It was a conversation after a movie that made Anna Ungar realize it was time to give her daughter an erotic novel.
Her 17-year-old had just seen Call Me By Your Name, the 2018 homoerotic film set in Italy that depicts a love story between a teenager and a slightly older man. She loved the film but kept bringing up one particular scene she thought was “weird.” It was a short interaction between the two main characters in which the man sensually rubs the teenager’s foot. The scene was so funny and odd, the teen told her mother. She couldn’t understand how touching another person’s foot was supposed to be sexy.
“I thought, ‘What do you mean?’” said Ungar, a clinical research coordinator who lives in Seattle. “Of course touching a part of someone’s body would be sensual.”
It became clear to Ungar that while her daughter was knowledgeable about the physiological and biological side of sex, she had not been schooled on the pleasurable side. So she bought her a copy of Anais Nin’s Little Birds, the 1979 erotic novel that she herself had enjoyed as a teenager.
“I know we have so much pornography that’s available, just the mechanics of sex,” Ungar explains. But she wanted her nearly adult daughter to develop an understanding of the eroticism of touch, fantasy, and desire. “I want to make sure she’s read more of the sensual side, the feel-good side.”
Steamy novels are more often stuffed away in a sock drawer than handed down between a mother and daughter. But it turns out that Ungar’s instinct to put a sexy novel in the hands of her teenager was spot-on for a parent trying to encourage healthy sexual development in their child.
Research shows that reading romantic novels is a useful way for teenagers to learn about relationships and experiment with their sexual imaginations in a safe space. At a time when adolescents are developing the neural pathways for sexual pleasure and fantasy that will carry them into their adult lives, stories and characters provide a vivid world that is both titillating and educational. It comes down to how our brains work.
In adolescence, the brain goes through a powerful transition that moves teenagers through the process of developing deeper emotional, sexual and intellectual maturity. During this time, which starts around the age of 12 and doesn’t end until the mid-20s, young people form a more intensely emotional inward life, deepen their friendships, experience heightened sexual attraction and develop their sexual identities, according to Dr. Dan Siegel, a professor of clinical psychology at the UCLA School of Medicine and an expert in adolescent brain development.
The brain’s reward system is also heightened during this time, secreting higher levels of dopamine during new and pleasurable experiences. These dopamine hits can make adolescents feel stimulated and fully alive. It’s why seeing a sunset or kissing someone for the first time can feel so much more intense when you’re 16 than when you’re 30.
But this rush of chemical gratification brings with it serious risks for the patterns teenagers are setting for the rest of their lives. Addictions, according to Siegel, almost always begin between the ages of 12 and 24, because teens’ natural risk-taking behavior is rewarded with rushes of dopamine.
“If you do something novel or rewarding, like alcohol or cocaine, you train your reward system to like that huge release of dopamine,” Siegel says.
Dopamine also plays a big role during teenagers’ sexual experimentation, and that’s why sex education experts warn that exposure to pornography can be particularly damaging at this age. Porn can make kids think that unrealistic bodies and hardcore sexual scenarios are normal; it can even program kids to skip over seduction and go straight to penetration because pornography has trained them to link those acts with gratification.
“A tender moment of just meeting someone you like…and holding that person’s hand and kissing and fondling can seem relatively uninteresting [for] someone who has become initially exposed to and then addicted to the dopamine secretion of some of the pornography they’ve seen,” Siegel says. “So they’re bored with conventional sex.”
Sex education expert Amy Lang puts it plainly: “Pornography is one-dimensional. The point of pornography is for you to get off.”
And today’s kids are growing up in a world where pornography of all kinds has never been easier to access. Research suggests that one way to interrupt the effects of harmful media and encourage teens to explore healthy relationships is by letting them read the sensual, imaginative and hot pages of romance novels.
“It’s safe, and it’s private, and it’s fun, and it helps kids get a sense of what turns them on, but they get the sensation of being sexually stimulated in a way that is completely appropriate,” Lang says. “In books, there’s buildup. You see the hand-holding, you see the meeting in a bar, eyes connecting, and slow dancing, which is much more realistic and a counterpoint to seeing pornography.“
It turns out that when reading novels, the brain engages with the fictional world by treating it as something of a simulated reality in which it can test relationships and better understand how to relate to others. Researchers have discovered that reading novels leads to increased empathy; a study done at York University in Canada found that people who read more fiction were better able than non-fiction readers to discern people’s emotional states by looking at their faces.
And when the researchers took into account different genres of fiction, it was romance readers who scored the highest in empathy.
“Romance novels have a very strong character-driven narrative where people are really thinking about characters’ motivations and outcomes,” said Katrina Fong, a behavioral researcher who was one of the authors of the York University study.
Humans are storytelling people, and the human brain is hard-wired to learn through narrative, Siegel says. Bestselling romance author Jasmine Guillory, whose next book, The Wedding Party, will be released in July, agrees that romances are a great way to try on relationships and sexual feelings.
“I think reading is a great way to explore things that you’re feeling about the world. I think reading romance is a great way to see what different kinds of people are out there and what different kinds of relationships they had,” Guillory says.
Romance author Andie Christopher got started reading her grandmother’s romance novels, and she devoured hundreds of them as she was growing up. She says consuming the genre when she was young made her value her own enjoyment later when she became sexually active.
“I think romance novels were important in seeing pleasure as the objective,” says Christopher, whose novel, Not the Girl You Marry, will be released in November. “It made me feel like I should be going for what I want and having fun. Sex is not something that happens to me; it’s something that I participate in.”
Anna Ungar and her daughter never discussed Anais Nin’s Little Birds; her daughter didn’t seem to want to, Ungar said. But Ungar noticed that when her daughter went off to college, she brought the book.
“She must have liked it,” Ungar says.