How Erotica Can Be Great for Your Mental Health

Your heartbeat races. Your face flushes hot. Your breath quickens. Your muscles tense and twitch. You feel light-headed. The world suddenly seems terribly exciting or scary—maybe both. These are all signs of sexual arousal, but they can also be signs of a panic attack. And when a blogger who goes by Sarah Jane noticed this similarity last summer—at a time when jet lag from a recent trip was exacerbating her already-potent panic disorder—she turned to erotic novel The Boss, by Abigail Barnette.

Though she’s already read it several times, revisiting it again and again, she found, helped calm her down. “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,” she explained on her blog. “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.”

What she stumbled upon was a positive spin on “misattribution of arousal,” a psychological phenomenon that describes our mind’s tendency to look for clues around us to explain an exhilarated or agitated feeling. In a famous experiment, scientists found their research participants were likelier to pursue a woman if they met her on a rickety bridge than if they met her on a safe, stable one. The scarier bridge, so says the theory, created a fearful physiological state which the participants figured was just sexual arousal, making the woman seem more attractive. Some people, like Sarah Jane, have learned to use this response to their advantage—and a great way to do that is through erotica.

Though women’s porn consumption rates are rising, many of us are still way into erotica: 85 percent of romance readers are female, according to a 2015 Nielsen report. Theories abound about why women gravitate more to textual porn than the image-based kind: We’re said to be “less visual” and more sexually inhibited, or have lower libidos in general. But sex educator Emily Nagoski’s 2015 book Come As You Are has a better explanation: Namely, that emotional context is much more vital to women’s arousal than it is to men’s.

Nagoski writes that women get turned off more easily than men when confronted with “external circumstances and internal states such as stress, attachment, self-criticism, and disgust”—all responses we can have to visual porn, which has a tendency to objectify and shame our bodies, classify us as either “good girls” or “sluts,” or emphasize how useful we are to men over our own pleasure.

Erotica, meanwhile, provides that context we might crave: Sometimes the characters are in a loving relationship, sometimes they have a flirty rapport, other times they’re just characters we already know and love.

That might be why fan fiction—and erotic fan fiction, especially—has traditionally been such a female pursuit. A 2013 census survey of fan fiction hotbed Archive of Our Own found that 80 percent of the site’s users are women. And it goes far beyond arousal: In an industry where most successful writers, showrunners, and filmmakers are still male, fanfic can be a way for women to take back narrative power.

And fan fiction can be a great way for women to work through mental roadblocks. Ruby,* a student in her early twenties, told me that writing Harry Potter erotic fan fiction has occasionally mollified her depression. “It’s comforting that these are characters I already know and a format I’m already comfortable with,” she said about the romantic scenarios she’d craft between canon character Sirius Black and her own original female character. “I could make him the exact kind of man that I wanted, and make the protagonist the exact kind of woman I wanted to be.”