We tend to assume that men prefer to watch rather than read their porn. This is because we also tend to assume that men are id-driven neanderthals bound to a state of innate, perpetual horniness. Sure, ladies may enjoy their 50 Shades and smutty bodice-rippers, but men have no time for all that scene-setting and character development — they’d rather just get straight to the action.
Like most beliefs rooted in a binary conception of gender, however, this one is categorically untrue. Just as porn is not exclusively for and enjoyed by men, erotic literature is not exclusively for and enjoyed by women. Literary erotica is simply another medium of erotic entertainment that can titilate readers of all genders, and men are no exception.
“Plenty of men like to read fiction, and plenty of men are excited by sex — and there’s a healthy overlap,” says erotica author Max Sebastian. Naturally, the center of that Venn diagram is home to a sprawling library of erotic literature read and enjoyed by male readers.
“Erotica is for anyone interested in exploring eroticism. Just like with porn, it’s designed to turn people on, but it does so very differently. I’m not sure than any other literary genre or visual media honestly appreciates male sexuality the way that erotica can,” says Caraway. “In erotica, I believe that men and women get to witness a level of nuance and introspection that porn could never really offer.”
While delving into a work of erotica may involve a deeper level of intellectual energy than browsing Pornhub, the additional mental simulation may result in a more sexually satisfying experience.
“Finding your thrills in erotic literature, rather than in video scenes, might take a little longer, but it means caring more about the characters involved, which brings more meaning to the sexual scenes,” says Sebastian. “Reading erotic literature, rather than watching porn, also stretches your imagination a little more, which can lead to a more fulfilling experience.”
What is erotica for men?
“I think we’re getting much better these days about not restricting ourselves to what we’re ‘supposed’ to like,” says Sebastian. “In my experience, erotic literature is rarely written for men, or for women these days, although it might be marketed that way on occasion. Some for women erotic fiction claims to provide women with what they really want to read, but when you delve into those stories, there’s no real difference from any other erotic stories.”
Meanwhile, trying to gender erotica to suit what writers or publishers might assume men want to read has a tendency to strip erortica of the very qualities that might make it a more compelling alternative to porn for men who are looking for more engaging forms of stimulation.
“I have seen erotic fiction specifically marketed at men that makes assumptions that male readers have no attention span and prefer to avoid character development, and those stories just turn out to be boring trash,” says Sebastian.
“I can understand how one would expect that men’s erotica might only contain aggressive characters and taboo sex scenes, but men aren’t exclusively into wildly risky sex, or only the simple mechanics of it; context matters to them too,” says Caraway. “When men in particular are able to freely explore their desires, I’ve learned that what they want in an erotic story oftentimes closely matches what women want: sex and connection. Today, most erotica writers know that while the dynamics of a sex scene are important, those particulars are mostly background stuff. They know that men crave erotic intimacy, just as much women do.”
The ethics of erotica
One of the biggest issues facing porn watchers of today is the increasingly complicated debate surrounding the ethics of porn consumption. While erotic literature isn’t entirely immune to ethical debates and shortcomings, it is a less complicated space to navigate for one simple reason: the only real people involved in erotic literature are the reader and the writer.
“With erotic literature, you don’t have to worry about how performers or production staff are treated,” says Sebastian. That said, there are still concerns about content and representation in erotica. “As with the rest of culture at the moment, erotica needs to improve its diversity and tackle issues like misogyny and prejudice,” says Sebastian, adding that “the treatment of women in stories featuring domination/submission aspects, or the depiction of race in stories featuring ‘interracial’ relationships” are often subjects of some controversy.
In erotica, as in porn, there are also debates about the acceptability of representing certain niches, kinks or other taboo sexual behaviors, especially those involving non-consent, incest or race. That said, erotic literature may be one of the safest spaces for people to explore their darker, most taboo fantasies.
“There definitely is debate in erotic lit regarding ethics. It’s a tricky space,” says Caraway. “But trying to apply ethics to people’s fantasies is a lot like judging their dreams — it’s simply illogical. We have to be able to separate fiction from reality. Sometimes fantasies come into our brains and we just don’t know why, nor do we have control over it.” Ultimately, according to Caraway, “We are entitled to our fantasies.”
What to read
As with porn, there’s a great big internet full of erotica out there, and much of it is available to read for free.
“It can be easiest to start with websites that offer thousands of free erotic stories, like Literotica or Lush Stories,” says Sebastian. “The quality might be hit or miss, but you might discover what kind of erotic stories you really like before spending money on books or ebooks.” Caraway also recommends checking out Remittance Girl and Monocle.
If you’d rather not risk getting lost down an online erotica rabbit hole, another good way to broaden your erotica horizons is to check out anthologies. “On average, most anthologies contain around 15 to 20 short stories each, which provides a decent variety of characters and sexual situations,” says Caraway, who is also the editor of the anthology For The Men And The Women Who Love Them.
“I’d recommend any short-story collection edited by Violet Blue, Maxim Jakubowski, Alison Tyler or Rachel Kramer Bussel — you’ll find some fantastic writers there,” says Sebastian. “If there’s a story you like particularly, you can seek more from that author.”
Of course, for those who want to start their erotica journey with the classics, there are a few canon staples of the genre, including Pauline Réage’s The Story of O, Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer, Anaïs Nin’s Delta of Venus and J. G. Ballard’s The Atrocity Exhibition and Crash.
Wherever you choose to begin your foray into erotica, enjoying erotic literature is more about the journey than the end goal. “Erotic literature is about the exploration, how the characters are navigating their sexuality, and the intimacy that goes along with it,” says Caraway. “Good erotica delves fully into our human sexuality — it revels in this.”