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Turn the Pages to Turn up Desire

Self-help books and erotica for increasing sexual desire

A YouTube video was posted on a listserv for sex therapists I belong to. Because of the similarity of the video title (“Bibliotherapy for Sexual Desire”) and that of a scientific study I recently published (“Bibliotherapy for Low Sexual Desire: Evidence for Effectiveness”), I was confused. Why was there a video about my study on YouTube?

Clicking the link, I found a Saturday Night Live skit depicting three mothers caught in the act of masturbating to the best-selling book 50 Shades of Grey while unsuspecting husbands and children attempted to deliver mother’s day surprises. Returning to the original link to post for readers’ enjoyment, I found it disabled. However, I located the identical video, now titled “Amazon Mother’s Day Commercial." (Readers, I hope you enjoy a good laugh!).

The spoof uses humor to make a point that sexuality researchers already know: Women are aroused by erotic material. 50 Shades of Grey, credited as spawning a new genre of literature—mommy porn—certainly classifies as erotica.

But, is it—as the title of the original YouTube video implied—bibliotherapy for low sexual desire?

The answer lies in how one defines bibliotherapy. Some scholars, including one who wrote an article on self-help methods for alleviating sexual dysfunctions, define bibliotherapy as written material that provides readers with techniques akin to those found in face-to-face counseling. Other researchers define bibliotherapy more broadly, including three who say it is any written material used to help an individual with a problem. These scholars distinguish types of bibliotherapy, explicitly mentioning both “how to” guides and “erotic literature.” Using this broader definition, both 50 Shades of Grey and self-help books (such as my own Tired Woman’s Guide to Passionate Sex or Hall’s Reclaiming Your Sexual Self) classify as bibliotherapy.

But, what does research tell us about the effectiveness of both types of books in improving women’s sexual functioning?

According to a paper published by the Society for the Scientific Society on Sexuality, when exposed to nonviolent erotica, women show small, short-term increases in the sexual behaviors they already engage in, but they generally don’t try new sexual behaviors. Quoting another scholarly article, “Some researchers have found that erotic literature can promote the development of erotic imagination which, in turn, can arouse sexual desire.” This article also informs us that reading erotic literature helps women suffering from low sexual desire achieve a mental state conducive to sex—specifically the anticipation of a positive sexual encounter. Stated simply, research finds that erotica can positively enhance sexuality in women who read it.

Can self-help books achieve the same results? Although Americans spend about 600 million dollars annually on self-help books, 95 percent are published without evidence of their effectiveness. In an article written for psychologists, John Norcross, author of the Authoritative Guide to Self-Help Resources in Mental Health, lists the few self-help books with research backing them up. One of these is Becoming Orgasmic. One study found that American women who read it increased the frequency with which they reached orgasm. Another study found that French women who read the book increased their sexual excitement and sexual satisfaction, as well as the number of activities in their sexual repertoire.

What about the ability of self-help books to assist women in overcoming low sexual desire, the number one sexual problem that women bring to therapists? A scholarly review, published in 2011, explicitly pointed out that there were no self-help books proven effective to help women increase desire. Aware of this lack, as well as writings emphasizing that authors of self-help materials hold an ethical responsibility to demonstrate that their product is effective, colleagues and I conducted a study on my book, A Tired Woman’s Guide to Passionate Sex. Results indicated that women who read the book increased their sexual desire, sexual arousal, sexual satisfaction, and overall sexual functioning—and that increases in sexual desire remained seven weeks after women finished reading the book. This study was published in an American Psychological Association journal---with a title uncannily similar to the original link of the Saturday Night Live Skit on 50 Shades of Grey.

This research doesn’t mean mine is the best self-help book on the topic—it does mean, however, that it is currently the only one with published research showing it actually increases desire in the women who read it. The same goes for Becoming Orgasmic; there could be better books for women on achieving orgasm, but this one remains the only one with research showing it actually works. Interestingly, one of the many strategies recommended in both Becoming Orgasmic and A Tired Women’s Guide to Passionate Sex is reading erotica. Of course, neither recommends” 50 Shades of Grey”, as that was written after the publication of these books. And, while” 50 Shades” is currently on the hot-list of women’s erotica, it certainly isn’t the only erotic book available to women. A Tired Woman’s Guide includes a recommendation list, as does an article on Your Tango.

The Your Tango article quotes an expert as recommending erotica over how-to guides for enhancing sexual desire. This recommendation has no basis in scientific research. For that, a study would need to compare women reading a self-help book with women reading an erotic book. Perhaps they would fare the same. Perhaps, as I suspect, the erotic book would result in more short-term increases in desire and the self-help book would spawn more long-lasting improvements. It may also be that one type of women would benefit more from self-help, while another would benefit more from erotica.

In the meantime, it’s good to know that when a woman wants to turn up desire, she can turn the pages.

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