners, those on the margins, mothers, singles, women, men; refugees, mortgage owners? etc. etc. Maybe we are fully happy with our erotic nature, others may wonder why they no longer feel that passionate in a competitive lifestyle.

Pussy RiotYet if we view the erotic as a call to respond to our bodies (including our inner sensations and feelings), disregard our fears and do it anyway, then yes it affects us all even if we have pushed away our deeper desires in order to survive or just to get on. Contemporary erotic practitioners include the newsworthy Pussy Riot: the risk of future imprisonment and separation hasn’t deterred them from voicing their rage — they are physically stirred by the anger in their bodies; undoubtedly they fear, yet speak from their outrage anyway. There are many others.  

To avoid our erotic power, including the darker elements of our desires is to deaden and disempower ourselves; to narrow it down to sex is to ignore the distinction between acting on our passion and sexually acting out. 


Images show (1) a silhouette of a statue of Eros (thanks to lizsmith); and (2) a posed shot of Pussy Riot (thanks to Igor Mukhin).