Eroticism (from the Greek ἔρως, eros—"desire") is a quality that causes sexual feelings, as well as a philosophical contemplation concerning the aesthetics of sexual desire, sensuality, and romantic love. That quality may be found in any form of artwork, including painting, sculpture, photography, drama, film, music, or literature. It may also be found in advertising. The term may also refer to a state of sexual arousal or anticipation of such – an insistent sexual impulse, desire, or pattern of thoughts.
Because the nature of what is erotic is fluid, early definitions of the term attempted to conceive eroticism as some form of sensual or romantic love or as the human sex drive (libido); for example, the Encyclopédie of 1755 states that the erotic "is an epithet which is applied to everything with a connection to the love of the sexes; one employs it particularly to characterize...a dissoluteness, an excess".
Because eroticism is wholly dependent on the viewer's culture and personal tastes pertaining to what, exactly, defines the erotic, critics have often[how often?] confused eroticism with pornography, with the anti-pornography activist Andrea Dworkin saying, "Erotica is simply high-class pornography; better produced, better conceived, better executed, better packaged, designed for a better class of consumer." This confusion, as Lynn Hunt writes, "demonstrate the difficulty of drawing… a clear generic demarcation between the erotic and the pornographic": indeed arguably "the history of the separation of pornography from eroticism… remains to be written".
Whereas traditionally eroticism has been dealt with in relation to culture and its pornographic outcomes, current evolutionary psychology shows how eroticism has shaped the evolution of human nature.
Influenced by Sigmund Freud, psychotherapists have turned to Greek philosophy for an understanding of eros' heightened aesthetic. For Plato, Eros takes an almost transcendent manifestation when the subject seeks to go beyond itself and form a communion with the object/other: "the true order of going...to the things of love, is to use the beauties of earth as steps...to all fair forms, and from fair forms to fair actions, and from fair actions to fair notions, until from fair notions he arrives at the notion of absolute beauty".
Modern French conceptions of eroticism can be traced to Age of Enlightenment, when "in the eighteenth century, dictionaries defined the erotic as that which concerned love...eroticism was the intrusion into the public sphere of something that was at base private". This theme of intrusion or transgression was taken up in the twentieth century by the French philosopher Georges Bataille, who argued that eroticism performs a function of dissolving boundaries between human subjectivity and humanity, a transgression that dissolves the rational world but is always temporary, as well as that, "Desire in eroticism is the desire that triumphs over the taboo. It presupposes man in conflict with himself". For Bataille, as well as many French theorists, "Eroticism, unlike simple sexual activity, is a psychological quest...eroticism is assenting to life even in death".
Queer theory and LGBT studies consider the concept from a non-heterosexual perspective, viewing psychoanalytical and modernist views of eroticism as both archaic and heterosexist, written primarily by and for a "handful of elite, heterosexual, bourgeois men" who "mistook their own repressed sexual proclivities" as the norm.
Theorists like Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, Gayle S. Rubin and Marilyn Frye all write extensively about eroticism from a heterosexual, lesbian and separatist point of view, respectively, seeing eroticism as both a political force and cultural critique for marginalized groups, or as Mario Vargas Llosa summarized: "Eroticism has its own moral justification because it says that pleasure is enough for me; it is a statement of the individual's sovereignty".
Audre Lorde, a Caribbean-American writer and out-spoken feminist called the erotic a form of power specific to women. "There are many kinds of power [...] The erotic is a resource within each of us that lies in a deeply female and spiritual plane, firmly rooted in the power of our unexpressed or unrecognized feelings". In "The Uses of the Erotic" within Sister Outsider, she discusses how the erotic comes from sharing, but if we suppress the erotic rather than recognize its presence, it takes on a different form. Rather than enjoying and sharing with one another, it is objectifying, which she says translates into abuse as we attempt to hide and suppress our experiences.
- "Eroticism". Merriam-Webster. Retrieved 7 August 2011.
- Balzac, "The Physiology of Marriage" (1826), trans. Sharon Marcus (1997), Aphorism XXVI, 65
- Grande, L., "Laws and Attitudes towards Homosexuality from Antiquity to the Modern Era", Ponte 43:4-5 (1987), pp. 122-129
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- Evans, David T., Sexual Citizenship: The Material Construction of Sexualities, (New York: Routledge, 1993)
- Encyclopédie (1755), quoted in Lynn Hunt ed., Eroticism and the Body Politic (London 1991) p. 90
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- Dworkin, Andrea (1981). Pornography: Men Possessing Women. p. 39. ISBN 978-0-399-12619-2.
- Hunt, "Introduction", in Hunt ed., Eroticism p. 4
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- Dollimore, Jonathan, Sexual Dissidence: Augusutine to Wilde, Freud to Foucault (Oxford: Clarendon, 1991), 105-8. Clarendon Press, 1991. ISBN 9780198112693
- Hunt, "Introduction", in Hunt ed., Eroticism p. 13
- The Symposium, in Benjamin Jowett trans., The Essential Plato (1871/1999), 746. However, note that Jowett's Victorian-era translation has asserted a reading of Plato that tends toward the physical-sex-less (e.g. the current sense of a platonic relationship), compared to later scholars from Walter Pater through Michel Foucault, to the present. See Adam Lee, The Platonism of Walter Pater: Embodied Equity (Oxford University Press, 2020). ISBN 9780192588135; and, again, Dollimore (1991).
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- Hunt, "Introduction", in Hunt ed., Eroticism p. 3 and p. 5
- L'érotisme, by Georges Bataille, Paris (1957: UK publication 1962) ISBN 978-2-7073-0253-3
- George Bataille, Eroticism (Penguin 2001) p. 256
- Bataille, Eroticism p. 11
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- from Abelove, Henry, Michele Aina Barale, and David Halperin, eds., The Lesbian and Gay Studies Reader, (New York: Routledge: 1993) Eve Kosofsky Sedgewick: Epistemology of the closet, 45
- from Abelove, Henry, Michele Aina Barale, and David Halperin, eds., The Lesbian and Gay Studies Reader, (New York: Routledge: 1993) Gayle S. Rubin: Notes for a radical theory of the politics of sexuality, 3
- from Abelove, Henry, Michele Aina Barale, and David Halperin, eds., The Lesbian and Gay Studies Reader, (New York: Routledge: 1993) Marilyn Frye: Some reflections on separatism and power, 91
- Marshall, John, "Pansies, Perverts and Macho Men: Changing Conceptions of Male Homosexuality", in Kenneth Plummer, ed., The Making of the Modern Homosexual, (London: Hutchinson, 1981), 133-54
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- Lorde, Audre; Clarke, Cheryl (2007) . Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches. New York: Ten Speed Press. p. 53. ISBN 978-1-58091-186-3.
- Lorde, Audre (2007). "Uses of the Erotic: The Erotic As Power (1984)". Sister Outsider. NY: Ten Speed Press. pp. 53–58.