Literotica is the least attractive, most popular erotica website in existence. Organised into thirty-two topics ranging from “erotic horror” to “how to” to “text with audio” (created for people with visual impairments or those who prefer the art of listening to reading), Literotica was one of the first sexy places online where I ever truly felt at home. In a highly visual, fleshy digital world, Literotica’s sober colour scheme and reams of text felt safe and reliable, and I found – and still find – myself returning to it again and again.
Forty-nine-year-old Tej from Mumbai tells me about the long journey that led him to Literotica. Born blind in a time before computers or screen readers, when Tej was a teenager, he would check out audiobooks from the library at the National Association for the Blind. And in doing so, he discovered that some of the books had erotic scenes in them. He recalls, “Fortunately my parents never understood English so this was one place where I was totally liberated.” It was through these books that Tej got his first sustained glimpses of sexy representations. And he wanted more. But it turned out that they were pretty difficult to come by. Books are often converted into soft-copy formats for the visually impaired, so that they can be read easily by digital screen readers or turned into audiobooks. But it is rarely the visually impaired who get to decide what books undergo this process. Tej tells me, “When you make books into accessible formats, you shouldn’t avoid the books that include porn and erotic material. You are denying human rights to a big number of people. Whether it is good, bad or ugly is for them to decide, not you.”
In college, Tej made friends with two other blind young men, who had found a way to procure erotic audio cassettes from America.
The process was long-winded – involving finding someone with a credit card they could borrow – but finally they got their hands on the cassettes, made copies and took them home. “There were one or two stories I liked that I would keep listening to. They were in American English so no one at home would know, they would think I was listening to some nice novel written by some big author.”
Today, with the advent of the internet, Tej says that it’s so much easier to find erotic stories in all the genres you can possibly imagine. And on Literotica, which he deems one of the most accessible websites – it has no pop-ups, and a screen reader for the visually impaired can pass through it freely – he says “you can keep reading and you’ll never run out of stories”.
Ankur tells me, ‘”Literotica has served as an exploration platform for me over the years. Again, I started with the celeb section when I first discovered it, but gradually explored all the sections and found something I liked in each one. As my understanding of what I wanted from my erotic experience developed, I started specifically looking for desi stories. Being brought up in a conservative society, I like to read about the adventures of desis in bed. I have also started enjoying the pleasure of a well-written erotica story containing Hindi or regional dirty words and dialogue.”
Like Ankur, eighteen-year-old Jaanvi also found that erotica was a means to discover herself. She says, “My school never had any sex-education classes and none of my friends knew much either. There were articles online, of course, but I didn’t find them very helpful because they talked about what sex is and what one must do. Erotica helped me understand how people feel when they have sex and the different fetishes and kinks that people have.”
For many young people figuring out their sexuality, visual porn can often feel overwhelming.
In comparison, sexy words offer a gentler space for pleasure. Like fanfiction, erotica doesn’t begin mid-thrust, and its build-up and narratives are often as important to readers as the sex acts themselves.
For Aanchal, whose asexual orientation means that she finds the visuals of porn and IRL bodies too overwhelming for her tastes, erotica has become a safe space to both read and write her own versions of desire. She tells me, “The lesbian porn I found was too direct and physical for me. But in lesbian stories, the same relationship is shown, but in a very, emotional way. And even in the stories I’ve read which have graphic descriptions of sex, there is an elaborate description of ambience and people’s personalities.”
In fact, many asexual people have told me that they use online erotica to get off. Unencumbered by the physical realities of bodies and touch, sexy stories often provide people who feel arousal but no desire for sex with an avenue for pleasure. As one woman I interviewed for Vice told me about erotic fan fiction, “I get aroused not because I want to be doing those things, but because reading about others doing those things is exciting for me. It’s detached, so I can be kind of an outsider looking in.”
Or as Sowmya tells me about her forays in and around fandoms: “It’s all about exploring myself and the world through a vehicle that is comforting and interesting in its familiarity, already has my trust and is exciting in its potential and possibilities.”
For many of us, this vehicle is not just pieces of writing about a TV show or a set of characters, but words themselves. Reading moves us forward into what Jaanvi calls the “feeling” of experiences. Ankur says, “As I see it, the sex act is not merely [the] physical act of pleasure; in fact,it’s much more a psychological act of pleasure. So I like to read how all the “actors” in the particular scene are feeling: their emotions, their pleasure, etc.”
The thing about reading is that it gives us the feelings; it gets to the figurative heart of the matter. Reading the same text appeals to different people, not because we all have the experience of being a bharatanatyam dancer or fighting a dragon or having sex while making balloon animals. It appeals to us because underneath the vast breadth of human experiences, sexual or otherwise, lies a fairly universal set of emotions. It’s the feelings of literature that bring us together inside texts, which, as Rebecca Solnit writes in The Faraway Nearby, are the “solitudes in which we meet”.
Most erotica lovers see theirs as a solitary pursuit – a one-human journey through the landscape of desire – but the journey is, in fact, only as solitary as reading can ever be. If you have ever loved a work of fiction, you’ll know that reading is the bizarre process through which we enter the space of someone else’s head; it is the odyssey we make through the tangled strings of their heart. And most of all, it is the journey where we discover along the way that what we thought was “other” is often ours too.
Excerpted with permission from Cyber Sexy: Rethinking Pornography, Richa Kaul Padte, Penguin Randon House India.