By Kate Sloan
Erotica in Context
Erotica is a lot of things to a lot of people: a libido-lifter, a mood-booster, a creative outlet, and even an avenue for learning more about themselves and their sexuality. But to understand all that, we first have to understand the cultural context of erotica and where this genre of literature stands today.
While once considered a niche medium, erotica is having a “moment,” and is more influential than ever before. The Fifty Shades of Grey phenomenon is the greatest example: the first novel in the trilogy sold over 125 million copies in its first 4 years, and researchers found in 2013 that 16% of American women – and 9% of all American adults – had read it. The series has been called a “cult” possessing “the power to shape sexual norms” – for better or for worse, this controversial series proved definitively that “female-friendly erotica” is influential not only for its readers but also for the world at large.
And it certainly does influence its readers. According to a survey done by sex researcher Justin Lehmiller in his 2018 book Tell Me What You Want, “pornography/erotica” is the second most common reported source of new sexual fantasies (the first being “imagination,” which, as you might well know, can be strengthened and broadened by reading erotica). BDSM researcher Sam Hughes even considers “seeking out erotic media” to be a vital step in kinky people’s identity formation. The so-called “erotic plasticity theory” posits that women’s sexual tastes are more easily molded by social and cultural influences than men’s, which may explain why sexy short stories seem to not only excite women’s preexisting desires but also create new ones.
Erotic literature can change readers beyond the realm of the salacious, too. Reading fiction, in general, has been shown to increase empathy and reduce prejudices, due to the way it situates us in someone else’s mind. Who knew smut could be so momentous?
Erotica vs. Porn
In a world filled with X-rated tube sites and salacious DVDs, it’s easy to forget that erotic literature has some advantages over its more cinematic counterpart, porn, especially for women. Erotica is commonly framed as something women enjoy more than men – and indeed, the Fifty Shades numbers bear this out. It is said that women prefer romantic short stories over porn because women are “less visual” than men – but some sexuality researchers, like Lehmiller, have suggested that this may have more to do with cultural expectations that women shouldn’t like (or even watch) porn.
Studies show that women react to porn with cognitive dissonance and ambivalence, despite finding it just as physically arousing as men do. This suggests that shame, stigma, and self-judgment about viewing porn can inhibit women’s ability to enjoy it. It doesn’t help that most mainstream porn is made by men for men, thereby barely aligning with what women (especially straight women) want to see. The explosive growth of the “erotica for women” genre is encouraging, if just because it’s one space where women are actually consistently catered to.
While it would be wonderful for our culture to evolve to a point where everyone who wants to watch porn can do so without judgment (and can actually find porn that turns them on), in the meantime many women seem to feel better about consuming erotica. This may be due to what sex researcher Emily Nagoski calls “erotic context”: erotica gives you a window into characters’ motivations and personalities in ways that porn often does not, and women’s sexual desire tends to be more “context-sensitive” than men’s. Seeing as stress is known to inhibit women’s arousal, it makes sense that they would prefer a medium where they don’t have to worry about whether the sex being presented is pleasurable or even consensual – the characters will tell them.
Perhaps for this reason, the sex in erotica is often perceived as more “authentic” or “real” than the acrobatic, performative sex you see in porn. In a survey of people who read fanfiction – a popular genre of modern erotica – 67% of respondents thought the sex in fanfiction is more realistic than the sex in porn, and 75% said they would try sex acts they’d read about in fanfiction, whereas only 53% said they’d try sex acts they saw in porn. Other research shows that women enjoy porn less if they perceive the sex acts therein as unrealistic or inauthentic – so, if erotica is more realistic in its portrayal of sex, that might partially explain why women tend to gravitate toward it more than porn.
Erotica as Cultural Activism
As we’ve discussed, sexy short stories aren’t solely masturbation fodder – they can also have concretely positive effects on readers’ lives, both in the bedroom and beyond. A 2017 study found that women who read erotica are likelier both to participate in BDSM and to report higher levels of sexual satisfaction, suggesting erotica helps women figure out what they want sexually and go after it. Feminist thinker Naomi Wolf argues in her book Vagina that consistently experiencing sexual pleasure and orgasm can make a woman stronger and more self-actualized, noting, “Dopamine can be read as the ultimate feminist chemical in the female brain.”
While much of the research on porn posits that it encourages violence toward, and sexual objectification of, women, the female-led world of romance and erotica often seeks to rewrite harmful love narratives in our culture and can even help heal women’s fraught relationships with men under patriarchy. The ultra-clear sexual consent expressed in (some) erotica has been called a form of “cultural activism,” since it “challenges… dominant discourses about gender, romance, sexuality, and consent.” Maybe if more people read erotica – especially good, consent-focused erotica – we could begin to shift toward a more equitable model of human relationships and sexuality, one that hinges on mutual respect and pleasure.
A major part of erotica’s impact, of course, is its ability to instill desire and arousal in readers. Women, in particular, often feel disconnected from their own sexualities, experiencing what Nagoski calls “arousal non-concordance”: difficulty recognizing oneself as subjectively turned on even when one is physically aroused. This might be due to the lack of an erect penis as a visible arousal signifier in cisgender women, the cultural stigma around female sexuality, women’s higher rates of sexual trauma, or some combination thereof.
In any case, research shows women’s self-reported arousal from reading erotica is greater if they’re in a positive mood while reading it, they’ve eliminated as many distressing and distracting thoughts as possible, and they consciously think about their own arousal as it’s happening (e.g. “I’m getting so turned on!”). So if you want to maximize the positive effects of your erotica consumption, set aside other tasks and worries as best you can and focus on the pleasure you feel while reading. You deserve it!
Mood & Mind
While being in a good mood increases erotica’s effects, some people report that erotica itself puts them in a good mood. Sex writer Sarah Jane says erotica helps ease her anxiety; this may be due to a psychological phenomenon known as the misattribution of arousal, where (in this case) you notice you’re having anxiety symptoms, like a pounding heartbeat and quickening breath, but your mind blames these effects on the hot erotica you’re reading, and assumes they’re a good thing. When the story you’re reading climaxes (so to speak) and then resolves, you might find your anxiety resolving, too.
A 2018 study found that sexual arousal helps alleviate feelings of disgust in contamination-fearful OCD patients, suggesting that taking some regular “me time” could help lessen your negative moods and compulsions in general. Along similar lines, a 2017 study found that people make more indulgent choices when sexually aroused, like buying more and eating more – and while that might not always be a good thing, it could be empowering for women in a world constantly telling them they’re “too much” and that they should take up less space, both literally and metaphorically. Women’s shame and self-moderation is well-documented, especially in areas such as food and sex – and if reading erotica helps loosen those restricting feelings for you, so much the better.
Identity & Community
The erotica medium still has its flaws, like any medium. One analysis of romance novels found that their protagonists were overwhelmingly white, straight, young, able-bodied, and childless (plus presumably cisgender, though that isn’t mentioned in the study) – which narrows perceptions of who “gets to be sexy,” and may make some marginalized readers feel like love and good sex are out of reach for them due to their identities. This points to the importance of diversity in erotica and romance; these mediums have the ability to debunk stereotypes and redefine sexiness if approached with those goals in mind. We know that fanfiction – and, by extension, other erotica – helps shape readers’ self-discovery and sexual development, so it’s vital that these genres represent all kinds of sex involving all kinds of people, so no one feels left out or underrepresented. Every type of reader deserves access to the many benefits of erotica, regardless of their background or identities.
We see narrow demographics in erotica research as well, which until now has largely focused on cisgender, heterosexual, allosexual (i.e. not asexual) people. Further scientific inquiry into this area will hopefully focus more on LGBTQ+ consumers of erotica – though, for the time being, if we want to understand more about how queer, trans, and non-binary people interact with their erotic literature, we can look to fanfiction research. Communities of fanfic writers and readers tend to contain higher proportions of LGBTQ+ people – for example, the 2013 census of fanfiction hub Archive of Our Own had more genderqueer respondents than male ones, and only 38% of respondents identified as heterosexual. With any luck, the diversity, openness, and transgressiveness of this erotica subtype will soon spread through the entire erotica genre.
Sexuality is one of the most powerful and pervasive forces in the world. Jonathan Margolis, author of O: The Intimate History of the Orgasm, posits that testosterone – the hormone primarily responsible for sexual desire in men, women, and everyone else – is “the single most influential chemical in human history”; if that’s true, then erotica may even have the power to influence our trajectory as a species!
This genre of literature still faces marginalization and diminishment by the culture at large, but its readers report that erotica can boost their mood, stoke their arousal, broaden their desires, shore up their self-conception, and even foster their empathy. It’s not just hot – it’s life-altering.
Kate Sloan is a writer, podcaster, and storyteller who specializes in sex, kink, and relationships. Her award-winning sex blog at girlyjuice.net has been going strong for 8 years and her writing has also appeared in publications like Cosmopolitan, Teen Vogue, and Glamour (katewritesaboutsex.com). She also cohosts the podcasts The Dildorks and Question Box, and her introductory kink book '101 Kinky Things That Even You Can Do' is forthcoming in 2021.