Sex & Relationships

Porn on Paper: Why We’re Still Hot for Erotic Literature

"The written word provides more room and flexibility for personal fantasy."

Photo Credit: Lolostock/Shutterstock

Imagine a young man asleep in his room. His name is Davy. He wakes up to the sound of his mother coming in through the front door. She’s with a man. They head into her bedroom. Davy hears the familiar sound of the headboard banging against the wall. His mother is having sex, again. He walks into the hallway and opens her door just a crack. He sees her sprawled out on the bed, naked, positioned on all fours. Then he walks into the room and puts his hand down his pants. 

That’s not a scene lifted from a recent porn flick. Not that it would be surprising if it were. Incest scenes are one of porn’s top sellers. This scene, however, exists only in text; the story, titled Davy and His Slutty Mom, lives alongside thousands of other scripts in the Alt. Sex Stories Text Repository (ASSTR), one of the web’s many resources for fans of erotic literature.

Rule 34 of the internet states that if it exists, there is porn about it. But before they could film it, they had to write it, and the internet has lent a space to those who would rather read their erotica than watch it.

According to research collected by neuroscientists Ogi Ogras and Sai Gaddam for the book A Billion Wicked Thoughts, women tend to seek out erotic literature more often than men.

“Men respond more to visual imagery,” New York-based sex therapist Michael Aaron told AlterNet in an email. Women, however, may not typically subscribe to the limited variety traditional pornography provides. “The written word provides more room and flexibility for personal fantasy while porn pretty much dictates the image,” explains Aaron. 

You’ve probably heard of the book 50 Shades of Grey? As of 2015, the erotic novel has sold over 100 million copies worldwide, and the majority of its consumers happen to be women.

That’s not to say women don’t watch porn—many do. And some attribute the low number of women logging on to porn sites to reasons other than a gendered set of erotic interests.

“Perhaps women gravitate toward these books not because they are less aroused by hardcore pornography, but because society tells women that they’re not supposed to enjoy more explicit sexual materials,” writes sex therapist Justin Lehmiller.

In their research, Ogras and Gaddam found that women who watch porn tend to like the same kinds of material as men do. But just as there are women who prefer porn, there are men who take to erotica. While both mediums spotlight explicit sexual encounters, they do so in different ways, and for seemingly different reasons. Pornhub, one of the largest porn sites on the web, finds that the average visit to its site lasts just under 12 minutes. Depending on its length, getting through a block of text can take a lot longer than that.

“I imagine a number of individuals read erotica to stimulate fantasy and desire into their relationship rather than as an end goal of getting off,” says Aaron. “They may certainly use [erotica] as a masturbation tool, but they also use it as source material for bringing erotic energy back into their sexual relationships.”

Some even suggest people who feel uncomfortable talking dirty during sex look to erotica as a guide.

As far the content in erotica goes, well, it’s varied. There’s romance, but there’s also kink. There are straight themes and there are gay themes. And then there are narratives that far exceed anything you’d see in mainstream porn. Some include animals and other unlikely subjects of sexual focus. Those willing to take a deep dive into the collections of erotic literature out there will see just how far the human imagination can stretch. Porn costs money to produce, but writing is free, and it is boundless. While there are laws on the books concerning what can be included on film, it’s a lot harder to legislate what someone can write about in a story. 

ASSTR asserts that one of its “founding principles” is free speech. “With this in mind, anyone with anything less than a completely open mind is sure to find something that would get their stomach churning or their temper flamed,” they write.

But new research shows that certain kinds of “alternative fantasies” might not be so alternative after all. A 2014 study published in the Journal of Sexual Medicine found that out of 55 different sexual fantasies out there, just nine were considered unusual, and only two were dubbed rare. Submission and domination fantasies, for example, were pretty common for both men and women, though the authors note that the group of individuals who participated in the study might not exactly be representative of the general population. Those who sign up for sex studies tend to be a bit more adventurous than the average individual.

They also note that many of these fantasies are just that: fantasy. “The majority of our female participants with masochistic fantasies specified they would NOT want to live it,” lead author Christian Joyal wrote in an email to the Washington Post.

In a separate survey of 1,040 adults in Quebec, nearly half expressed interest in acts the American Psychiatric Association has labeled “unusual sexual behavior.” They include voyeurism, rubbing up against strangers, masochism and sadism. 

It’s findings like these that have led Aaron to believe vanilla sex might just be the weirdest “kink” out there. For those looking to expand on, or even enact latent erotic fantasies, diving into the deep web of erotic literature might be a good place to start. 

Carrie Weisman is a writer focusing on sex, relationships and culture.