There's now a second sexual revolution of sorts, and it involves erotica — the written kind that women tend to prefer over graphic sexual imagery.
Women have been reading sexually explicit fiction for centuries, of course. But until recently, finding and buying it could be difficult and embarrassing, not to mention expensive.
These days, however, two trends are converging: The rise in e-reader sales and the popularity and acceptance of erotic fiction. E.L. James’ bondage-themed Fifty Shades of Grey and its two sequels have been big factors in the genre’s entry into the mainstream.
James “brought erotica to Costco, to Wal-Mart, to my grocery store,” says top erotica author and editor Alison Tyler. “Now, even my shy local banker is talking about the cast of the upcoming movie.”
Access to titles is easy. Women can browse the Internet and purchase the books with the tap of a touchscreen. They can read them privately in public, using e-book readers, which are growing in popularity among those aged 30 to 64.
And as erotica becomes increasingly respectable and mainstream, they can share the e-books among their friends and relatives without fear or shame. As Tyler puts it: “The doors have been opened.”
A Growing Trend
The trend has been a long time coming, erotica-industry experts say.
“Fifty Shades put erotica in the mainstream,” says Vida Engstrand, a spokeswoman for Kensington Publishing. But e-book sales “had been growing since well before E.L. James hit the mark,” she adds.
In 2011, the year 50 Shades was released, electronic sales of Kensington’s aphrodisia erotica imprint already accounted for 57 percent of the total, up from roughly 2 percent in 2008, Engstrand said.
E-book readers such as Amazon’s Kindle and tablet computers like Apple’s iPad are rapidly displacing traditional computers as preferred devices for digital-book reading.
The bulk of e-book readers say they do so on a dedicated reader or tablet, rather than on a desktop or laptop computer, according to 2013 data from the Pew Research Group. About a third of those surveyed use their phones to read e-books as well, too, according a Pew report released earlier this year.
And guess which is the most popular e-book category? Yep, it’s romance and erotica, according to the Book Industry Study Group — followed by the mystery-and-thriller category and general fiction. Cookbooks, graphic novels and travel books are the least likely to be read digitally.
The E-Book Erotica Link
It’s no mystery why so many boomer women prefer reading their erotica on electronic gizmos.
“It is a brown wrapper,” says Brenda Knight, publisher of sexual-book publisher Cleis Press. “Women of a certain age like discretion.”
E-book readers and tablets “have definitely changed the game for the erotica genre,” says Tom Corson-Knowles, founder of TCK Publishing, which sells romance novels, among other categories.
“In the past, buying erotica was an awkward, strange and embarrassing chore,” he notes. “People buy based on emotion. When the overwhelming emotion you feel is shame or embarrassment, you’re obviously not as likely to buy.”
Now, since “readers can browse, shop and read erotica from anywhere and at any time with their (Internet-connected devices), it takes all those bad feelings away,” Corson-Knowles adds.
Not all women want to be covert about reading erotica while in public, though. Knight said she sees “ladies in their 70s and 80s” reading Fifty Shades on the bus.
Likewise, “I’ve seen women reading Fifty Shades in public everywhere from New York to London to Dubai, so I think the stigma has certainly lessened,” says leading erotica author and editor, Rachel Kramer Bussel.
Female erotica readers are increasingly talking about the books with their friends and family, too.
“The rise of Fifty Shades has opened up erotica to readers who might not have known about it and also means women are sharing favorite books with friends, co-workers and family members,” Kramer Bussel says. “Not everyone is sharing their reading habits, but women are more comfortable doing so.”
It wasn’t always this way. Traditionally, women who liked erotica could find only a limited supply. Tyler remembers decades ago when a company “published a mimeographed list of titles to choose from” and charged about a dollar per page.
Back then, it was common to find dozens of romance titles at most bookstores, but little or zero erotica.
Back in the Victorian era, erotica “was so illegal you could be arrested for publishing it,” says University of Puget Sound professor Darcy Irvin, who studies censored materials of the 19th century. “It was far more expensive than regular books, meaning by and large women wouldn’t have owned it. They did read it, but they would have had access through a male person, a husband, lover or brother.”
How times have changed.
“Let’s do a test,” Tyler says. “Type ‘erotica’ into Amazon and you get, oh, 133,620 results. And I think those are books that have ‘erotica’ in the title.”