Collage by: Cathryn Virginia | Rakratchada Torsap, Adene Sanchez, Aja Koska, Eric O'Connell, and B2M Productions via Getty Images
Erotica is often seen as inherently feminist, like the idea that its existence liberates all women. That couldn't be further from the truth. You can see the imbalance simply by contrasting the careers of the premier Black erotica author, Zane, and E.L. James, whose Fifty Shades of Grey was the chart-topping book of the decade in the 2010s. Zane’s New York Times bestselling books, like The Sex Chronicles and Addicted, are a revered rite of passage into adulthood for many Black women—but she rarely gets mainstream recognition, despite her massive readership. “Why haven't I been on the Today show or Good Morning America?” the author asked in a 2015 interview with Washingtonian. “I'm 30 books in, two TV shows and a movie in—what logical reason would there be for me not to have been on there?”
In Interstices: A Small Drama of Words, feminist scholar Hortense Spillers described Black women, with their relative lack of sexual autonomy, as “the beached whales of the sexual universe, unvoiced, unseen, not doing, awaiting their verb.” Black women’s sexual liberation is inextricably tied to how white men and women stripped women of their bodies during enslavement. In order for Black women to get off, and not just get by, they have to be telling their own stories. They can’t be included solely as decoration either. Our experiences have to be validated by stories that actually reflect the world we live in—but also reflect what actually turns us on. Or as Carol Taylor writes in Brown Sugar: A Collection of Erotic Black Fiction, “Eroticism is in the language, the characters, the situations, the settings, and in the relationships.” Might the newly burgeoning genre of audio erotica allow for more stories like that? Gina Gutierrez is the co-founder of Dipsea, a subscription-based audio erotica app that explores fantasies through original short stories—think a combination of a podcast and a porn clip. “Imagination is such a powerful tool, so when it comes to sex, why isn't it the one we reach for?” Gutierrez asked in a TED Talk earlier this year. Dipsea’s website boasts that she and co-founder Faye Keegan created the app for “women who felt like erotica didn’t really connect with their lives and experiences.” Perhaps this platform, which launched in 2017, would finally include Black people.
There were a few signs of hope. After months of being served Dipsea’s Instagram Story ads, which pair 15-second snippets of stories with steamy images of couples, I caved and started a seven-day free trial. When I did, I was drawn to the previews of “Off the Record,” a series starring Insecure’s Sarunas Jackson, which is about old flames who run back into each other serendipitously. I wanted to hear the story in its entirety, but to do that, I’d have to commit to the annual membership—for $59, or about the cost of two hardcover novels. So I did. I joined because of the thrill of the unknown, and because listening to a library of hot, professionally produced stories sounded relaxing after spending a day working online or hours glued to the television. It was a separate world that I had some autonomy over—a world spoken purely in attraction, and visualized by me. The Dipsea app’s search function guides users to stories for queer communities—including trans and non-binary characters—and racial identifiers like Asian, Latinx, and Black Voices. That’s a pretty common thing among digital media companies and platforms: Netflix and Refinery29 have verticals like Strong Black Lead and Unbothered that uplift and promote work made for and developed by Black creators. Dipsea prides itself on its own diversity-focused efforts. “It would be difficult to find a media company achieving what Dipsea has achieved in centering and celebrating Black Voices in their storytelling,” Gutierrez, the co-founder, told VICE via email. She said 30 percent of Dipsea stories are voiced by Black voice actors, and 66 percent of stories voiced by people of color. “In our most recent quarterly subscriber survey, ‘Inclusion & Diversity’ was one of the top three responses to the question, What do you like the most about Dipsea?” Gutierrez wrote. (VICE wasn’t able to review the results of that survey.)
Are Black voices synonymous with Black stories? On Dipsea, I sought stories that reflected my lived experiences, as a straight Black woman interested in straight Black men. “Five Years,” a story about Theo and Sophia, who make a pact to meet up again five years after their tryst, felt familiar. Theo spoke like men I’ve dated: He praised the scent of the shea butter that lingered in his nose, the thickness of her thighs, and how she played with her braids when she was nervous. The relatability wasn’t just in their attraction, but what they talked about when they weren't hooking up. At one point, Theo, an up-and-coming chef, expressed his frustration about food critics labeling his dishes as “elevated” Caribbean cuisine—he didn’t have to explain to Sophia why that was a backhanded compliment, she just understood. “Close Shave,” a two-episode series about a flirty relationship between Jazz and her barber Kem, felt like an ode to barbershops as Black communal spaces. In the nine newsletters sent by the app this month, all of the stories promoted feature white characters. There were other disappointments. Accents are huge in the Dipsea universe, and the stories feature Irish, Australian, and French voices prominently. Somewhat unexpectedly, Black characters were largely Brits. Would it hurt to include Caribbean, African, or Southern dialects?The more I searched for stories centering intimacy between Black characters, the fewer I could find. Among the audio pieces tagged as Black Voices, I noticed a common theme: The stories often starred Black men, but few of those men were pursuing Black women. By my count, in the “Him + Her” section, only a quarter of the Black Voices stories—24 out of 102 of them—featured Black women engaging with Black men. (You don't have to search very far to find out how the fetishization of Black men not only helped kick start Hollywood, but is still present in the porn industry.) The discovery felt like an odd gap for an app that markets itself as “audio erotica for women, by women.” Which women? Black women do exist in the app’s stories, but is just existing the same as being sexually free? Limiting Black women's stories ultimately limits the breadth of what we do sexually, placing vanilla as the default. Researching the company, despite its emphasis on diverse voices, I noticed there was no mention of how many people of color, Black or otherwise, were a part of Dipsea’s writers’ rooms. If, by the company's account, 30 percent of the voice actors are Black, then 30 percent of the writer's room should be Black, as well. So often, Black freelancers are mined for their ideas but receive no real intellectual equity in editorial and digital spaces. When I asked Gutierrez if we could chat on the phone about their writers room and how many of the stories actually starred Black women, she referred me back to the data about voice actors, mentioned a Black writer who'd been a writer-in-residence over the summer, and declined further comment. Traditionally, hush harbors were spaces where the enslaved could go to spend time away from their oppressors. These spaces were spiritual, in a way that sexuality can be, a worshiping of desires only you can name. Listening to stories like “Five Years” felt like Dipsea had become a sort of digital hush harbor for me—a place to unwind after spending 40 hours in a predominantly white workplace. As a whole, though, and as in so much of erotica, Black women on Dipsea end up tokenized and Black men fetishized, both rarely existing without spectators. And having reviewed the catalog: It’s time to cancel this damn membership. Kristin Corry is a senior staff writer at VICE.