Photo by / Khrystyna Shynkaruk

The Power of the Erotic

Valentine’s Day is one of the most misunderstood and underappreciated holidays. It’s one of my favorites, despite often being reduced to consumerist anti-single propaganda. While I relish Valentine’s Day for the opportunity to celebrate love and romance, I more love Valentine’s Day as a celebration of eroticism.

When I say eroticism, sexual connotations may come to mind. But eroticism extends far beyond sex — as lesbian feminist poet Audre Lorde argues in her 1978 essay (one of the most important of the 20th century),“Uses of the Erotic: The Erotic as Power.”

While associated with all things sex, true eroticism is rooted in pleasure: it’s the deep well of enjoyment and divine satisfaction that exists within each of us (as Lorde argues, particularly women — or rather, this erotic pleasure is rooted in that which is labeled feminine) that is accessed through feeling. While sex can inspire the erotic, sex in and of itself is not necessarily erotic; it’s the openness and release of orgasm, the sensation of physical connection, the feeling of skin against skin. As Lorde puts it, “… the erotic is not a question only of what we do; it is a question of how acutely and fully we can feel in the doing.” Sex that is nonerotic, that denies and disempowers feeling and divine pleasure, is the pornographic. It is the pornographization of sex (extending beyond the literal porn industry to the ethos of hookup culture, rape culture, and the feminization — and therefore subjugation — of emotion) that is weaponized against women.

Anything that can be done with present, uninhibited, somatic, and divine joy is erotic: eating a delicious meal, feeling the sun on your face, writing poetry, dancing. The erotic is everywhere, in everything that makes us feel not only good (as merely hedonistic pleasures do) but fulfilled, embodied, and at peace. Regardless of if and how we have sex, the erotic is available to us all, a divine power resting within that, when set free, connects us to our truest selves.

“Another important way in which the erotic connection functions is the open and fearless underlining of my capacity for joy,” Lorde writes. “In the way my body stretches to music and opens into response, hearkening to its deepest rhythms, so every level upon which I sense also opens to the erotically satisfying experience, whether it is dancing, building a bookcase, writing a poem, 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 of 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 an afterlife. This is one reason why the erotic is so feared, and so often relegated to the bedroom alone, when it is recognized at all.”

This erotic pleasure, though undefined and undervalued by most, is not only our birthright, but our natural inclination. The way we choose to celebrate love during Valentine’s Day inclines toward a celebration of pleasure: the richness of chocolate and wine, the delicate beauty of lingerie and flowers, the intimacy of a bubble bath and candlelit dinner. Whether we consciously know it or not, erotic satisfaction is something we all pursue and are capable of experiencing. However, when we do consciously acknowledge and pursue it — and don’t diminish it, as we (especially women) are taught to — it can be a source of empowerment.

“We have been raised to fear the yes within ourselves, our deepest cravings,” Lorde says. “…As we begin to recognize our deepest feelings, we begin to give up, of necessity, being satisfied with suffering and self-negation, and with the numbness which so often seems like their only alternative in our society.”

Whether you’re single or just cynical, you love love or think it’s overrated, or you’re aromantic or asexual and don’t think V-Day is for you, the power of eroticism is for all of us. When we build a life around genuine, life-affirming pleasure, we build a life that is loving, joyful, present, emotive, and above all else, empowering. That is what each of us deserves.