Sexy Stories

A Beginner’s Guide to a History of Erotic Fiction


A beginner’s guide to erotic fiction cannot help but be incomplete. One cannot do justice to such a broad body of literature, so I have selected a bouquet of offerings that will provide novices with a sampling of the breadth of the field, from which they may go on to explore further the realms of pleasure.

Fanny Hill: Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure

John Cleland

While the history of erotic fiction stretches back before literature—before words—this eighteenth century novel offers a good starting point for modern readers because it has such a contemporary tone. The poetry of the ancient world, whether Ovid’s sensual tales or the Song of Solomon’s caressing lines, require the additional skill of reading poetry, so neglected in our time. The frank sexuality of medieval authors like Chaucer, Boccaccio and Piccolomini (before he became Pope Pius II) likewise demand more than the casual reader may be prepared to offer. The rise of the novel in the 18th century spawned many erotic tales, but Cleland’s novel—penned while he was incarcerated—offers a lively heroine who frankly tells her adventures to a friend in slightly defensive, but always detailed, letters. From her first misstep as a 15-year old orphan to erotic adventures with all manner of men, Fanny eventually reunites with the love of her life, Charles, the young man who deflowered her and who immediately forgives her and marries the 18 year old. It probably doesn’t hurt that she’s amassed a fortune by then. In the intervening three years the young woman has learned the joys of pleasure from both men and women, been paid to whip men and take part in orgies. The only thing that shocks her seems to be observing a pair of men in carnal embrace. Cleland’s heroine was later reanimated by Erica Jong in her 1980 novel Fanny, Being the True History of the Adventures of Fanny Hackabout-Jones.

Philosophy in the Boudoir

Marquis de Sade

Most people are led to Justine, some to her sister tale Juliette, while the brave adventurers head for 120 Days of Sodom (tales that begin with coprophagia then escalate toward the cruel and the murderous), but the best introduction to the writer remains this short work. As Angela Carter outlined in her deft study, A Sadeian Woman, for the Marquis sex is a zero sum game: for someone to win, someone else must suffer. The voluptuous Madame de Saint-Ange and her friend Dolmancé educate the 15-year old virgin Eugénie both in the details of sexual experience with a decided taste for anal penetration (offered as the ideal activity because it avoids the risk of pregnancy), incest and whippings (both given and received). In between the erotic tableaux, which accrue participants as the story goes on, Dolmancé develops his political theories on the advantages of the libertine life. Like the Restoration rebel Lord Rochester, the Marquis visualizes sex as a means to power and freedom. The punishment dished out to Eugénie’s mother in the end, which her now corrupted daughter oversees, may make you wonder what kind of freedom that would be.

Venus in Furs

Leopold Von Sacher-Masoch

The 19th century is full of erotic wonders. We tend to think of this as a repressed time, but it resulted in a flowering of sensual tales (and indeed, a flowering of literature in general with more widespread literacy due to changes like the 1870 Education Act in Britain). In Victorian Britain these erotic tomes seem to always be either about the exotic worlds of the empire (Venus in India or The Lustful Turk) or some form of flagellation (The Convent School, or Early Experiences of A Young Flagellant or Swinburne’s The Whippingham Papers): probably not the outcome schoolmasters had in mind with their application of corporal punishment. Venus in Furs, perhaps better known from the Velvet Underground’s song of the same title, offers the tale (within a framing tale) of a young man Severin so smitten with his love for Wanda that he demands to be her slave, reveling as she piles humiliations upon him. He only loses his desire when she falls for the more cruel Alexis and submits to him. In her fall, Severin realizes that society is to blame for making women only fit to be slaves or despots, a surprisingly feminist realisation.

Delta of Venus

Anaïs Nin

Nin wrote this book and its companion volume, Little Birds, for a dollar a page payment while struggling to write. While her friend and lover Henry Miller went on to recognition and, if not fame, a comfortable notoriety for his erotic novels, Nin struggled to find an audience, chronicling in successive diaries her ambitions and her philosophy (as well as her many lovers, including her father). Enamored of D. H Lawrence, whose Lady Chatterley’s Lover gave her fodder for an on-going sexual awakening, Nin struggled to find a way to capture female erotic sensibilities in a way she had not found in the efforts of her male counterparts. From the bohemian adventures of artists and models to the sexual awakenings of suburban wives, Nin explored fearlessly a kaleidoscope of sexual couplings with a clear eye and poetic language. She is really the modern mother of popular erotic writing.

The Story of O

Pauline Réage (Anne Desclos)

Desclos penned this masterpiece of dominance and submission that has intrigued and repelled readers in probably equal numbers. Feminists who decried its heroine’s subjection ignored her granting permission at every step. From the château of Roissy where she first learns to submit to her advanced training at Samois, O grows in self-knowledge and assurance. Her brandings and piercing serve as markers of her accomplishments like many a modern tattooed free spirit. When she walks into the final party, clad only in an owl mask, her mood is triumphant—and fearless. In précis that is the challenge of erotic fiction: we have no control over what arouses. The one who reads O’s tale with disgust does not consider that the heroine would find equally appalling their favourite sexual scenario. There is an amazing variety out there. If NASCAR and cheerleaders turn you on, there will be stories out there for you.

Lost Girls

Alan Moore and Melinda Gebbie

Putting the ‘graphic’ in graphic novel, Moore and Gebbie’s luscious three-volume set depicts the meeting of three children’s book heroines, Alice, Wendy and Dorothy, at the appropriately named Hotel Himmelgarden at the outbreak of the first World War. In its pages lies a sexual cornucopia with loving tributes to masterpieces of erotic fiction as well as to the childhood classic stories, which turn out to mirror the very real traumas of sexual repression and exploitation the characters undergo. Together the three women find sexual healing as they share their stories and rebuild their damaged psyches.

Further reading

The 21st century and the ebook revolution have led to a real explosion of erotic fiction. With the discretion online purchasing and tablet readers offer, women especially have felt more free to indulge in erotic fiction without puritanical censure. The market for erotic romance has burgeoned—so much so that even Harlequin and Mills & Boon now offer romances with explicit sexual content. A whole host of publishers specialize in erotic and erotic romance including Kensington, Tirgearr Publishing, Freya’s Bower, Xcite Books, Cleis and many many more. Collections like Mammoth Book of Best New Erotica and the wide variety of anthologies assembled by Rachel Kramer Bussel will introduce you to a broad selection of the best in erotic writing.

If you want more guidance on your sensual voyage, join the folks over at the Erotica Readers & Writers Association. Happy reading.

[N.B. This essay appeared in a slightly different form in The Spectator’s Night & Day blog, 23 May 2011. The author also writes erotica & erotic romance as C. Margery Kempe and blogs weekly at Lady Smut.]