Formal sex education classes rarely teach the full scope of human sexuality; sure, I learned how to put a condom on a banana, but I didn’t learn which STI’s condoms protect against, and I certainly didn’t learn how to use a female condom. And, yes, I learned about menstruation, but I didn’t learn about masturbation, consent or non-heterosexual intercourse.
And while my mom did her best to supplement my middle and high school education (I went into the first-grade teaching all my friends what sex was and showing them my new, graphically-illustrated sex-ed book), as a straight woman who came of age 40 years before myself, there were certain things she couldn’t, or perhaps, wouldn’t teach me.
When we begin coming into our sexuality, we realize that there is more to sex than what our antiquated sexual education system has taught us, but that doesn’t mean that we are left totally in the dark.
I looked elsewhere to fill in the missing gaps in my knowledge around I learned the intricacies of agency, consent, safer sex practices, and communication through sleepaway camp, babysitters, the internet, and my favorite: romance and erotica novels. While I’ve long outgrown sleepaway camp, haven’t needed a babysitter since sixth grade and have stopped purchasing Cosmopolitan magazine before long plane rides, my bookshelves continue to get filled by sex ed material: erotica novels.
I can’t draw a clear line of “pre-erotica” and “post-erotica” because I was drawn to books filled with romance and sexual exploration for as long as I can remember. In third and fourth grade, this meant Summer Camp by Judy Blume. In fifth grade, when my parents started allowing me to walk the mile to Borders alone every Sunday, I began sneaking home with a collection of Lori Foster short stories and novels. Lori Foster’s graphic scenes taught me about pleasure, oral sex, and what I now label “power play.” When I graduated from Lori Foster, I moved onto Maya Banks, E.L James, and Sylvia Day, and since coming into my sexual identity as a queer woman, the erotica I yearn for has also become increasingly non-normative.
Through all phases of my sexual schooling and sexual exploration, different erotica subgenres have been there to guide me. The past decade has been a boom in women turning to page porn, and it’s impossible to talk about Fifty Shades Of Grey and the role the series phenomenon has played in normalizing erotica. By beginning to take away the stigma of erotica is important because it sends that message that it is okay, healthy even, to think about sex. Erotica gives us permission to acknowledge and come in touch with our sexual selves, to connect with our sexual desires, desires that are far more complicated that we are initially led to believe in health class.
In erotica stories, the charge cannot be defined simply by it’s sexy, well, because it’s sexy; instead, the stories show the readers why they are sexy.
Just as people can like to watch porn about something they don’t want to try, or can’t try, for example, a lesbian woman getting turned on by gay male porn, or a cisgender man thoroughly enjoying a scene of two women, that same freedom exists for readers of erotica. I am a gay woman, but heterosexual erotica is one of my pleasures, guilt-free. In part, this is because, while authors are writing about straight women, bisexual women, lesbians, male-male erotica, threesome, and queer identities, erotica laced with straight characters is most easily available in the Barnes & Noble romance and erotica aisle. Just last week, I left the bookstore with three hetero-centric novels The Boss by Abigail Barnette, Alpha by Jasinda Wilder, and Hardwired by Meredith Wild, and I breezed through the stack within a week, and began ordering the second and third books in these series.
However, that is not to say that erotica is a stagnant genre; a fact obvious through study of the evolution of the covers, which have become increasingly risque in a show of cultural normalization. From Fabio, to handcuffs, dildos, and high-styled butt plugs, the covers are a clear shift in a cultural mental-shift in how we see erotica.
Erotica is fantastical. Reality is messy; between STI scares, condoms that break, razor burn, heartbreak, and busy schedules, the fantasies written into erotica are not real, rather, they are a form of escapism.
Yet, while Erotica stories are fantasy, they can be more than that. Erotica can be a great space to learn about our bodies and our pleasure from an affirming space. When you’re reading sex (instead of viewing it, as in porn) your own preferences and fantasies ﬁll the blanks in the text, making for a truly pleasurable solo (or shared) experience.
Erotica can show us a path, light a spark of interest and encourage our erotic selves to blossom freely. Smut helps us visualize what is sexually possible and then helps us create a path towards it. By illuminating our imagination, erotica gives us the tools to fantasize freely, indulge our imagination, learn actively, and connect (or reconnect) to our sexual selves.
[For more information about this, I recommend Tina Horn’s Podcast “Why Are People into That?!” Episode 26 Rachel Kramer Bussel: Erotica]