When someone mentions sexual content, what comes to mind?

Do you think of traditional graphic content, like porn? Or does your mind drift to 80s nostalgic skin mags that are a part of every coming of age movie? 

Chances are you didn’t think of sexual fiction and published erotica. Despite the fact that it can be equally as damaging to its consumers’ mental and physical health as graphic visual content, it is often left out of the conversation. While men usually consume pornography in its traditional form, young women form a large portion of erotica’s consumer base. 

In a hypersexualized world, both print and digital media warp young women’s views of sex and of themselves as sexual beings. With few realistic and easily accessible representations of sex available to young women, it’s no wonder that sexualized fiction forms the bulk of teens’ sexual awareness.

Sexual literature: what is it?

People can access all forms of over-sexualized content (literature as well as fanfiction and actual, graphic pornography) through online platforms and apps. As far as sexual, or erotic, literature goes, this category can refer to either traditionally published media or fan-created content. Media where sex is emphasized, such as Young Adult and Adult novels, are an example. Conventional forms of erotic literature date all the way back to ancient Greece and Rome. However, sexual literature can also consist of fanfiction, a more modern phenomenon.

Sexual literature is written to mimic the feelings invoked by passionate or sexual relationships and arouse similar feelings that real-life relationships do. It also intends to create fantasy and sensual mystique, often embellishing certain aspects of relationships and intimacy. However, because erotica and sexual literature is many teens’ first exposure to sex, it can actually end up dictating real life expectations. 

The appeal of sexual literature

I have vivid memories of my friends and I swapping fanfiction at our middle school lunch table. We giggled and acted scandalized over the latest post from our favorite Wattpad author, or new steamy book release. Most women I have interacted with share extremely similar experiences. It almost seems like a right of passage. So, why does hypersexual fiction appeal to so many women?

In an article titled “More than Mommy porn: “Why I read smut,” a myriad of women answer this question. Erin King says she “reads it for the turn-on, the same way people watch porn. It’s easier to pretend it’s you in the story when you’re reading it as opposed to watching it.” 

In the same article, Amanda Bone, details why she reads erotica – and has from a young age. She says, “I have been a reader of smut from about puberty until now. I used to read it as a young girl full of all these hormones and sexual energy and nowhere for it to go. I was curious about sexual relationships and feelings but with no one to ask.” Through erotica, women are able to experiment with their sexuality in a safe, judgment free environment.

Women also consume hypersexualized content as an escape from their daily living. Many use it to fulfill fantasies they can’t in the real world. 

Porn and sexual literature: are there significant differences?

Pornography is a form of graphic content that utilizes pictures and videos to stimulate arousal within its viewers. There is a myriad of genres, and an enormous database of videos. As porn mostly targets males, it lacks intimacy and mostly focuses on perfunctory sex.

Sexual fiction is different in that it doesn’t utilize pictures or videos, and usually consists of fictional characters. Although it has elements of pleasure, it also includes elements of romance or sentimentality. With the advent of the internet, both are becoming increasingly popular and accessible. 

Both have the potential to be equally damaging. Early exposure to over sexualized media is a catalyst for hyper sexuality. Hyper sexuality is a compulsive mental health disorder. Individuals diagnosed with it report intense sexual urges and behaviors that can’t be controlled. 

Gender differences

Have you ever heard the phrase “men watch porn, women read it?”

This is because porn is widely considered a man’s market. The National Institutes of Health describes it as, “a male-dominated industry that targets a male-dominated audience.” A large amount of pornography caters to men, with the content being increasingly violent and often prioritizing male pleasure above all else.

On the flip side, sexual literature is marketed as mostly “women’s porn”. It is often more sensual and romantic than traditional porn. Because it does not consist of pictures or videos, and it usually doesn’t contain real people, it is easily shrugged off as harmless. 

Access to sexual literature vs. video pornography

Just like porn, anyone can access it. A simple Google search can bring you to a plethora of different sources. This unbridled access to hypersexualized content makes it extremely easy for children and young adults to get their hands on it. 

In a Reddit forum, users got honest about their smut consumption. The median age that the user started actively consuming highly graphic content was 12. Most users discovered it accidentally, because it’s so highly accessible. With the advent of TikTok, this content reaches an even larger audience through uncensored “BookTok”. 

BookTok and its various niches

BookTok is a community on TikTok where readers are able to review books. They are also able to share and recommend their favorite stories with other users. A large niche on BookTok is romance, specifically romantic novels that contain hypersexual content. I asked Interviewee Anonymous, an avid reader of both sexual and non-sexual content, to give me more insight into how BookTok may promote erotica. They said that: “I started reading more trashy online stuff around 8th grade, so from around the ages ten to eleven. And then BookTok emerged, and that’s when I started to really engage in sexual content. It’s because you’re exposed to it all of the time, and there’s nothing censoring your feed.”

Amidst the larger sphere of BookTok lies smaller niches. Dark Romance, a subgenre that has over two million views on BookTok, contains darker themes and mature content than traditional romance. Dark Romance fiction often includes taboo relationships and explores dark and even disturbing themes. 

In addition, BookTok promotes a hive mind mentality when engaging with taboo content. Because it is such a large community with diverse interests, it is easy to find communities to romanticize toxicity, which ultimately affirms and normalizes it. 

How pornography impacts young women

The number of young women who watch pornography is on a steep rise. Five decades ago, only 12% of college aged women had seen a pornographic movie. However, a recent study conducted in 2019 found that 83% of women had ever viewed pornography online. Amongst these women, nearly a quarter viewed it before the age of 13. 

Pornography removes the viewer’s ability to see the women in porn as real people. The content, often violent and demeaning, removes the intimacy from intercourse. Rather than a human being, porn reduces women to objects of arousal. This is particularly dangerous to young women. Research has found that early exposure to hypersexualized videos leads to belief that women are or should be sex objects. Concerningly, adolescent boys and girls share this sentiment. Not only does porn impact how society views women, it can skew how young women perceive themselves.

Overconsumption of pornography also damages young women’s health and identity. Porn does not promote healthy, consensual sex. In fact, it actively produces the opposite. A recent study found that women who consume porn are more likely to put themselves in unhealthy situations during sex. They were more likely to put themselves in submissive roles and were more likely to permit aggressive acts. Exposure to porn can also lead to lower self esteem, body image issues, and even depression. 

Pornography’s influence on the human brain

Our brain treats porn the same way it treats a drug. Viewing porn releases dopamine, which is a hormone responsible for feelings of pleasure and satisfaction. Because of a protein called Delta-FosB, our brains associate pleasure with this dopamine release, and subsequently, porn. Rather than seeking pleasure through real life intimacy, people feel influenced to continuously find satisfaction through porn. However, due to repetitive dopamine release, the brain becomes overloaded and needs to cut down on its receptors. In order to achieve similar levels of arousal, viewers increase their porn consumption. As consumption continues, the brain becomes accustomed to the same “softcore” images it has seen. Viewers then turn to more “hardcore” and violent forms of sex to satisfy their cravings. Hypersexual consumption can have real life consequences.

A study by Dolf Zillmann and Jennings Bryant, “Effects of Massive Exposure to Pornography”, concludes that as the porn consumed becomes unhealthier, people are more likely to fulfill those fantasies in real life. In addition, the repeated viewing of hypersexual content also damages the frontal lobe of the brain, which is responsible for decision-making and logic. Any damage to this part of the brain will make it much harder to exercise willpower and self-control. Once it is exposed to these images, it becomes increasingly hard to stop viewing them.

Unrealistic standards

Romance novels market sex as page after page of steamy, picturesque coupling. However, writers rarely include the awkwards bits into their novels. It doesn’t sell well! Your first time will be far from the perfection experience sexual content markets it as. Simply, erotica creates unrealistic expectations for sex. 

Not only does sexual fiction create unrealistic standards for sex, it can create unrealistic expectations for relationships themselves. Below, see a quote pulled from Shantal Tessier’s The Ritual, a dark romance novel that is particularly popular on BookTok:

“They say love is patient and kind. I’m not either one of those things when it comes to Blakely. I’m controlling, possessive, and madly jealous. Which can only mean one thing – I’m obsessed with her.”

This form of obsessive, all consuming romance has become the norm for erotica. While it might be exciting to read about, it is wholly unhealthy to engage with in real life. Unhealthy interactions in fiction can lead to codependency, isolation, and even physically and emotionally abusive behavior in real life. Young women who consume content like this develop these very specific standards for romance/sex. When they enter into a relationship for the first time, those standards are rarely met. 

Dangerous self gratification 

Sexual literature desensitizes readers to violent forms of intercourse in the same way porn does. A popular trope in Dark Romance is “non-con” or non consensual content. Novels markets non consensual and dubious consensual sex as “dark sex” which normalizes it, and further feeds into rape culture. 

Because Dark Romance is rarely marketed as disturbing, it is often pushed onto those who were either not looking for it, or who are not old enough to fully understand what they are consuming. TikTok user @ihaterylekincaid123 is a prime example of such. In 2023, she posted a review of Dark Roses, a dark romance fanfiction that is popular on Wattpad. In her TikTok, she expressed, “I thought I was reading a dark romance book. Turns out it was not. I am traumatized.” The book itself contained mature themes such as emotional abuse, rape, and death.

Just like porn, consuming dark, hypersexualized fiction exposes teenagers to content they otherwise wouldn’t have engaged with. Overconsumption of dark content leads to dangerous behavior. Many times, it can also make teenagers think it’s okay to dominate or demean someone, or themselves, during sex, even if there was no consent to the behavior. 

Sexual- and self-identity

Like I previously mentioned, reading a surplus of hypersexual content can warp someone’s perspective of sex itself. However, reading sexual literature can skew people’s ideas on who is having sex. Reddit user LostButterflyUtau said, “Unfortunately, I also thought for YEARS that only ‘pretty people’ were ‘allowed’ to have sex. Didn’t realize normal people had sex until I was like… seventeen.”

Consuming this content could make teenagers feel like they “don’t deserve” relationships. It adds unnecessary anxiety to sex, which is already nerve-wracking for teens. In addition, it could also lead to issues with face and body dysmorphia, and insecurity outside of sex. 

Impact on real-life relationships

Teenagers have a harder time being able to discern reality from fantasy. Because of this, the media that they consume has a large influence on how they approach real life situations. Although the content they are reading is fictional, the impact is very real.  

I asked Interviewee Anonymous if reading sexual content skewed her standards for intimacy. Her response was a resounding “absolutely.” They then went on to say that “sexual literature often romanticizes toxicity” and “certain behaviors are often deemed okay or normalized because it worked out for the main character, but that type of behavior could only work out in a book. I think that people often forget that.”

Sexualized literature teaches teenagers to seek out unhealthy relationships by normalizing them. Teenagers who consume an influx of dark romance or hypersexualized literature are more likely to put up with dangerous behavior in real life. When it comes to intimacy, for avid consumers of sexual fiction, the line between fantasy and reality often blurs. 

Potential for addiction

In addition to having a negative impact on romantic and physical relationships, sexual fiction can have consequences for platonic and familial relationships as well. Just like any other addiction, addiction to pornography can feel all-consuming and can impede daily life.  

 In a story by an anonymous woman, she is candid about her addiction to erotica. She said that she was first exposed to sexual content at the age of seven. From there, her addiction only grew. She used to “stay home sick” to read erotica, and even isolated herself from loved ones. 

The solution

Demonizing reading erotica and sexual fiction is not the answer. Sexual exploration is extremely healthy for developing teenagers. Giving teenagers a safe and judgment free space to explore is also important. The problem lies in overconsumption. Consuming large amounts of hypersexualized media at a young age has extremely negative consequences. It can create unnecessary anxiety about sex, exposes young people to violent and demeaning content, and negatively impacts real life relationships. So, what is the solution?

One solution is to consume sexual content in moderation. You don’t have to avoid it at all costs, but being mindful of the types and volumes of content you consume is imperative. This can be as simple as limiting your screen time, or blocking certain hashtags around your social media outlets. These are precautions that you can take to limit unhealthy behaviors before they even start! 

The society we live in is unfortunately hypersexualized. We are constantly bombarded with overtly sexual content, and the unrealistic expectations that they bring. Although it can be easy to fall into the trap, it is important to reset your perspective on healthy physical, romantic, and sexual relationships. You can do this by setting healthy goals and expectations for your relationship. It’s also important to not try and mirror the relationships you see on screen. What might work for Hollywood or sell on paper doesn’t always translate to real life, and that’s okay! 

Calling out problematic behavior

Sexual literature normalizes a lot of problematic behavior, whether it be emotional abuse, gaslighting, or unsafe sex. Most of the time, if you are overly exposed to these themes in the media, it can start to be incorporated into real life relationships. However, just because something is represented in sexual forms of literature does not mean that it is healthy. If you notice that you or your partner is exhibiting these dangerous behaviors, then it is imperative that you speak up. 

If you resonate with this article, there is absolutely no shame in admitting it. Erasing the stigma around porn and erotica addiction is the first step to treating it. Confide in a loved one, talk to a therapist, or reach out to one of the resources I have linked below.