Seven-year itch

In A Long Time Burning (1969), his magisterial history of literary censorship, Donald Thomas argues that pornography can be seen as a kind of parallel to satire, that the power of porn comes from slaughtering sacred cows: ‘The purpose of pornography, like a great deal of satire, is not to create moral values, but to ridicule or destroy them.’burning

This is, he suggests, what shapes the subject matter. The central function of pornography – sexual excitement – obviously remains constant, but the themes change over time. In late-nineteenth-century Britain, incest featured heavily, mocking the ideal of the bourgeois Victorian family. In America at the same time, interracial stories proliferated. Or one could look to the sexual enslavement of women depicted in Pauline Réage’s Histoire d’O (1954) and Jean de Berg’s L’Image (1956), both published in the wake of Simone de Beauvoir’s Le Deuxième Sexe (1949) and coming out of the same intellectual circles. (The pseudonyms concealed the identities of Anne Desclos and Catherine Robbe-Grillet respectively.)

I like this theory. And it occurred to me that, if Thomas is correct, then the participatory nature of the internet, with its enormous mass of pornography, might give us some sort of sidelight on society today, if only we could measure and monitor the content of this mass. So, as part of my contribution to cultural history, I thought I’d see if there was anything that could be objectively quantified.

The question was where to look. The world’s most popular porn sites are those that centre on video streaming: XVideos, Pornhub, XHamster and the like. But there are problems with these sites. In particular, there’s the issue that they attract industry producers; amateurs do upload material, but they’re vastly outnumbered by the professionals. And that’s not the best way of assessing the democracy of the internet. There’s also a problem that the same video can be uploaded multiple times, so it’d be hard to evaluate.

The better option, I decided, was the written word, as represented by, an English-language site that offers free membership and that allows members to post stories.

The reason for the choice was that, since it’s based on text, not on visual imagery – and since there’s no money in it – Literotica is purely amateur and therefore more likely to represent the tastes of consumers rather than producers. It is also more likely, I believe, to feature female contributors than do the video sites.

I don’t know whether it’s the largest such site in the world, but I assume that if it’s not then it must be pretty close. When I last looked, it featured 497,335 stories written by 90,434 separate authors. The others I considered –, among them – don’t come close to those numbers. And certainly those that focus on narrower fetish areas can’t compete for quantity.

There are limitations, of course. By definition, prose fiction only features the literate producer/consumer, but I can live with that. The fact that it only represents the English-speaking world doesn’t worry me much either, since that’s the world that interests me. More problematic is that some subjects are off-limits; Literotica is a moderated site and the darkest areas of sexuality are evidently not permitted. I don’t have an answer to this, except perhaps to note that the most extreme tastes – favoured by very small minorities – will not be represented: zoophilia, snuff, necrophilia, paedophilia aren’t here.

Like other such sites, Literotica allows authors to tag their stories, using multiple tags as they wish. So back in October 2014 – when there were just 287,683 stories by 60,135 authors – I recorded the twenty-five most popular tags, together with the number of stories in each category. And now, seven years on, I’ve done so again.

This then is the chart, the current top twenty-five tags. The position seven years ago is shown in brackets, and the number of stories currently using each tag is also shown:

1 (1) Anal (37,814)
2 (2) Oral (28,444)
3 (5) Lesbian (24,123)
4 (4) Blowjob (23,423)
5 (9) Romance (21,945)
6 (3) Threesome (20,692)
7 (-) Incest (19,363)
8 (-) BDSM (18,455)
9 (6) Masturbation (17,823)
10 (8) Oral sex (17,168)
11 (25) Group sex (16,457)
12 (7) Bondage (16,194)
13 (13) Wife (14,840)
14 (11) Humiliation (14,819)
15 (20) First time (14,451)
16 (14) Femdom (14,436)
17 (15) Cheating (13,005)
18 (12) Spanking (12,906)
19 (-) Interracial (12,265)
20 (21) Voyeur (12,121)
21 (22) Cuckold (11,790)
22 (-) Fantasy (11,691)
23 (-) Exhibitionism (11,598)
24 (16) Submission (11,173)
25 (-) Mature (11,016)

Obviously, there’s some doubling up here. If you add together Oral and Oral Sex, for example, it comes out on top, even before you throw in Blowjob as well. And much of the movement is presumably to do with changing fashions in terminology. Group Sex rises but Threesome falls back; BDSM arrives in the top ten while Bondage and Submission fall. Likewise the entries for Incest and Mature are maybe accounted for, at least in part, by the disappearance of MILF, Mother and Older Woman from the list. Other tags that featured in 2014 and have since dropped out are: Drama (the #10 entry back then), Love and College. 

So what does this tell us? I have absolutely no idea. Perhaps only that a seven-year period is insufficient to monitor any real movement. But it is at least now placed on record. And when I come back to it in another seven years or so, maybe patterns will be starting to emerge.

Just as a footnote: Literotica also notes tags that have only a single story, of which there are – or have been – a great many, including: ‘four iron’, ‘alien slut ray’, ‘breaking Benjamin’, ‘lawyer’, ‘feminine anatomy’, ‘stumpy tailed lizard’, ‘big titty goth girl’, ‘rural bisexuals’ and ‘cockophobia’.

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