friend and I had drinks over video chat the other night, as you do these days.
A single woman living in a one-bedroom apartment, with no one but her dog for company, she told me of how she often scrolled aimlessly through Tinder where, in a world gone screwy, she was sometimes matched with men in Europe, even though she lives in New Jersey.
We chat anyway, she said, because why not?
She told me also of all the guys who now post selfies of themselves in masks, tagging their profiles “#covidfree.” We both knocked back our drinks. Rolled our eyes. Who were they fooling? we seemed to be saying to each other. Who was going to hook up with someone new during a pandemic?
But we also couldn’t help but think of how lonely we’d felt lately. For those who live alone, that loneliness is even more acute.
I, meanwhile, have been married for nearly 13 years. At the moment, my husband and I are juggling both our work-at-home jobs and distance learning for our 5-year-old daughter.
Tensions are high. I feel like I’m suffocating. The situation doesn’t exactly put me in the mood for sex.
But sometimes, even though I don’t want to be touched, I still want to get off. To release some steam. To help me sleep. To feel something good.
It seems silly to think about sexual pleasure at a time like this. In the midst of a health crisis. At a time when people are losing their independence and their jobs and their lives.
But one thing I’ve come to learn while writing about sex these past 18 years is that sexual health is an integral part of overall health and well-being. And for those who are losing their goddamn minds right now, or who are feeling isolated or vibrating with anxiety, sexual pleasure can be a balm.
“For some people, sexual intimacy and pleasure will feel connecting and important,” says Debby Herbenick, Ph.D., Professor at the Indiana University School of Public Health and author of The Coregasm Workout.
“Other people don’t have sex on their minds; they may be preoccupied with figuring out how to pay their bills without a functioning gig economy or place of work. Or they may be crowded in their homes with everyone home all the time. We can make space for lots of experiences.”
For those whose minds do turn toward sex, they may find that pleasure-seeking behaviors actually help them cope. “Especially in this strange new normal of social distancing and self-isolation,” points out Gina Gutierrez, co-founder, and CEO of audio erotica app Dipsea.
“We’re all being forced to remember how profoundly important connection and intimacy are to making us feel human and alive. Pleasure — both solo or partnered — is an opportunity to check in with yourself and your body, a way to self-soothe, and a reminder that you’re worthy of joy.”
Not only that, but sexual pleasure can also have concrete health benefits. Research shows that sexual arousal and orgasm can boost the immune system, reduce stress, and improve sleep. And lord knows we can use all of that right now.
Even in a time of social distancing, we have plenty of options. There’s phone sex, after all. Video sex. Porn. Erotica. Toys.
And then there is the influx these past few years of apps like the abovementioned Dipsea. Sort of new, but also… inevitable?
About 18 years ago, I fell into a gig reviewing sex toys and porn. It was the beginning of a career centered around writing about sexuality, a thing I still do today. More than that, however, that gig helped me take charge of my sexual pleasure in the wake of a relationship in which I hadn’t had any sexual agency at all.
Still, while the job was life-changing, the erotic films I reviewed weren’t really my thing. I remember thinking at the time that the best parts of porn weren’t the visuals or even the goofy storylines. Rather, it was the sounds of people becoming progressively more aroused, eventually sighing and groaning and grunting themselves all the way to orgasm, that turned me on. For me, nothing was hotter, and I wondered why none of the stuff I reviewed seemed to exploit that.
Years later, I learned that you could find audio erotica if you looked for it. It was hidden on Tumblrs and in subreddits, sure, but it was there. Now, there’s a new wave of audio erotica that’s making the medium accessible to far more people, taking it out of those hidden corners of the web and bringing it to people’s smartphones.
It’s a curious shift, the way this increased accessibility signals that something has become less taboo. But it also makes sense, when you consider the increased number of conversations around female sexuality and pleasure.
Jas Bagniewski, co-founder of the sexual wellness app Lover, points out that science has lately turned more of its attention to female sexuality.
“We believe the primary cause for this has been a shift in how women perceive their own pleasure sexually and that women are increasingly expecting for their pleasure to be taken as seriously as their male partners’, something that has been traditionally ignored or not prioritized.”
Gutierrez, meanwhile, who developed Dipsea with women in mind, feeling that they were more underserved when it came to erotic content, reports that 90% of their subscribers identify as women. While the internet can often be a scary place for women who are unapologetic about their sexuality, it feels like this proliferation of audio erotica and sexual wellness apps is giving us a safe space to experience pleasure and explore our sexuality further.
Its existence is filling a need that many didn’t even realize they had.
Dayna, for example, loves when women talk dirty to her. When she searched for porn online, however, she was never able to find anything that fit her desires. A lot of the films she viewed were missing that verbal aspect she loved. But then she stumbled upon audio porn.
“I first encountered audio porn on Pornhub, totally by accident!” says Dayna. “I was beyond turned on. I usually cum in, like, 30 seconds with visual porn, but the audio had more of a buildup and felt way sexier.”
Carly, meanwhile, actually went looking for it. “I’ve always been someone who has enjoyed the sound of a really sexy guy’s voice,” she says. And so, she went looking to see what was out there. After all, she already enjoyed the soothing voices of ASMR (autonomous sensory meridian response, a euphoric and relaxing feeling that comes over someone when they watch certain videos or hear certain sounds).
“It occurred to me while using videos to fall asleep, that there must be an erotic equivalent,” says Carly. “I did a quick Google search and tumbled down a proverbial rabbit hole.”
So why hasn’t audio erotica been as ubiquitous as erotic films and books? Nicole Prause, Ph.D., the founder of Liberos, LLC, explains that people tend to respond more to visual erotica. “If the purpose is to get off as quickly and efficiently as possible,” says Prause, “you want an intense stimulus.” And for many, that visual stimulus is the key.
But she concedes that audio erotica might be less inhibiting than erotic films.
“I can listen and let my brain do whatever it wants with it. I don’t have to see things that may be a turn-off to me.”
Prause elaborates. “We have a lot of lab studies, mine included,” she says, “that show that when people view pornography, they do get sexually aroused. They feel happy. They feel all of those positive emotions. But they also report feeling anxious and guilty. It’s a mixed emotional experience. It’s not as pleasurable as it could be.”
With audio, however, Prause imagines that the experience might be different.
“If you hear things or read things being described, it’s not necessarily a real person. You don’t have to wonder about those ethical quandaries that can come up with porn. It’s a stimulus you’ll probably feel a lot less guilty consuming.”
And the women I spoke to who enjoy audio porn affirm that this is true. “I really like rough sex,” says Dayna, “and I don’t want to get in my head about consent and patriarchy and misogyny and yada-yada-yada when I’m watching — so the audio makes me feel less icky.”
Not only that, but it can be more difficult to insert yourself into the fantasy when you’re watching something versus listening to it. It’s as if there’s another remove between you and what’s happening, explains Carly.
“There’s a certain immediacy to audio erotica that, a lot of times, it really feels like he’s there with me. If you’re flying solo, it feels like this is someone dirty-talking directly to you. For me, the immediacy makes it that much more arousing.”
And some of the science out there backs this up. While visual stimuli might be the more intense option for many, the absence of this stimuli can force your other senses to compensate with nonvisual input, an ability the brain has that’s known as compensatory plasticity. This ability is more commonly observed in those who are blind.
A piece in Scientific American explains that “If one sense is lost, the areas of the brain normally devoted to handling that sensory information do not go unused — they get rewired and put to work processing other senses.”
Part of me also wonders if consuming audio erotica is similar to reading literary erotica, in that it more easily allows you to place yourself in the midst of the action. Research shows, after all, that literary narratives can help one expand their visualizing capacities.
So where can you find good audio erotica? There are the apps, of course, like Dipsea and Ferly. There are websites devoted to audio erotica, like Aural Honey and Quinn. And there are side pages on subreddits like Pillow Talk Audio and Gonewild Audio and dedicated audio pages on sites like PornHub and Literotica. The internet contains a bounty of audio files to satisfy just about any fantasy or kink and to get people tuned into their bodies at a time when we may be very much in our heads.
And thank god for that.
“People isolating alone are missing physical affection, intimacy, and touch,” says Gutierrez.
“People with partners are dealing with the challenges of limited personal space and managing new closeness thoughtfully. We’re all dealing with the monotony of being inside our homes.
There’s something so exhilarating about getting out of the everyday routine and finding new energy by listening to an erotic audio story. For all the anxiety of this time, a silver lining is that it’s reminding people that pleasure and self-care are incredibly important.”