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Eroticism’s Missing Link

When I saw these erotic postcards from the 20s, I was surprised by the shivery delight they created. Beyond being just sexy, they made me happy, a feeling I couldn’t account for until I analyzed what was special about them. Do we really live in the healthiest era for sexuality that’s ever existed?


Mashable shared these back in May, making them relatable to millennials by calling them “PG-13 Selfies” and condescendingly cooing over their antiquated charm. Isn’t is endearing, say they, what people found titillating back them? Oh, how quaint, when a bit of stocking was risqué! But I found these sexier than any Redtube porn that’s produced with the same robotic precision as are predictable money shots. I found them more arousing and engaging than 90% of the sex scenes I see on HBO (and God knows they try so desperately).

I almost never see modern depictions of sexuality so playful, affectionate, fun, or MUTUAL. In each postcard, both people are comfortable, excited, and focused on each other… I feel short-changed that something so basic is depressingly rare in sexual media I see today. I felt cheated once I realized what made them so wonderful. It should not be rare and magical to find erotic art that depicts consensual, joyful, attentive erotic play.


I sometimes hear all of history dismissed as a one-note regressive slog of prudery and shame that’s only recently shifted, but that’s simply not accurate. We may be saturated with sexual images and discussion now, but the absence of repression does not necessarily indicate that the fish tank is healthy – the pH could easily be out of balance in the other direction. Orwell depicted a world in Nineteen Eighty Four where sex was rigidly controlled and regarded as an unpleasant duty, and this is the extreme that’s usually presented when describing unhealthy sexual perceptions. But Aldous Huxley showed the other end of that spectrum in Brave New World, where sex was as mundane and meaningless as after-school chores. Inundation is no healthier than repression, not when sex loses all its context, value, intimacy… everything that makes it transcendent and joyful.


A friend of mine contributed that it was the “natural and joyous” attitude the models had that made the postcards so involving. She said it was wonderful how unposed they were, how they were more involved with each other than in showing their best side-boob angle to the camera.

They offer context and focus. I hear women and men say often that one of the most erotic experiences is to be desired and focused on. To hold a partner’s undivided, ardent attention, to know that the sight, smell, and feel of your body is pleasurable to them. Why then, in a well-lit, stylized internet porn, are both partners barely touching while the camera hones in on a medical image that has become meaningless without any other form of intimacy colouring it? Who really has sex like that, pushed away from each other as much as possible so that the man can be cropped out of the shot?


In a Tedx talk from 2013, Ran Gavrieli discussed “Why I Stopped Watching Porn”. At the time I was wary and critical because I still believed all depictions of sexuality must be inherently progressive and laudable. But he discussed how the aggressive, goal-oriented porn he found online made him irritable and impatient in his day-to-day life. He missed fantasizing about why he and the woman found themselves alone. He’d trained himself to want instant gratification and could no longer indulge in anything but the mechanics of the act.

From that I learned not all depictions of sexuality are created equal. And apparently, the majority of what I’ve been exposed to has been so lacking in connection or context that it feels dazzling to see a man kiss his sweetheart’s forehead instead of immediately interacting with her exposed panties. Their joy in each other and their excitement at being alone are more erotic than all the pitchy, artificial moans in the world.


Though it’s the women whose lush thighs and shaded nether regions are being framed in these postcards, they offer no less eroticism for women than they would for men. Look at how he whispers in her ear; how he cradles her head; how she’s the one thing he’s interested in. Whether you’re the pursuer or the pursued, there’s a magic to how the world vanishes when you lose yourself in a partner’s desire. Noisy bars sound submerged and far away when he touches the nape of your neck. Eye-contact can be disarmingly electrifying in and of itself. A locked door feels like an obliging fortress preventing anyone from disturbing your stolen leisure.

I am not being sentimental when I ask for context and intimacy – intimacy can be a dark, challenging thing as easily as it can be mushy. Intimacy is paying attention for the subtle signs that a partner has been triggered by a past trauma. Intimacy can be a dominant who knows a sub can only stay in certain positions for under ten minutes. Intimacy is a girlfriend who puts her hand inside her boyfriend’s coat while they’re on the subway, because she’s allowed. It’s focus and surrender co-existing in one pulse. As Joseph Gordon Levitt pointed out in his brilliant Don Jon, it’s “getting lost in another person”.


Television studios could learn something from these postcards, not just in terms of how to present eroticism, but also in how they present everything that surrounds and informs our attitudes towards sexuality (I’m talking to YOU, Game of Thrones). Netflix is on the forefront of this, having given free reign to Melissa Rosenberg, the writer and show-runner of the massively successful “Jessica Jones”. Skip past the naught bicycle accident to bypass possible spoilers.

In contrast to how HBO depicts sexual violence against both women and men so exploitively and gratuitously that it ceases to examining rape culture at all, Melissa Rosenberg never had to show it on screen to tell a stronger story.

“If I never see an actual rape on a screen again it’ll be too soon,” she said in a recent interview with the Hollywood Reporter, to whooping agreement from me in my pyjamas. “It’s becoming ubiquitous, it’s become lazy storytelling and it’s always about the impact it has on the men around them.”
I am sick of turning my head and muting yet another brutal rape scene that has been dropped in just to shock and not to create empathy. Seeing yet another woman salaciously violated and knowing the predominantly male writers will defend it as “being real” or “confronting the issue” makes me want to punch a hole clean through my laptop screen. Rosenberg aims for richer territory with Jessica Jones, in which “the events have already happened and this is really about the impact of rape on a person and about healing, survival, trauma and facing demons.”
Maybe studio execs feel like scenes had to be as short and brutal as a Redtube clip to hold a viewer’s attention, and maybe they have just cause to feel that way. If so, then I dread a ratchet-effect on the presentation of sexuality on TV: will sex be presented as more and more shocking to keep everyone live-tweeting and hashtagging a show to trending status? If I am so deprived of intimate, consensual images that I reach for these postcards like a parched castaway finding a spring, then I fear a tightening of the trend as viewers become harder to hold.
Does sex loses its power and luxury when Tinder, Grindr, or OKC/POF allows you to hook up with a new person 2-3 times a week? Apps like that have struck me as gratingly goal-oriented, and it’s part of why I’ve lot nearly all interest in them. A brush of the hand, prolonged eye-contact, a whisper that only I hear… all of this unfolded for its own pleasure, its own immediate reward. I am strange in many things, but I believe this may be the one red-blooded thing about me. Sexuality without eroticism may as well be dental surgery with local anaesthetic: I’d just be accommodating politely and wondering how long before I can eat again.

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Eroticism is not nearly as intimidating to achieve as it sounds. I think that it could be taught as a classical field of study the way Ethics and Aesthetics are. It has many structures to be investigated like a natural science, yet the mystery of an art form in that it will never entirely make sense why we are drawn to what we want. The one thing I know for sure about eroticism is its foundation always lies in an emotional, intellectual, spiritual, or psychological context that compels us further into the labyrinth. Power, vulnerability, exposure, adoration, exhibition, protection, risk, and understanding all colour sexuality with their attendant gradients.
The postcards do more than flush my cheeks; they remind me that excitement and enjoyment are the very least I should be able to expect, not just from erotic media, but in my own experience.

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