The past decade has seen a boom in the number of women seeking out stories so steamy, they would make even Christian Grey blush.
It’s impossible to talk about erotic books without talking about the role the Fifty Shades of Grey series had in normalizing page porn. The books, and then the movies, forced everyone to acknowledge that yes, women fantasize about sex. They gave us permission to get in touch with (and touch) our sexual selves, and they helped us understand that human desire is far more complicated than our middle school health classes would have had us believe.
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Now if you take a stroll through the erotica section of any Barnes & Noble, you’re not only likely to see Channing Tatum lookalikes on book covers—but also toys and props like handcuffs, whips, and dildos, which suggest far kinkier and non-normative sexual content than even Fifty Shades. Let’s put it this way: The erotica gracing today’s bookshelves are not your parents stories about the birds and the bees.
Instead, today’s top erotica writers are scripting stories ranging from sweet to filthy. They’re about straight women, lesbian women, bisexual women, men who sleep with men, and across a spectrum of gender identities. This in turn gives readers access to a greater range and breadth of sexuality than ever before.
I’m a long-time erotica reader. As the genre of erotica has evolved, so have I: congruent, simultaneous, even serendipitous.
I first found erotica in the fifth grade, the year my parents let me walk the mile to our local bookshop, realizing they’d rather not play chauffer to my bookish ways. I returned home with the next book in the Beacon Street Girl series, as planned. But tucked behind that purchase was a book I’d picked from the romance aisle for its unassuming cover by Lori Foster. Sure, there was a fleeting feeling of shame that came when the store owner rang up my purchases. But there was also another kind of rush, one that lasted far longer.
My burgeoning sexual self continued to return to smut thereafter. A reader of erotica for well over 15 years now, I can say with certainty that while knowledgeable and skilled partners have come and gone, it’s been erotica that’s taught me (almost) everything I know about sex and pleasure.
When the storyline lights a spark of interest, I read and re-read the section as my erotic self blossoms freely. My heartbeat races, my face flushes, my muscles twitch, and my fingers turn the pages. By illuminating our imagination, erotica gives us the tools to fantasize freely, learn actively, and connect (or reconnect) to both our sexual desires and fantasies.
And while I’m all for porn you can watch, I prefer porn you can read. I get to set the pace, pick which parts to skim, and use my imagination to picture exactly what is happening. The story creates the outline of the fantasy, while my imagination gets to fill in the blanks. I can visualize myself as the main character, or I can simply act as a voyeur of the scene.
Just as people can enjoy watching porn they don’t want to try or can’t try in real life (for example, a lesbian woman getting turned on by gay male porn), that same freedom exists for readers of erotica. I am a queer woman, but reading gay male erotica is one of my pleasures, guilt-free. To fantasize in this way is as thrilling as it is escapist.
Yet, while erotica is fantasy, it can be more than that. Erotica can be a great space to learn about our bodies and our pleasure in an affirming place. For example, Lori Foster’s graphic scenes taught me about the potential pleasure of oral sex. When I graduated from Lori Foster, I moved onto Maya Banks, E.L James, and Sylvia Day, where I learned the intrigue of (consensual) power play.
As I came into my identity as a queer woman, the erotica I reached for became increasingly non-normative, from writers such as Gabby Rivera, Leslie Feinberg, Abigail Barnette, and Fiona Zedde, to name a few. Their stories taught me the erotic potential in anything from queer sex and age gaps to domestic chores and dinner dates.
Formal sex education classes simply don’t teach this full scope of human sexuality the way these books do. Nor do sex ed classes teach the intricacies of sex and safety. Sure, I learned how to put a condom on a banana—but I didn’t learn which STIs condoms protect against or how to use a female condom. And while my mom did her best to supplement my sex education with graphically illustrated “learning” books, it was really erotica where I learned the importance of safe sex.
Erotica is by no means the equivalent of a safe sex manual. But it’s where I was first exposed to condoms, blunt talk about STIs, and using birth control pills. When safe sex appears in erotica, it makes it clear that “safe” does not equal “boring.”
Erotica has given me a non-threatening space to explore and learn about sex. But when it comes down to it, I don’t read erotica to study sex—I read it because it’s fun.