The first time I had to say the word “penis” out loud in the recording booth, I laughed. I was in my early 30s, and I giggled like a teenager in sex ed class. I had to say it a few times before it was believable enough that the director said we could move on.
The character in the book I was reading from was making love with her boyfriend for the first time. It was a passionate moment. She reached for his penis. She wanted it. She said she wanted it, and so, because I was narrating this audiobook, I had to say I wanted it. Out loud.
Things sound different out loud. They just do.
I don’t think I’d ever said the word “penis” out loud before recording that book. I was married, and my then-husband and I never talked about sex. We had sex on Tuesdays, because that was what I was supposed to do as a good wife — satisfy my husband’s needs — but talking about what I wanted? What might turn me on? Never.
The first penis I ever touched was when I was in high school. I was watching a movie with a guy named Aaron, and I reached into his pants, fumbled around until I found something and then just held his penis. I didn’t do anything with it. I just sort of cupped it.
Narrating my first erotica book was kinda the same thing. I didn’t do anything with the words. I just cupped them.
I didn’t know when I started narrating erotica that it would change my life, but it did. It would start me on a path that would lead to me understanding my body and what I wanted in my relationships. During my career narrating romance novels and erotica, I’d learn enough to leave disastrous relationships (and two marriages) until I finally figured out what real love and passion were.
But I had no idea any of that would happen. In the beginning, I was just a narrator looking for work.
When I was booked for my next erotica gig after the “penis” incident, I decided to approach it differently. I was going to own these words. I wouldn’t giggle. I couldn’t. The listeners would be able to tell if I was hesitant, unsure or embarrassed. If I was hesitant, unsure or embarrassed, it would pull them out of the fantasy, and that is a disservice to the book, the author and the listener. My job as an actor is to inhabit the words. To perform the words as the characters demand. I wasn’t supposed to cup them and just stay there frozen-like.
I was married and had a kid, and I couldn’t say “clitoris” without feeling ashamed, and that needed to change. There was nothing to be ashamed about. My body should be celebrated. Our bodies should be celebrated. I had to be believable in my performance.
So I practiced. I whispered the words at home in the privacy of my shower. Cleft. Supple. Nipples. I started to say all those words we aren’t supposed to say out loud. Fuck. Cock. Mound. And then I started to get louder saying them. I want you. I need you. You’re mine. I stopped giggling, but I still blushed.
Somehow, in saying all these words, in performing stories where women found love and passion and acceptance exactly as they were during sex, I started to change. I started to want love and passion and acceptance in my real-life relationship. I ended up leaving my husband, not strictly because of erotica books but because I was finally zeroing in on what I wanted and needed as a woman — in the bedroom but also outside of it.
I started to get more erotica gigs. It was fun. These books were wild and uninhibited. I created a pseudonym, Tatiana Sokolov, for branding, and she took off. Over my career, I’ve narrated more than 1,000 audiobooks, half of which have been romance and erotica.
As Tatiana, I played bikers and pirates, controlling bosses and hot lumberjacks. I was the guy next door and the billionaire on a yacht. I had to be strong and masculine, and there was something incredibly freeing about inhabiting a man’s space through language. It started to rub off on me. By speaking confidently in books, I started to speak confidently in life.
At the same time, I played women who owned their own desire. They acted on their fantasies. They told their partners what to do to make them feel good. Honestly, I didn’t know you could do that. I thought you’d hurt your partner’s feelings or that you’d emasculate your partner if you told them to move a little to the left. I started to say the words outside of my booth and in my bedroom, and everything changed. By “everything,” I mean I changed. Instead of floating outside of my body, I was suddenly connected to my body. Instead of sex being something done to me, it became a shared experience.
It was transformative. There was a power in the words I could now say confidently.
When people asked me about my job, I’d tell them I was a narrator. “Do you ever narrate, you know, dirty books?” someone might whisper. “Yeah. Sure! They’re great!” I’d say. I think I was supposed to act ashamed or something ― like erotica is somehow less than, because that’s what the publishing industry tells us: Women writers are less than, women writing about sex are less than, women who enjoy reading about sex are the most less than. Funny how the genre is the number one bestseller (though The New York Times does not list erotica in its bestseller list, even as it routinely outsells all other books), but it’s considered less than. It isn’t true. Erotica writers are fierce and clever, and so are their fans.
There’s an idea that because the books have sex in them, they’re just porn, but they aren’t. These books explore complex characters and relationships, and they are about sex. These are books about loving and all the ways that loving expresses itself. It is really difficult to write a convincing love scene that’s titillating and not laughable. (I know because I’ve now written four romance books, the USA Today bestselling “Man Hands” series, with co-author Sarina Bowen). I’ve narrated enough books to appreciate the writer who builds deep relationships where the sex scenes are exciting and important to the plot, not just anatomical coupling.
I wish we could de-stigmatize romance and give the genre the credit it deserves. Erotica books allowed me to explore my sexuality in a way that I felt safe. I had a traumatic childhood, so feeling safe, especially in the bedroom, is important to me, and I imagine to many women. I didn’t have to actually do the things in the books ― I could just read about them and perform the scenes out loud with my voice. It was sort of like trying on different costumes.
Erotica books allowed me to play and explore until I found the things that made me feel good, until I realized there were physical needs I had that weren’t being met. And then, later, I had the words to ask for the things I wanted from my partner. It was empowering ― being connected to my body, being able to tell my partner what I needed without shame.
Women often write to me thanking me for the books I’ve recorded. One was a widow and, while she wasn’t ready to date — she was still in love with her late husband — erotica books allowed her to imagine being loved by a man who wasn’t her husband. She missed him, and she knew eventually she’d date again, but for now, erotica books allowed her to explore her own sensuality in a way that felt safe. Romance, for many of us, is a safe and sacred space.
Storytelling is a powerful thing, and I have been lucky to be part of the audiobook industry for the last 20 years. I know there are listeners who, through listening to the books I perform, are able to explore their own desires, heal from past trauma, enjoy the pure fantasy of it all or connect with their bodies. This should be applauded.
Narrating erotica literally gave me the words in my own relationships to express the needs and desires I have. It started me on a journey to understand and embrace my body. I found confidence in myself and my sexuality. Eventually I found a partner and relationship that is fulfilling in every way, mostly because we are able to talk about what we want individually and who we want to be as a couple inside the bedroom and out. We both love that we can say the words with confidence.
I don’t giggle anymore about sexual words. I own them.
Tanya Eby is an award-winning audiobook narrator and a USA Today bestselling novelist. Her memoir on her journey of rediscovering her body, sex and finding what it means to be loved well is with her agent at Talcott Notch. She lives in Grand Rapids, Michigan.