What is the erotic?
As we saw in the previous module, given widespread experiences of sexual harm, some feminists have taken an overwhelmingly negative perspective on sex. Focusing on cases such as sexual harassment, sexual assault, sexual objectification, and sexual exploitation, for these feminists sex is a site of women’s degradation and oppression. Other feminists, however, identifying as pro-sex, have insisted that sex can be an experience of pleasure and liberation for women. In the reading by Greta Christina in the previous module, we saw one pro-sex feminist attempt to distance sex from violence and harm, which was simply to deny that non-consensual sex is sex at all. In this module, we saw another way in which feminists have sought to reclaim sexuality, which is to draw a distinction between the erotic, which is consensual and empowering, and the pornographic, which is coercive and misogynist. For Lorde, the erotic is a highly positive form that sexuality can take for women, and is also much more than sex as it can and ideally does infuse all aspects of our lives.
As we also saw in this module, these debates about what eros is, and the degree to which it is good or bad, go back for thousands of years. While the ancient Greeks prized erotic love enough to deify it in the forms of Eros and Aphrodite, we also saw that they felt anxiety around certain forms of erotic experience, particularly men and boys being sexually passive. Much as Lorde distinguishes between two forms of sexual experience – the (good) erotic and the (bad) pornographic – the ancient Greeks distinguished between multiple forms of love, including erotic love, and not only struggled to define the erotic but also to ethically and politically delineate good and bad forms of sex.
In concluding this module, reflect on what eros means to you. Do you understand the erotic as a striving for completion and fulfillment, as both Aristophanes and Lorde suggest, or do you see it as a yearning for the good and beautiful, as argued by Socrates and Diotima? Do you see the erotic as limited to sexual experiences, as is commonly understood, or do you follow Socrates, Diotima, and Lorde in seeing eros as something greater and more spiritual, an experience that can infuse all aspects of our lives?
CHALLENGE ONE: Imagine that you are at the symposium at Agathon’s house the evening they decide to make speeches in praise of love. Perhaps you are Aristodemus, or another man present whom we don’t hear from in Plato’s text. Or perhaps you are the flute girl, or one of the other women in the women’s quarters who hears from the flute girl about what the men are up to, and decide to make a speech about eros yourself. What would you say? For this Challenge, write your own short speech (500 – 750 words) on eros and share it in the Challenge Sharing Forum.
CHALLENGE TWO: For this Challenge, research some academic discussions of the pornography-erotica distinction and write a short report (500 – 750 words) on what you find. Your research should go beyond search engines such as Google and you should reference at least one academic book or article. If in doubt, check in with your instructor or one of your Teaching Assistants about the source(s) you intend to reference.