Eros was the ancient Greek deity of love, fertility and sexual attraction. Like his counterpart in Roman mythology, Cupid, Eros was the winged naked god, who wore a crown of roses and mischievously shot love arrows at humans. The consequences of his actions were frequently chaotic. Once struck, Eros’ targets experienced a burning desire beyond their control.
Our concept of eroticism now has stayed mostly true to its ancient origin. Eroticism is about sex and love, but more specifically it’s about the stuff that arouses desire. Objects with erotic symbolism in our culture include lingerie, candles, erotic novels, poetry, art, music, oysters, whips, feathers and, not surprisingly, roses.
The common thread among erotic materials or practices is they stimulate the brain, our biggest sex organ. Erotic things also excite the body on a sensual level: for example, a light touch that further engages the brain through sexual possibility and anticipation.
Some important contemporary thinkers have championed and elaborated on the meaning of eroticism. According to sex therapist Esther Perel, eroticism isn’t inherently sexual. “It’s an experience of aliveness which beats back deadness,” she says in her work. Again and again, Perel tells people that romantic relationships need two tandem forces to survive: intimacy and eroticism. Intimacy is the sum of the security, predictability and closeness many humans crave in their relationships. But in opposition, they also want mystery, spontaneity, freedom, novelty, creativity, imagination, adventure—all elements of the erotic.
When it comes to eroticism, Perel has clearly been heavily influenced by Audre Lorde, the black, lesbian, feminist poet. It was Lorde who first said that it’s essential we don’t confuse the pornographic with the erotic. Her concept of the erotic, as explained in her 1978 essay, ‘Uses of the Erotic: The Erotic as Power’, is a life-affirming masterpiece. It expands far beyond the bedroom to a much more holistic and powerful understanding of this word.
In essence, Lorde’s eroticism is self-knowledge and the pursuit of our deepest personal cravings in all aspects of our lives, refusing to settle for what is “convenient”, “conventionally expected” or “safe”. It’s hard to describe what Lorde meant by the erotic without cheapening the depth of her words:
“…whether it is dancing, building a bookcase, writing a poem, making love, examining an idea. That self-connection shared is a measure of the joy which I know myself to be capable of feeling, a reminder of my capacity for feeling. And that deep and irreplaceable knowledge of my capacity for joy comes to demand from all my life that it be lived within the knowledge that such satisfaction is possible, and does not have to be called marriage, nor god, nor man nor an afterlife.”
Lorde’s description is enough to make you shiver. She articulates that desire for the fullness of life, to queer external expectations and disappointments, especially for women.
At its core, Lorde did believe eroticism was deeply feminine. She explained that the erotic was a “resource within each of us that lies in a deeply female and spiritual plane, firmly rooted in the power of our unexpressed or unrecognised feeling”. She didn’t think it was a good thing that these feelings remained unexpressed, but it was because those with power sought to “corrupt” or “distort” them as a force for change among oppressed people.
This feminine characterisation of the erotic has to be situated in its second-wave feminist context. Some may accept or reject her gendered language, but Lorde’s idea of the erotic is something everyone can explore within themselves. And she believed that “shared self-connection” had the potential to bridge differences between people. “For not only do we touch our most profoundly creative source, but we do that which is female, that which is self-affirming in the face of a racist, patriarchal, anti-erotic society,” she said.
Great minds like Lorde and Perel have pulled eroticism in different directions, but always at its beating centre, eroticism is about potent human desire, stoked like a flame.