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CRITIC AT LARGE

Exploring The Exotica Of Erotica

July 28, 1987|CHARLES CHAMPLIN | Times Arts Editor

Librarians continue to report horror stories of attempts by citizens' groups to cleanse the shelves of entirely reputable works whose candor or viewpoints the amateur censors find displeasing.

Like being against drugs, attacking pornography is good, safe, lively political copy, although the outcries are seldom careful to distinguish between the true horrors of child porn and sexual violence, and the acceptable explorations (and celebrations) of a loving sexuality as a central component of the human experience.

Yet having watched the battles for freedom of expression on page, stage, screen and air for a long time now, I have the feeling that the censors, those who want to reimpose the constraints--all the constraints--of an uptight past, have lost their mainstream constituency.

What is now obvious, of course, is that AIDS is bringing the behavioral sexual revolution to a screeching slow-down, if not to a complete halt. But there is a large irony in the fact that the crisis has brought with it a candor in the discussion of sexual matters that is already giving the social arch-conservatives fits.

But the change in attitudes had begun before the AIDS crisis. All those years of restraints on what could be said, shown and dealt with in print or on film had generated a kind of built-up curiosity. With a series of legal decisions (and a change in what the society as a whole found acceptable), almost anything became show and tellable. And there was a rush to experience what previously could be experienced only at lodge smokers or in smuggled French editions. It struck me years ago that we went to see "I Am Curious Yellow" because we were curious, and not yellow.

The curiosity was commercially viable for a while. There was something called "porno chic," although even in the early days the critic Dwight MacDonald was insisting that pornography was sex plus violence, and that sex without violence was eroticism, not the same thing.

But the curiosity wore off. The divorce between love and sex didn't last; it began to be clear that they needed each other. The exploitive excesses of language and everything else began to lose their power to shock and thrill.

On the other hand, the freedom of the storytellers to reflect life accurately and without hypocrisy has been a permanent gain. And audiences don't really seem to have trouble sorting out material that may be distasteful because it is true from material that is distasteful because it is a cynical attempt at a turn-on.

It is hard not to feel that the openness of expression--and the freedom to choose what to consume or to avoid--have vindicated themselves in the society. The essential good sense and sensibility of the majority has helped to identify and isolate the kinkiness on the fringes.

Even before AIDS began to have its chilling effect on sexual mores, there had been a cooling off in attitudes toward laissez-faire rompings in the hay. I'm not really sure that romance was ever entirely displaced as an ingredient in relationships (despite what the teen comedies tried to tell us about young people). But it has certainly been restored to its ancient importance.

As with all revolutions, even if they seem to collapse, the status quo turns out not be quite what it was. Some changes stick. One of them, I feel sure, is that the notion of women as passive objects for exploitation has had it.

At the recent Santa Barbara Writers Conference, a whimsical bit of scheduling placed Charles Schulz, the creator of "Peanuts" and an annual visitor, opposite an attractive young woman who under the pen name Valerie Kelly has written a book called "How to Write Erotica" (Harmony House).

Schulz drew an ample crowd, including many townspeople, in the Miramar Hotel's main auditorium. Kelly drew a standing-room-only crowd, including what looked like a majority of the conferees themselves, to the smaller meeting room on the lower level.

It was possible to guess that the writers had little hope of inventing the next "Peanuts" but could imagine erotica as lurking within their marketable skills.

There may also have been an implicit promise of the odd spicy shock or two. But in fact, the afternoon proved to be about as incendiary as a Julie Child cooking lesson, although equally lively and interesting.

Women, Kelly said, were writing and publishing erotica, expressing women's attitudes and wishes, as steamy as a male fantasist might hope for, yet with caring and mutuality in lieu of that no-name impersonality that always went with the genre.

The conferees, who may have come to giggle, made notes furiously. The startling idea that arose in the crowded room was that erotica might be an exotic genre, not for everyone as writer or consumer, but that it had claims to serious attention as an index of social change.

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