Isn't Boudoir Just Softcore Porn? [NSFW]

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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41 Comments

Deleted Account's picture

I suppose some people would masturbate to it.

Meh

Rob Davis's picture

Why is Fstoppers trying to get us to fight with each other so much lately?

Deleted Account's picture

This one did seem pretty clickbatey

Pierre Dasnoy's picture

Because that makes people come back on pages, see adverts, and make them money.

alex muccilli's picture

It's being run by Russian bots now.

Foto Toad's picture

Answer: probably, usually, sometimes.

Black Z Eddie .'s picture

No, boudoir <> softcore porn. No sex or explicit/erotic poses = no porn.

One would have to be one hell of a prude to think so.

Just me's picture

Different is using this :
' != ' ✔
not
' <>'❌

Black Z Eddie .'s picture

No. '<>' means 'does not equal to', and, that's what I was conveying.

John Dawson's picture

Actually, !== is more accurate. 🤣

Pierre Dasnoy's picture

Portrait, boudoir, erotic, porn, midget bondage pov ... The line is thin from one to the next.
What's the goal of boudoir in the end, if not a bit of excitation ? (not saying I'd get horny seeing lingerie)

"How far is too far ?"
Do what you please. If you want to shoot boudoir, stay quiet. If you want to shoot porn, that should be explicit.

Keith Meinhold's picture

I find the vast difference in how subjects are portrayed based on gender fascinating. The portrayal of the female form are often accepted where a male photo would not be. An image that clearly highlight's a woman's breast size gets a vastly different reception than a similar image that highlight's a man's endowment.

Just scroll down and look at the featured photos for examples of this broad disparity.

liliumva's picture

The thing is you're looking at boudoir from a male-centric view. You are not asking, nor including ,the female perspective of what boudoir means to us(women) being the main consumer of boudoir photography.Boudoir for women is about empowerment, it is about feeling comfortable with your body, sexuality and expressing it. It is not comparable to softcore porn.

Pierre Dasnoy's picture

Thank you for reminding us that half of us are women :)

Keith Meinhold's picture

Excellent point about the male centric view. I am surprised to hear women are main consumer of boudoir photography. Perhaps what women see as boudoir, men see as soft core porn.

Rod Kestel's picture

A woman in my book told of how she shot boudoir for women on a military base while their spouses were sent to war. They wanted to communicate an intimacy, she said. A 'kinder' photo shoot is incredibly empowering.
She had a few other funny stories like the kids knocking on the door during the shoot.
Does it bother you? her first customer asked. No, I don't give a shit, I worked in a sex shop.

Claire Whitehead's picture

I don't know that I would strictly agree on a sociological level.
Self sexualisation does bring satisfaction via being admired and attracting attention. Those things are very validating for women, and they are symbols of influence and status, Self sexualisation has always been the most available, albeit very narrow, path to power for girls. Power and empowerment are not the same Neither are sexual objectification and sexuality, which are often confused.
To say women are empowered I think we would need to see women on a whole having far more influence over this kind of industry, but they don't. I think boudoir is largely a response to porn - trying to balance the appear of being sexually desired, while attempting to mitigate the shame and judgement faced by women who do actually create porn.

David Pavlich's picture

The shots can be done tastefully or they can look like they came from the pages of Hustler.

Pete Whittaker's picture

"Isn't Boudoir Just Softcore Porn?" ...and if it is, what's wrong with that?

Joseph Balson's picture

I want to shoot street boudoir now.

Dan Howell's picture

I think a better question would be- Isn't it time to stop using the term boudoir?

Mike Smith's picture

Good point! Does intent matter and what would bea better term?

Dan Howell's picture

Boudoir means a woman's private sitting room or bedroom. So what are photos that take place outside. If we are going to play fast a loose with definitions why that term. It's dated and stilted. Even the ubiquitous term Glamour is more useful than Boudoir. I seriously would never use the term Boudoir professionally. It is not descriptive to the point of meaninglessness.

Mike Ditz's picture

Yes Dan, Just because it is a very difficult word to spell.

Daniel Hobebila's picture

It would be better if people would finally learn to use words for appropriate situations that correspond to their meaning.

Pierre Dasnoy's picture

In french, "boudoir" is also the name for the biscuit ladyfinger.
That always confused me as a kid when my grandma used "boudoir" as a room in her house.

Mike Rodgers's picture

A rose by any other name....

Daniel Hobebila's picture

"Isn't Boudoir Just Softcore Porn?"

No. Because "porn" needs at least one man and one woman having sexual intercourse with each other and where exactly _this_ event is recorded. That would be "porn." Everything else is just (heavily) erotic.
Or in short: No intercourse, no porn. Very simple.

Deleted Account's picture

LOL

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