Erotica can be good for your mental health? Your heart is pounding. Your face is burning hot. Your breathing is rapid. Your muscles are tense and twitching. You feel light-headed. The world suddenly seems terribly exciting or frightening-perhaps both. These are all signs of sexual arousal, but they can also be signs of a panic attack. And when blogger nicknamed Sarah Jane noticed these signs last summer – at a time when jet lag after a recent trip exacerbated her already severe panic disorder – she turned to Abigail Barnett’s erotic novel The Boss.
Although she had already read it several times, re-reading it, she found, helped to calm her down. “You can interrupt your stress or anxiety with something that causes a similar physical reaction, like an increased heart rate, but makes you feel more positive,” she explains on her blog. “A few minutes before I pick up one of my favourite erotic novels, [my] heart rate is perceived as very scary. But once I start reading, it’s a delight.”
What she stumbled upon was a positive twist on ‘disattribution of arousal’, a psychological phenomenon that describes our mind’s tendency to look for clues to explain excited or agitated feelings. In one famous experiment, scientists found that their participants were more likely to pursue a woman if they met her on a rickety bridge than if they met her on a safe, stable bridge. The rickety bridge, according to the theory, induced a physiological state of fear, which the participants believed was simply sexual arousal, making the woman seem more attractive. Some people, like Sarah Jane, have learned to use this reaction to their advantage, and a great way to do this is through erotica.
Although porn consumption among women is on the rise, many of us still gravitate towards erotica: according to a 2015 Nielsen report, 85% of romance readers are women. There are many theories as to why women gravitate more towards text porn than visual porn: It is thought that we are “less visual” and more sexually inhibited, or have a lower libido in general. But sex educator Emily Nagoski’s 2015 book Come As You Are offers a better explanation: emotional context is far more important for arousing women than for men.
Nagoski writes that women get turned on more easily than men when faced with “external circumstances and internal states such as stress, attachment, self-criticism and disgust” – all reactions we can experience to visual porn, which tends to objectify and shame our bodies, classify us as “good girls” or “whores” or emphasise how useful we are to men rather than to our own pleasure.
Erotica, meanwhile, provides the context we may be craving: Sometimes the characters are in a loving relationship, sometimes they have flirtations, sometimes they are just characters we already know and love.
Perhaps that’s why fanfiction – and especially erotic fanfiction – has traditionally been such a feminine pastime. A 2013 survey on the Archive of Our Own website showed that 80 per cent of the site’s users are women. And this goes far beyond excitement: In an industry where the majority of successful writers, showrunners and directors are still men, fanfic can be a way for women to regain power over storytelling.
And for women, fanfic can be a great way to overcome mental obstacles. Ruby,* a twenty-something student, told me that writing erotic Harry Potter fanfics sometimes calms her depression. “What calms me is that it’s characters I already know and a format I’m already comfortable in,” she said of the romantic scenarios she’s created between the canonical character Sirius Black and her own original female character. “I was able to make him exactly the man I wanted him to be and the main character exactly the woman I wanted her to be.”
In her 2013 book Fic: Why Fanfiction Is Taking Over the World, Anne Jamieson interviewed one of the most famous writers in Sherlock fandom, Katie Forsyth. Her critically acclaimed Paradox series was an attempt to “write madness from her own head”, Forsyth explains and refers to her experience of bipolar disorder and addiction. Her version of Sherlock Holmes is an obsessive, possessive, mercurial madman who is maniacally in love with his John Watson – and Forsyth says the fact that she writes him that way helps her deal with her own inner turmoil. “I’m crazy, and my brain runs on multiple rails without an off switch. I write to scrape the ugly feelings off my chest,” she told Jamieson. “Writing someone who is even crazier on the continuum than me, and crazier a lot more, seems to be good for my mental health. That’s why I write [Holmes and Watson] that way. They’re little catharses wrapped up in a bow.”
This cathartic aspect of both reading and writing erotica is crucial to the emotional benefits of many women. A sex blogger nicknamed Livvy Libertine told me that writing erotica helped her heal after a decade-long marriage to a man who emotionally and sexually abused her, leaving her with post-traumatic stress disorder and huge feelings of sexual guilt. She did not set out to alleviate her trauma by writing erotica, but found that creating sexual stories helped her regain a sense of her own power. “It was something he couldn’t, couldn’t take away from me or use against me,” she explains. Her stories involve clear, enthusiastic, prolonged consent – an element that was sadly absent from her own rapes, but which she can persuasively insist on in her fiction. “I’ve almost completely lost my fear of him, and my PTSD is under control like never before,” she told me. “I feel freer, and I finally understand that what happened was not my fault.”
Erotica writer and trauma survivor Oleander Plume experienced similar benefits from her own creative process. “There was a shame associated with sex, which I believed arose from my abuse. How could I enjoy sex if it brought so much fear and shame into my life?” – she wrote in a blog post on the subject. “Writing and reading erotica has forced me to overcome this barrier [and] helped me regain my desire.”
To use Emily Nagoski’s words again, erotica helps some victims create a sexual context where there is less stress and more pleasure. There they might learn to enjoy sex again – both in fairy tales and in real life.
Of course, erotica is not a panacea for anxiety, depression or the residual effects of trauma. But to think of it as a potential tool in the vast arsenal of remedies available to people struggling with these issues is liberating. And in a world that shames women for their sexuality and considers their emotions as something unhealthy, we should try to use every tool available to us – even if they include the venal, throbbing manhood of the fictional lothario.