Nigel Jarrett – Close contacts: Eroticism, Nudity, Pornography, and Burlesque

Nigel Jarrett  is a former daily-newspaperman and a double prizewinner: the Rhys Davies Award for short fiction and the inaugural Templar Shorts award. His first story collection, Funderland, was widely praise by the Guardian, the Independent, and elsewhere. His debut poetry collection, Miners At The Quarry Pool, was described by Agenda poetry magazine as ‘a virtuoso performance’. Jarrett’s first novel, Slowly Burning, was published in 2016, as was his second story collection, Who Killed Emil Kreisler? Jarrett also writes for Jazz Journal, Acumen poetry magazine, and others. Templar has just published his story pamphlet A Gloucester Trilogy. His work is included in the Library of Wales’s anthology of 20th– and 21st-century short fiction. He lives in Monmouthshire.


Close contacts: Eroticism, Nudity, Pornography, and Burlesque

By Nigel Jarrett


With instant access available to adolescents on the internet in the absence of parental controls, NIGEL JARRETT wonders if widespread availability has changed how adults themselves relate to  eroticism and its shadowy siblings.


All the best magazines and websites of erotica bar pornography from their pages, having conceded that there’s a buzzing interface between the two. They probably do it with lascivious tongue planted in cheek, thus making a firm if unclear distinction. One is never sure what this consists in, but the rubicon has been established to their satisfaction at least. The trouble with lines in the sand is that the merest breeze will efface them. But let’s consider the rubicon, the point beyond which any decision is irrevocable; in this case a dismissal of the longueurs of eroticism in favour of a thrill that’s often brutally short-lived and possibly disappointing. Perhaps the difference between them is so slim that it’s impossible to tell one from the other; maybe pornography is merely something that calls a spade a spade while eroticism calls it an ergonomic device for driving into the belly of Gaia. (Erotic terms often have to be looked up; pornographic ones are self-explanatory.)

   Neither the erotic nor the pornographic has its own mutually exclusive agenda. Erotic literature excites the imagination to gird basic impulses with a sense of eternal deferral, whereas the pornographic rampages through the flower-beds to reach what is lusted after. Flirting, peculiarly associated with women (a sexist distinction made by women and men), is an example of the erotic; so is any other kind of suggestiveness, especially denoted by clothes in the process of being taken off, speed of time lapse being the thing. No erotic story ends with its finishing-line breasted, as it were: right to the end, all is left to the imagination, and its protracted exercise should be a literary matter. It was one of the 1960s ‘kitchen sink’ writers who distinguished between middle-class and working-class attitudes to sex. The former, she averred, was often hung up about it and, even when it were not fraught, required varying amounts of inventive foreplay; the latter simply dis-robed and got on with it unceremoniously.

      The suspect corollary of such a view was the implication that the middle-class could rely on its imagination to provide preludes of various lengths and temperatures, whereas the workers, lacking such ability, simply had no option but to begin closer to the terminus. The humour of that, admittedly superior, view of the matter lay in the nature of coitus itself: the same experience, give or take an appreciation of the nether anatomy and an ability to invent scenarios. Or put another way, such a view depends on its capacity to distinguish between sex as mystery, even spiritual, and sex as ordinary, mostly manual: big deal or no big deal. This is why Freud’s case histories based on the repression of sexual instincts are literary and so intense. They are tales of physical and moral anguish. Cutting to the quick holds no brief for that, unless the quick can be mechanically slowed, a procedure that still brooks no interest in what’s passing the time. Commentators used to be amused by what appeared to be missing scenes at the start of professional (but amateurish) pornographic films, when some innocent overture foreshadowing romance cut directly to semi-clad or naked protagonists in flagrante delicto. The professionalisation of porn as a movie business, the reason for its ubiquity, still cannot wait to get to its point, even though the fantasy scenarios are no less risible.

   An interesting exercise is to read the stories of Anaïs Nin to decide if they are pornographic or erotic. There’s one which involves a woman, the narrator, in a heaving crowd at some open-air event. She feels something odd happening directly behind her and realises it’s a male, whom she cannot see because of the crush, in a state of priapic excitement. It ends with the two improbably negotiating congress by means of unzipping, skirt-lifting and sundry re-arrangements of underwear, without anyone around them noticing. That there was something amusing, let alone improbable, about this ending seemed to be a factor in most pornography, if that’s what it was. Laughter is often a post-coital reaction (whether intercourse embraces fantasy or basic mechanics), at how ridiculous it all is. Pornography is about the laughable endgame; eroticism is about the equally hilarious seriousness of what leads up to it without mentioning the goal itself until it actually arrives. The crucial difference is that the author of an erotic tract should be Romantic rather than Anglo-Saxon in describing intercourse: the erotic writer who lapses unavoidably into the act at every opportunity is really an over-excited pornographer. (Maybe Anaïs Nin admitted to being one, but thought nothing of it.) There are plenty of the latter about, wandering both tiresomely and tirelessly along Orgasm Avenue. Not even Amazon can, or indeed wishes, to do anything about them on its website. It’s no surprise that porn has long graduated to its ideal medium, the video film, whereas eroticism continues to burgeon in photographs, paintings, and books, the last preferably not a string of physical encounters linked by a thin plot or no plot at all. Edwardian pornographic photos, those not shamelessly explicit, now look merely risqué and distancing; coy or charming. Nin, the exception, reminds us that indulgence in pornography unexamined is assumed to be a male activity, to which women merely pander either as conniving or exploited individuals. Like the sex act itself, pornography is assumed to be the display of something done by men to women, with the former reaping all the enjoyment, such as it is. But maybe that’s a conclusion only a male writer could arrive at, believing the phrase ‘female paraphilia’ to be an oxymoron.

   Kenneth Clark distinguished between nudity and nakedness in art. Nakedness, as practised by people who like taking their clothes off without any prospect of sexual activity or encounter, and no intention of pursuing them, nowadays often like to ‘share’ their buffness with others, especially easy today with a worldwide audience in cyberspace. Furtive 1950s schoolboys – and probably schoolgirls – knew the activity as ‘Naturism’. The flagship journal for naturists was the wholesome Health & Efficiency; so, no inevitable smirking there. But such displays, self-conscious or not, automatically lead to voyeurism: without an image to trigger it, sexual arousal would not take place. Gratification for naturists might come from neutral (non-sexual) responses of other clothes-shedders; but it would be naive of them to be shocked at a sexual response from the indomitably clothed; that’s to say, they would not stop undressing just because some faraway viewers were sexually excited by the result (or, in the case of the erotic, by the act). Clark’s ‘nudes’ were the artist’s models bereft of clothes but often, in the case of females, sporting a strategically-positioned fig leaf or fold of calico. By the expression ‘nude’, society still understands women with no clothes on, despite the male nude in art, Michelangelo’s pre-eminently, and its often homo-erotic – and, for all we know, hetero-erotic – charge. Before videos there were home-made films, and before them photographs, and before them graphic art work of one sort or another. Multiple cross-over and confusion abounds. The idea – and the justification –  in art of the nude as the paradigm of bodily perfection goes only so far, not least because many examples fall far short of sublimity. Nudity, eroticism, pornography: is this not a chain succession? Performers of burlesque, often refusing to pursue any perfection of bodily shape, claim a holistic function that subsumes comedy and sexual stimulation, not least a comedy that can neutralise them and point to something unseemly and pathetic about the way women are viewed by men. It thus claims virtue.

     So much so, that Miss Dolly Leggings and Madam Petunia Proper always distinguish their cavortings from the vapid gymnastics of the pole-dance, at least as it’s practised in places where, for a fiver slotted into a proffered cleavage, performers will sit on a lap in conditions of emasculated neutrality and obedience to house rules. But true female burlesquers seem to be saying: Don’t just regard us as sex objects; grab the whole package, knowing that any attempt at grabbing would be purely in the mind of an audience that knows what to expect. As already  suggested, that eroto-porn is a male construct in which the female rôle appears problematic is nowhere better illustrated than in the pin-up pictures of women published by tabloid newspapers: the ‘page 3’ syndrome. Female readers may be attracted to them in the same way but they are evidently aimed at men, the implication being that men are in control of editorial matter and are addressing solely male readers. It’s a Freudian slip, because everywhere else in the newspaper such gender targeting is always acknowledged: in articles on fashion, make-up, health, and so on. The probable complicity of women in this titillation simply complicates the issue without ever suggesting that there isn’t one. On video, lesbian porn supposedly ‘filmed by women’, is an attempt to remove men from the arena, which may serve to deflect suggestions of exploitation but does not confront the probability that men figure heavily in the viewing figures: banished from the room, they peer through the window. They may even, in some seedy Weinsteinian manner, be employing the all-women production teams in the first place.

     It does seem, though, despite any private intent to be saying something deeper about deliberately exposed parts of the human anatomy, that only a female enthusiasm for all this – burlesque, eroticism, porn – disarms it of its male hegemony. That applies to anything in which one gender is uppermost and controlling. Equality of empowerment is the solution to most disproportionate relationships, the ones in which inequality leads to tyranny. If there were more consenting adults in all sectors of life’s pleasures of the flesh, the world would be happier. This is possibly what the burlesquer is attempting to say in public about a kinship that to achieve its aim must be private. More like enacted characters from an old-fashioned seaside postcard, the personae adopted by Dolly and Petunia involve tits out but only as an almost incidental part of the performance. Unlike eroticism and porn, it doesn’t involve fantasising on the part of the spectator. Lady Godiva burlesqued is likely to end up with the performer trying to disentangle herself from the fake-horse outfit she’s clambered into, while her boobs flop about and, by that token, get in the way; the flopping being comical not sexual. It’s almost literal titillation, where eroticism connotes expectation and porn gratification. The differences are worth stating. And if there’s any doubt, it seems from the evidence that writing porn requires a jettisoning of any pretence to literary style and effect, whereas writing erotica demands for the essential postponement of coitus a baroque, even rococo, treatment of the strewn path, although most of it wouldn’t be on any academic English syllabus.

     All these issues have been much discussed since the promiscuous Sixties, with conclusions that reflect changes in society’s attitudes to sex. Some would say that with the prevalence and, to some extent, detoxification, of pornography, erotica has become an increasingly quaint sideshow, whereas once there was a dramatic polarisation of what porn and erotica signified. Much of today’s erotic art and literature would be considered pornographic by some generations fifty years ago, and any conclusions reached today might be considered by commentators to be historic and unoriginal. They’d argue that the ubiquity of porn had rendered erotic art and illustration almost irrelevant. In the case of erotic literature, they might say that whether or not the writing was good, bad, or mediocre was much more important than whether it was erotic or pornographic. Of course, that had always been the case, as the Nin exercise demonstrated. But prudery and distaste are probably not in decline.

      Commentators are specialists, not non-specialist consumers. Porn’s omnipresence hasn’t altered the landscape that much:  porn is both everywhere and  nowhere, and there’s scarcely a suggestion that everyone has, or desires to have, access to it. Fewer than thirty years ago, it was doubly hidden away, first between magazine covers and then on the top shelf of the newsagent, out of the reach of children and, unfairly, some height-challenged adults. It’s simply a forbidden pleasure that’s now easily available but still regarded by most as undesirable, corrupting to minors, or uninteresting, not to say comical. Burlesque is surely comical ‘porn’ in public, far removed from suggestions or expectations of intercourse, and real porn’s absurd solemnity, to the extent that it’s almost vaudeville. By the same token, erotic literature, both the literary and the crude, is thriving like never before – the ubiquity of eroticism no less; but not everyone’s interested, even in the better-written examples. Even today, most would no more seek out erotica than they would porn; and if they did, they certainly wouldn’t want anyone to know. The essence and, with universality, the paradox of porn, erotica and the rest is still their condition of having to be retrieved from the shadows. To many, that is their attraction. Even in a world where, it is suggested, countless millions are accessing porn, there’s never a suggestion that it’s no longer a guilty or secret delectation.  A pole-dance audience surveys the slithery gyrations from the half-light. That the shadows have now to be thrown over infinitesimally more examples of what has always been considered questionable is neither here nor there. 

 

 

 

 

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