In musical parlance, there exists a word to describe a certain category of music fans. These fans are creatures of the night; they invest in handcrafted headphones built from virgin mahogany wood for the ‘acoustics’. Anything short of a hand-pressed vinyl record makes them sniffle in contempt. Noise-cancelling technology is so important for them that they prefer it when it deadens even the sound of music they’re listening to. You’ll find them cracking their knuckles constantly, always in a state of warming up for another rant online about how mainstream pop music “suxx”. Indeed, the ‘elitists’ always loom large, especially in the comment sections of obscure music blogs that Google Search pushes to page 2 without a thought.
Unfortunately, considering that they coexist in a world where nearly anything gets memed to death, music elitists are just one of the many things that people like to parody and deride. The same happens to elitists from other fields of interest like books (“You don’t read TS Eliot? Are you even literate bro?”), and movies (“I still think that Tenet won’t be as good as Memento viewed in glue-taped film stock”). In each case, they get called out, and over time, they concede to the absurdity of their positions. What ties these diverse circles together is that there is a strong crowd of people with a “populist” mentality within them. And as populist as something like electronica or pop music is, there is a certain fluidity and overlap in the groups that consume and enjoy what the mainstream and niche have to offer.
The world of eroticism is very different in this sense. The dichotomy of the elitist vs the populist just doesn’t have any space to exist, despite the fact that the populists outnumber the elitists considerably. This world; one of whispered sighs, slights of kohled eyes, and smoky gazes lurks behind closed doors varnished in antiquity and guarded by elitists supreme. There is little argument here as well, on what exactly passes muster for appreciation as ‘art’ and what ought to be disregarded as nothing more than ‘cheap pornography’. It is as if society itself has accepted that canvas upon canvas of reclining nudes are where the wine glasses and monocles reside, laid upon thick carpets to muff the feigned coughs and condescending glances. Meanwhile, mainstream portrayals of erotica, in the form of photo collages, erotic magazines, slash literature, softcore pornography and even online platforms like r/gonewild on Reddit (where users consensually verify themselves and post erotic content) are widely shunned and termed as a corruption of our culture of modesty.
However, it has to be admitted that much of the audience for erotic content linger in the aforementioned forms of erotica. Consider this for instance. In the aeon past that was 2018, It was reported that in the US state of Hawaii, traffic on porn websites went up by 48% after a false alert was sent out to residents about an impending missile strike on their homes. In a vacuum, that seems like a human reaction. A person believes that they are about to perish in a potential missile strike; they might as well scrape a glimmer of intimacy on the way out. Similar reports have been received over the past few months as the COVID-19 pandemic continues to engulf the world, with India reporting a 95% rise in porn consumption. These are all normal, normal biological responses to times of stress or boredom that the human mind has developed through evolution. It also helps that porn is easily accessible and is quite frank about its intentions - porn provides a viewer with an outlet, by showcasing the human body in a blatantly erotic way. But the fact that it is ‘porn’, something that is so pervasive that every other web series needs a scene of softcore explicit content in order to grab audiences - it gets jumped on and ridiculed.
Now, make no mistake, porn has its own share of problems with regards to monitoring content and setting unreal expectations of the sexual act. But as a kind of populist art, it’s strange that porn has such a large audience and yet, it is consumed in utter secrecy. Behind latched doors, the audio silenced by steady drips of a half-opened tap, hurried erasure of browser histories, hastily folded Playboy cutouts stuffed into wallets. It paints a picture of a people who would gather around to admire the erotism of The Birth of Venus by Botticelli and jerk themselves off for being ‘cultured’. Yet the same group would turn the other way if they happened to spot a magazine with Piper Perri gracing the cover.
This unusual contradiction within society has deep roots within our psyche, to a point where it is hard to question this erotic elitism without sounding like a radical. Particularly when it comes to women exposing themselves in erotic ways. If a woman chooses to have boudoir pictures of herself taken for her bedroom, it’s considered to be something private and ‘tasteful’. The photographer who took the photographs may advertise himself as a professional and cheerfully add this capability to his list of services. But if a woman happens to have nudes of herself or her partner - in her smartphone for instance, a device which is supposedly as private as an extension of a person’s identity, she can expect a very different reception to them.
These photographs probably did not require a professional to come over and capture them. However, for the intents of this argument, let us assume that they were taken with consent. Additionally, they were taken with the same intent, and for the same purpose as a boudoir photograph - to provide a sense of intimacy on canvas, as a symbol of self-love, and importantly - as a gift shared between people who aren’t complete prudes. Can you imagine the sense of outrage it would provoke across different sections of society? Before you could say ‘Snapchat’, everyone is clutching their pearls, their ancestor’s photographs, and their twitter handles to decry you as someone “shameless”. They’d brand you, the offender in their eyes, as someone depraved, revelling in their lust rather than exhausting themselves in restraint.
Now, just to head this off before diving in further - there is a security aspect to consider as well. The endless horror stories on the internet, of people having their nudes stolen or faked probably would serve as a dire warning to anyone thinking of taking some. At the same time, there’s nothing stopping someone from taking a picture of a boudoir photograph, is there? And even leaving all that aside, one has to admit that there is a certain negative perception of people who “give in”. Taking nudes is something that’s done in the heat of the moment, a spurt of eroticism from the ether. The thrill of being seen excites. However, for many, it is seen as “giving in to animal desire”, which cheapens the entire aspect of modern nudity and sexiness.
Think of erotic creations that bear the stamp of accepted art. There is some nudity, but nothing too extreme. Much of the expression comes through the eyes - think of the Mona Lisa, for instance, with her mysterious gaze. Allure. Burning desire. Nothing overtly sexual, but a tension that creates wantonness without fulfilling it. Gustav Klimt’s famous artwork “The Kiss” appears to be at first glance, a mosaic of vivid patterns and convulsions spattered across the scape. The only allowance for direct acknowledgment of erotica is the depiction of the faces of the man and woman inhabiting the painting. They are embraced in a rather loving kiss. But here again, there is that same restraint, a sense of smoke and mirrors pervading over the rawness of the sex. One is forced to delve into the depths of the painting to capture the eroticism.
There is an interesting character from ‘The Fountainhead’ by Ayn Rand who might be able to explain this strange hypocrisy surrounding eroticism. Ellsworth Toohey, the central antagonist of the novel, is a critic who regularly writes a column in a widely-published newspaper. In this column, he pens down his observations about numerous buildings and architectural achievements of note. Without going into too much detail about the novel itself, it can be stated that Toohey was something of a gatekeeper, one of the elitists who scrutinized and handed out verdicts on works of art. Toohey’s power to insinuate to readers, on what constitutes ‘good art’ and what doesn’t, proves to be a crucial part of the novel’s plot. When it comes to the erotic, this can be a very critical difference-maker. People have no boundaries when it comes to what they find erotic and sexy. This gave critics and gatekeepers an abundance of space to lay down their own rules. They could ‘direct’ audiences to applaud when an actress bares it all in an art film and to shame when Gilu Joseph, a Malayalam actress was depicted breastfeeding on the cover of a magazine.
Here’s another interesting aspect. Look at Sunny Leone. No, look at her. Everyone knows that she used to do porn. She herself doesn’t try to hide or distance herself from it (rightly so). But it did help that she made the right connections with the right kind of people in Bollywood early on. Once she had done that, it was easier for social critics and elitists to redeem her and retrofit her narrative into one of feminist empowerment. Producers flocked to her and the masses loved her for the masala and sex appeal that she brought to films. It didn’t matter that most of her appearances were in dance sequences carefully choreographed to have heavy sexual overtones or that her inherent eroticism was being used to run up ticket sales to a public thirsty for that ‘populist’ erotica. She wasn’t ‘that chick who used to do porn’, but a bonafide rising star with a past that only added to her feminine mystique.
So, the story matters. Or rather, who concocts the story matters. Kaylen Ward, a self-proclaimed ‘naked philanthropist’ managed to raise $1 million all by herself by selling her nudes online in order to contribute towards relief measures for the bushfire disaster that devastated Australia earlier in January. This one million dollars that she raised outstripped what organizations like JP Morgan and McDonald’s managed to donate. When the news about this broke, the reactions were mixed. Plenty of internet users praised her story as one of feminist empowerment and self-reliance. News agencies reached out to her for comments and extended coverage. But the overall focus was on the novelty of her actions and their unusualness rather than the deed itself. Instagram initially deactivated her account. Her boyfriend left her, while her family also refused to associate with her after coming to know about what she did. There were some pats on the back, but there was no redemption; no invitations to join the echelons of the elite. All because she didn’t have all those connections to facilitate her entry. Thus, she remained firmly alongside that dog-eared copy of Playboy at the local newsstand.
The problem is that there is genuinely a need for balance within erotica. Because, as it stands, elitism within erotica is growing steeper and steeper as erotic content creeps into mainstream entertainment such as Game of Thrones and Westworld. Before you know it, six-dimensional depictions of a woman’s ankle could become the one true erotica to rule them all. On a serious note, what this means is that actual populist erotica is going the opposite direction - more and more porn movies are being shot under unrealistic circumstances (Pornhub has already committed to shooting a scene in space) with bodies being airbrushed beyond belief and lighting that invokes the most unfair of body comparisons. It also leads to hypernormalisation of sexual acts that just don’t work very well in the real world, such as anal, threesomes, and group sex. Not to mention the fact that children are being exposed to this kind of extreme content at an impressionable age when their predecessors of twenty years ago took what they could from semi-lewd stories posted online. The success of franchises like 50 shades is also a slightly alarming trend that suggests that populist erotica doesn’t have space to grow and is simply moving towards an unhealthy extreme. As Simone De Beauvoir wrote about 120 days of Sodom, one of the most depraved pieces of erotic literature written, there are few limits to the unquencheable thirst for eroticism within our collective souls if allowed to Frankenstein into something beyond our control.
What is clearly needed is a way for ordinary people to have a say in what constitutes ‘good erotica’. There’s an interesting model mentioned in Richa Kaul Padte’s excellent book “Cyber Sexy: Rethinking Pornography”. Online fora such as Reddit’s r/gonewild where ‘open-minded Adult Redditors’ can show of their nude bodies ‘in a comfortable environment without pressure’ are user-driven communities where ordinary users would create erotic content in the form of nudes, sexual content, erotic literature, and art. Other users who merely browsed these fora played the role of critics and moderators. If a user found a piece of erotic content to be ‘good’ or ‘sexy’, they could upvote it. If they disliked it, they could comment or downvote. Most of the creators of erotic content tended to cover their faces or censor them. But occasionally, one sees someone with the courage to put themselves out there to be seen in an intimate manner. And that is truly empowering when one is able to bare it all without fear of elitists and their stifling rules. It also helped to have good moderators who kicked out any toxicity at the smallest sign of it.
The most heartening aspect of decentralized internet fora like these is that, in many of these cases, other users had nothing to comment except for positive thoughts and appreciation. These communities genuinely did help in improving body acceptance. They connected people devoid of intimacy by providing them with safe spaces to support and admire diverse body-types across the digital waves. There was little by way of elitism and gatekeeping of what truly constituted ‘erotic art’. It truly offered the greater Populus to play a role in deciding what was good and bad by allowing them to participate. In essence, it has the potential to break the centralized, concentrated power of critics and their own outdated, obscure notions of erotic restraint.
Additionally, by giving away power to users to decide on their own and allowing them to follow certain creators of erotic content, we would also eliminate the need of having the right connections in order for creators to sell themselves. In a user-driven environment, it is the consumer who plays a bigger role, just like in books, music, and all the rest. Whoever makes the best, the most appealing erotic content would gain a sizeable populist following. There would still be a niche group of elitists who prefer to consume content as per their own perceived standards of quality. But it would be a healthy balance, much like any other field. It wouldn’t matter if a person opted to shoot nudes of themselves or hired a photographer to take boudoir photographs. People who like nudes would clamour for more. People who appreciated the homeliness of boudoir photographs would continue to opt for those. Fulfilling this, we could hopefully see a restoration in the balance of the erotic force.
This work has been published in Beetle Magazine's June 2020 Issue. Read the full issue here: https://issuu.com/beetlemag/docs/june2020