The Cultural History of Erotic Love

The term “erotic” is derived from the Greek word eros (érōs). The ancient Greek word “eros” was first used to describe a desire for beauty and an appreciation of art (Lomas, 2018).

“Erotic love” refers to the perception of a lover’s beloved as a beautiful object worthy of aesthetic admiration. “Erotic love is about aesthetic pleasure, while sexual love is about sensual (sexual) pleasure.” (Karandashev, 2022a). Both are surely interconnected. In sexually stimulating situations, erotic can readily shift to sensual and sexual sensations. These sensations naturally overlap because human emotions are complex.

The cultural concepts of erotic art and literature have been portrayed in painting, sculpture, music, lyrics, dances, theater, and fashion. These artistic mediums convey the aesthetic values of bodily form and motion, facial structure and expression, and musical melody and rhythm.

Throughout the history of art, different cultures have presented erotic art and erotic love in various ways.

Many examples of erotic and pornographic art have been seen throughout history in various cultures, including classical ancient Greece (5th–4th centuries BC), ancient Rome (1st century B.C.–mid-3rd century A.D.), the Chinese Ming dynasty (14th–17th centuries), the Japanese Edo period of Tokugawa (17th–19th centuries), Korean 20th-century culture, early modern Italy, India, and modern Japan (see for review, e.g., Feldman & Gordon, 2006).

Erotic Love in Ancient Greece and Rome

The sexual cultures of pre-Christian Greece and Rome were open. They were artistically and literarily well-developed. Erotic art and sexual pleasure were highly regarded by them.

The Romans were more sexually liberal than people in subsequent Western cultures. The erotic art was proudly displayed in homes and public spaces, displaying wealth and luxury. Artists sold their erotic works to a variety of consumers, including the wealthy and the poor. (Clarke, 1998; Hubbard, ed., 2013; Nussbaum & Sihvola, eds., 2019; Skinner, 2013; Vout, 2013). The depictions of sex, sensuality, and erotica in ancient Greek and Roman art were very explicit. Beautiful bodies, phallic symbols, amorous poses, and sexual situations of their gods were depicted in sculptures and paintings. Scenes of seduction adorned the drinking cups, oil lamps, and walls. Roman painters represented a variety of human sexual interactions between men and women, women and men, threesomes, and foursomes, demonstrating how the ancient concepts of erotic love, sensual love, and sexual love differed from modern cultural models (e.g., Clarke, 1998; Vout, 2013).

Courtesans and their Erotic Love

In many cultures, erotic love was displayed by courtesans, such as hetaeras, tawaifs, and ji-s, who performed their “love” with artistic charm, elegant conversation, and sexual favors to excite the erotic love of men. The art of the courtesans showed erotic love in beautiful ways.

That erotic love was not the same as the sexual love that prostitutes provided to men (or women) to satisfy their lust. That erotic love was not the same as romantic love because it was not sincere and not personal. The courtesans’ behaviors and expressions were just role-played love. It was perfectly displayed, but it was not personal. Throughout history and across many societies, courtesans performed erotic love for money or other material benefits. Many case studies of courtesans’ art of love depicted in historical research have presented examples of erotic art and erotic love (Feldman & Gordon, 2006).

Courtesans’ Love in China and Japan of the Past

For instance, during the late Ming period of the 16th–17th centuries in China, women in these roles actively participated in elite culture. The literary and artistic works of courtesans significantly influenced new standards of beauty, gender roles, and cultural aspirations (Berg, 2009). Another instance is Japanese culture of the past. During the Edo period of Tokugawa in the 17th–19th centuries, Japanese art extensively made the special erotic art of “shunga”—the “laughing pictures” intended to entertain people with amusing pleasure. The shunga literature and art of those times were esthetically erotic rather than pornographic. Nonetheless, in contemporary Japan, shunga is widely considered taboo (Ishigami & Buckland, 2013).