If you've always enjoyed reading sexy sagas, you may already know how turned on you can get just by turning a page. Reading about people getting down and dirty can be downright arousing. From steamy Game Of Thrones fan-fiction to the entire Fifty Shades series, erotic literature can be totally engrossing. And while reading these stories may make you feel all sorts of feelings, knowing what happens in your brain when you read erotica will make you completely rethink the phrase "mind over matter."
Though your stuffy old English professors may turn up their noses at XXX-rated tales, studies have shown that reading erotica can have some serious mental health benefits. In a 2013 study by York University, participants who read romantic fiction were found to have higher empathy levels than participants who reported reading other types of fiction.
According to mental health and sexuality educator Sarah Jane, reading sexy books or material that is supposed to be arousing can help you shift your stress or anxiety into positive emotions, like feeling excited and hot instead of feeling scared or overwhelmed.
In a 2016 essay titled, "My Secret Weapon Against Stress and Anxiety," Jane writes, “You can interrupt your stress or anxiety with something that produces a similar physical response, like increased heart rate, but also provides you with more positive feelings. A few minutes before I pick up one of my favorite erotic novels, [my] racing heart is perceived as very scary. But once I start reading, it’s just arousal.”
OK, using sexy media to combat all your stress may sound like a reach (I, for one, can tell you that my "U up?" mood is not the same as my, "I'm freaking out about a work deadline" mood). But hear me out: The connection between arousal and anxiety has some serious psychological backing.
According to science, a subconscious phenomenon called the "Misattribution of Arousal" dictates that symptoms of anxiety or stress can feel similar to the stirrings of arousal (think: your heart going a million miles an hour or literally feeling hot and bothered). Because feeling sexy and feeling stressed provoke such similar chemical reactions, when humans are anxious, they may be able to channel their stress into sexiness. Hot, right?
While "The Love Bridge" may sound like a cheesy erotic novel, the name actually comes from a psychological experiment from the '70s. Scientists Donald G. Dutton and Arthur P. Aron discovered that a group of single men were more likely to ask a woman out if they met her on a rickety bridge than on a stable one. The researchers also found that when put in a stressful situation, it's possible to reframe your feelings of anxiety into feelings of arousal. In fact, your brain will likely do it on its own.
According to the 2015 Nielsen’s Romance Book Buyer Report, a whopping 85% of people who read romance novels identify as women. Additionally, a 2013 census from fan fiction hub, Archive of Our Own, reported that female-identifying readers made up 80% of the site's users. Erotica certainly isn't solely written for a female audience. So why are women and femmes so drawn to reading the sexy stuff?
Emily Nagoski, sex educator and author of Come as You Are: The Surprising New Science that Will Transform Your Sex Life, explained to CommonHealth that women and femmes tend to desire an emotional investment or context to experience arousal. While pornography or otherwise primarily visual sexual material can and does turn women and femmes on, Nagoski shares that certain types of visual porn can also provoke viewers to feel stressed, confused, and/or tempted to compare their bodies to the actors on screen.
"Sex is most satisfying for most women when you’re in a context that is low stress, high trust, high affection, and explicitly erotic," Nagoski says. Through detailed, written descriptions, erotica has the potential to provide consumers with more of an emotional connection. It can even enable readers to envision their own sexual encounters in ways that are sexier and less stressful.
"Of course, erotica isn’t a cure-all for anxiety, depression, or the residual effects of trauma," Kate Sloan, writer, and sex educator told Glamour. "But it’s freeing to think of it as a potential tool in an expansive toolbox that can be available to people who struggle with these issues."
Though reading sexy material shouldn't be conflated with consulting a mental health professional, reaching for that erotic novel may help you to better process stress. Heck, it may even help you think about your own sex life in a more positive way. As my fourth-grade teacher would say, "Open a book, grow your mind." While viewing all types of sexy media has its merits, science says that reading erotica may help your brain as you're doing the thang.