Isn’t Boudoir Just Softcore Porn? [NSFW]

The visual arts have a long history with the naked form. What could be more natural than nakedness, more natural than how we entered the world? Or are we kidding ourselves, and is boudoir just softcore porn?

There are many reasons to take pictures of a naked person, and it’s therefore important to discriminate between the intent of the taker (or whoever has commissioned it) and the response of the viewer. Indeed, the taker will often have a viewer in mind when they take the shot with a response they wish to elicit.

Softcore porn is intended to be erotic (hence the pornography!), but is less sexually graphic than hardcore porn (which would typically be explicit). Wikipedia helpfully describes softcore porn as “sexually arousing and aesthetically beautiful.” It’s an interesting description, with lingerie modeling used as an example. More generally, the term “erotica” has been seen as more socially acceptable.

Using this definition, the three core areas of nude and semi-nude photography are softcore porn: glamour, boudoir, and fine art. Glamour is erotic for the sake of being so and in order to titillate — it’s what both the photographer and viewer want, something that Playboy targeted. Boudoir perhaps also more easily falls under this heading (for example, Kate Hopewell-Smith in the UK). Women — although male clientele is increasing — want to be photographed to look erotically beautiful. Intent is important, because it is for their own and potentially their partner’s consumption.

Fine art is a more complex topic simply because of this: what is fine art? The nude has a long history of portrayal in photography, as well as in art more widely. The first nude photographs date to the invention of the daguerrotype, although who exactly lays claim to that accolade is lost in history. However, the roll call of nude photographers is long ,with notable famous devotees including Edward Weston, Paul Outerbridge, Bill Brandt, Helmut Newton, and Horst P. Horst, among others. Perhaps in modern circles, Trevor and Faye Yerbury epitomize this style of work. Is this because we see beauty in the naked form? Referring to art more widely, John Berger notes that paintings (pre-1800s) of your mistress denoted wealth and were therefore a flagrant demonstration of softcore porn. Do we shoot fine art nudes simply because the history of social norms view them as fine art? Or are they beautiful in and of themselves? Intent is again important, and if they are photographed to look beautiful, does that simply allow stereotypes of softcore porn to persist?

Outside of these three areas, it is perhaps ad campaigns (“glamour”) that are the most divisive. They are, by definition, trying to sell, so if a product has sexual overtones (for example, fashion), then naturally, you want an ad campaign to be either covertly or overtly sexualized. Pretty Little Thing were recently admonished in the UK by the Advertising Standards Agency for an advert that was described as “overly sexualized” in that it objectified women.

However, while the ASA’s code of conduct is based upon social norms for decency, their ruling has been criticised by some women who like both PLT’s products and the advert because it makes them “feel good.” What is interesting in this case is that the advert was intended for women and is a pertinent reminder that while men may find the imagery titillating, women — in this instance — are dressing for their own pleasure. This is in contrast, for example, to the classic Diet Coke and Carls Jr. ads, which clearly objectified both men and women in order to sell their products.

The PLT ad campaign highlights the problem of intent. Some women will feel it styled them, while some men will have been titillated. However, age will also be a factor, with younger people potentially more accepting of changing social norms.

Does any of this matter? Well yes, because whether we like it or not, there is a line in the sand, and you cross it at your peril, something that Janet Jackson can attest to with Nipplegate. Of course, it is a matter of perspective, and while Jackson’s career was severely affected, Justin Timberlake’s appeared to flourish. The complexity of social norms means that the line is quite wide, occupied by a large gray area, which is something that PLT was keen to exploit — to sell more clothes.

So, why is photography so closely linked with erotica? Take a step back and look at Rule 9 in John Medina’s “Brain Rules”:

Vision trumps all other senses.

Vision takes up somewhere around half of our brain processing, but more than that, it is enormously powerful because it grabs our attention, rapidly conveying us messages. Unsurprisingly, photography is important to every aspect of human existence, including sexual attraction. We have a predilection for self-presentation with our reproductive potential in-built and tied to the strongest of urges: arousal.

So, where does this leave photography and softcore porn? Foremost is intent; however, this operates on two levels. Firstly, why do you want the image taken? Is it for the intrinsic beauty of the image or because it is arousing? Generally speaking, fine art would fall in the former, while boudoir can cross over into the latter. However, remember that these aren’t two separate categories, rather ends of a spectrum, as there is no reason why you might also want to look arousing and beautiful.

Intent also operates at the level of how you want to communicate with your viewer. The Carls Jr. ad was clearly intended to arouse in order to sell its product. Boudoir may be intended to arouse a partner while also empowering the subject, which just goes to show that intent can be multi-layered, and while your intent may be for body image, you can’t control either an image’s distribution or its impact upon others. This is something that history teaches over and over again when it comes to photography, and softcore porn is no different.

Finally, when it comes to erotica, there is also the notion of “decency.” This constantly shifts and is unique to the individual, so what I find acceptable, you might think is degrading. This is no better exemplified than with the way UK movie ratings (which are based upon content) have shifted over time — for example, “Lady in a Cage” was rejected release in 1964, before being rated X with cuts. It was eventually released on DVD in 2005, rated 15. Advertisers are keen to exploit this gray area and the potential to shock while remaining on the right side of the consumer (although not necessarily the law).

If we accept that softcore (and indeed hardcore) porn is part and parcel of the photographic oeuvre, how do we view what is “acceptable,” and does it really matter anyway? Photography can elicit the full range of human emotions, of which arousal is particularly powerful. Where is the line and would you cross it?

Lead image courtesy of Lounis Production, used under Creative Commons via Pixabay. Body image courtesy of Jean-Christophe Destailleur (via Wikipedia), Greyerbaby (via Pixabay), and in the public domain via Wikipedia, used under Creative Commons.

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