Helen Croydon: Reading between the sheets

Are we so reticent about sex that we must mask it in a highbrow facade?

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Erotica is, by definition, literature or art of a sexual nature. Unlike pornography, it doesn't necessarily have the aim of arousing sexual desire. That makes last weekend's Erotica '09 exhibition in London inappropriately named.

Yes there was an entertaining mix of exhibits from extravagant love Jacuzzis and leopard-print silk bed spreads to downright terrifying whips, chains and – look away now if you're faint hearted – gadgets that give electric shocks. Shudder. There was plenty of eye-candy too: glamorous girls towering 8ft high on stilts, and dancing male models with stomach muscles as bumpy as a mountain of moguls. There was an eye-popping display of sex toys so technically advanced that it made the Large Hadron Collider look like a Wendy House. One exhibitor, LoveHoney, has got sex down to such a science that its staff stood in lab coats with clip boards offering personalised anatomy-specific advice.

But there was very little art or literature. Why do the British feel the need to mislabel anything racy with the term erotica? Apparently if you want sordid no-strings-sex with a stranger you go "erotic dating". If you want to try swinging but are too worried about your Google search history and the IT-police, no problem, just look for an "erotic ball".

Is it because we are so reticent about sex that we feel the need to mask it with a highbrow façade? Or is it social snobbery? It's not chic to talk porn, but go to a dinner party and retell your visit to the Le'enfer exhibition at the Bibliotheque Nationale in Paris and that's simply fascinating, darling. You can have a painting of Lady Godiva above your fireplace, but would you admit to being drawn in by pictures of Katie Price posing seductively on a horse in a recent promo for equestrian clothing?

Art critics attempt to distinguish erotica from porn by suggesting that eroticism explores the emotions of sex, while pornography is limited to the physical aspects. But the boundaries have always been blurred. In 1857 Michelangelo's naked statue, David, arrived at a London museum. All were content that this was "art" but curators still thought it best to reach for a fig leaf.

Then there was Lady Chatterley's Lover. What a definition nightmare that book was. It was banned under the Obscene Publications Act until 1961. But now that it is safely in the genre of literature, we can read it on the Tube. Consider also the kerfuffle when super-model Lily Cole – beautiful, pure, with skin like porcelain – appeared nude on the cover of French Playboy, her assets concealed by a teddy bear. She said it was art. Others considered her downgraded to Bunny Girl.

Historically language changes the most quickly in areas of taboo. The more times a euphemism is used, the quicker it becomes associated with the negative connotations we are trying to avoid. It would be a real shame if "erotica" became one and the same as a backstreet Soho store flogging PVC nurses' uniforms and glow-in-the-dark nipple tassels just because we aren't brave enough to use the s-word.

There sure as hell isn't anything wrong with high-octane vibrators, quick-fasten suspenders and multi-sensual massage machines, but let's call them sex commodities. Don't deride art with all your linguistic dodgings.

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