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Sex & Love Porn or erotica: which is healthier?

Mar. 3, 2021
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Anyone over the age of 11 has probably seen “adult content” on the internet at one point, whether by accident or on purpose. During this time when anyone can easily access sexually explicit content, seeing pornography or erotic novels is not a matter of if, but when.

Going online already grants access to more porn than you could ever watch. You have the freedom to browse countless categories, from amateur to teen to POV. These videos are pretty much straight to the point: the characters stumble upon each other for some reason, they have sex, then you see the money shot. What you see is what you get, and for many people, porn’s physical, direct, and raw approach to sex is exactly what they’re looking for.

On the other hand, some people prefer having elaborate plots, emotional investment, and character development in the content they consume—and these are elements that they can uniquely find in erotic novels. The genre became more popular in the last decade because of the growth of electronic books, which allowed people to read steamy scenes inconspicuously. The success of E.L. James’ Fifty Shades of Grey trilogy, along with the Crossfire and Gabriel's Inferno series by Sylvia Day and Sylvain Reynard, respectively, also helped the genre expand and gather more readership. These novels became hits because readers could imagine the stories playing out in their heads and tailor the scene to their liking.

“Sexuality is not a bad thing—it is part of our human nature and important for our overall health. Thus, sexually explicit content is also not inherently bad,” explains psychologist Scyatta A. Wallace, PhD. It’s good for everyone to know what brings them pleasure, and both porn and erotica can help you figure out your kinks or even sexual orientation.

“Both erotic novels and pornography can be beneficial to an individual's sexual health and wellness because they provide a context of pleasurable sexual experiences,” notes Lucy Rowett, clinical sexologist and intimacy coach. “Erotica and porn help you to explore your sexuality, desires, and fantasies for yourself and on your own terms, rather than just for your partner.”

But despite these potential benefits, porn’s harmful effects can be concerning. Science has shown that watching porn can promote unrealistic expectations, perpetuate body issues, and affect romantic relationships. It rarely depicts verbal and non-verbal consent, communication between partners, contraceptives, or even discussions about STIs, which are all extremely crucial aspects of having sex. People who equate porn to real-life sex might not understand how important consent and safety are, and that’s dangerous both for them and their partners.

For those reasons, erotic novels may appear to be the “healthier” choice of sexually stimulating content. After all, reading books isn’t the same as watching porn because you’re not actually seeing people having sex. Still, erotic novels can present the same negative side effects as porn, depending on whether the author knows what they’re talking about. It’s disappointing when you’re engrossed in a smutty story, and then all of a sudden, a character licks their partner’s hymen to prove that it’s their first time having sex. Many authors are guilty of perpetuating this myth that an intact hymen is the definitive marker of virginity, and it makes you wonder whether they’re deliberately writing a lie or are genuinely misinformed.

“I have read some truly terrible stories where it's obvious the writer has no idea how a woman actually climaxes,” notes Rowett. “Mistaking what happens in a smutty novel or on Pornhub for how sex should be and feel in real life can be unhelpful at best, and harmful at worst.”

Just like porn, erotica can perpetuate far-fetched ideas of how long an erection lasts, how easily people climax, or how real-life people explore intimacy in general. Although there’s more to erotica than the characters’ sexual encounters, the stories feature the same false narratives about sex that porn often has. (Thankfully, erotica has none of porn’s exaggerated and loud fake moaning.)

“In both porn and erotica, you don't tend to see the actors or characters getting leg cramps, getting bored, chafing, asking for more lube, falling off the bed, the dog walking in, or having a panic attack,” says Rowett. The depiction of sex in porn and erotica only tells half the story, and it can be inaccurate, problematic, and dangerously misleading. It’s also worth noting that sex isn’t always penetrative, yet erotic content tends to gloss over anything that goes beyond the traditional P-in-V definition of sex. 

That said, just because porn and erotic novels have negative side effects doesn’t mean that they’re all bad. Thanks to their availability and accessibility, they help reduce the stigma surrounding sex and even influence more open-mindedness toward the topic. For some people, it can be very empowering, liberating, and affirming to consume content that speaks the language of their desires. In a way, it’s comforting to know that you’re not the only one in the world to be turned on by a certain kink, like BDSM, anal play, or role play. 

Keep in mind that exploring your sexuality through porn and erotica “should be balanced with proper health information and conversations with trusted adults, including parents,” as Wallace puts it. One of the main reasons why people turn to smut and porn to learn about healthy, pleasurable sex is the lack of proper sexual education. Many of our parents didn’t really give that discussion and left us to our own devices instead. It’s crucial to learn what sex actually entails so you can differentiate real-life intimacy from what’s depicted in erotic content.

Wallace advises being mindful and aware if you feel the need to increase your use of erotic content, or if you reach the point that you’re no longer sexually aroused without it. “If any of these things are happening or you feel uncomfortable with your consumption of the material, speak with a trusted adult, including parents and healthcare professionals,” she stresses.

The bottom line is this: there’s no “healthier” choice between porn and erotica. Though both of them may help you explore your sexuality, they can also exaggerate sex and portray it unrealistically, negatively influencing your ideas of sex and pleasure. But to be fair, that doesn't necessarily mean you have to quit watching porn or reading erotica—it’s simply a matter of remaining critical of what you consume. 

Illustration by Camilla Ru for VICE.