We’re multi-sensory creatures, us humans, and that’s never truer than when it comes to arousal. Titillation goes far beyond touch alone: think Jane Birkin’s breathless accompaniment to Serge Gainsbourg’s ‘Je T’Aime’ for example, or pretty much any pornography you’d care to mention. But there’s another medium that’s long been getting us hot under the collar – and between the sheets: Erotic Literature.
Whilst E.L. James’ ‘50 Shades’ trilogy may continue to stir loins the world over, the British author represents just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to erotic writing. Time will tell whether the racy romps of Ana Steele and Christian Grey stand the test of time, but already, the genre boasts a rich history of quality, controversy and censorship. Read on for LELO’s top five titillating texts that changed everything.
#1 The Kama Sutra
“In short, nothing tends to increase love so much as the effects of marking with the nails, and biting”
Thought to date from between 400 BCE and 200 CE, Hindu philosopher Vātsyāyana’s guide to love and life is perhaps the best-known yet most-misunderstood sex text out there. Where now, some 2,000 years on, the very name conjures images of entwined, contortionist-like lovers, as is so often the case, sex is just one part of the equation. An of-the-time guide to gracious and virtuous living, it spans everything from personal hygiene to ‘how to be a good wife’. In the West, though, the work has become synonymous with its lyrical descriptions of some 64 sex acts and positions.
Why It Matters
One of the world’s oldest known Sanskrit sacred texts, the Kama Sutra’s relevance is as much about its historical context as its positioning in modern culture. Only translated into English in 1883, in the West it became a mainstay of bedside tables during the 1960s, coinciding with a sexual revolution that arguably still resonates today.
#2 Marquis de Sade
“In order to know virtue, we must first acquaint ourselves with vice.”
Widely reviled in life and in death, the Marquis de Sade is a divisive character when it comes to erotic fiction. A catalogue of crime, from the violent abduction of prostitutes through to sodomy and blasphemy saw the 18th century aristocrat spend a total 32 years in prisons and asylums across France. During that time, the libertine penned a huge body of work – much of which was subsequently destroyed by disgraced relatives – including ‘Justine’ and ‘Juliette’. Those two novels in particular piqued the wrath of Napoleon Bonaparte in 1801, resulting in Sade’s final imprisonment before dying behind bars in 1814.
Why It Matters
Spanning film, literature and art, de Sade’s legacy is as complicated as it is rich. Certainly, the posthumous publication of works like ‘120 Days of Sodom’ in 1905 (described by Sade himself as “the most impure tale that has ever been told since our world began”) raised important issues surrounding pornography, morality and censorship. What’s more, it’s from de Sade’s depictions of violence, cruelty and humiliation that we derive the terms ‘Sadist’ and ‘Sadism’. So there you go.
#3 Fanny Hill
“…Not the plaything of a boy, nor the weapon of a man, but a Maypole, of so enormous a standard, that, had proportions been observed, it must have belonged to a young giant…In short, it stood an object of terror and delight”.
Published in two halves – in 1748 and 1749 respectively – John Cleland’s ‘Fanny Hill’ continues to shock and seduce readers the world over. A veritable romp through 18th century England, our eponymous heroine is a 15-year old orphan whose life descends into the murky world of prostitution. Apart from it doesn’t: rather, the book is an affirmative and even heartening celebration of female pleasure, discovery and love. Case in point: our sample quote describing Fanny’s enchantment at a particularly impressive penis…
Why it Matters
‘Fanny Hill’ broke the mold with a likeable, principled female protagonist who – shock! horror! – enjoys sex. That her erotic encounters are described in such delightfully poetic metaphors – think “flesh brush” and “pleasure-thirsty channel” – only adds to the seduction. Unfortunately for Cleland his publishers and printers, neither the Church of England nor the British Government shared our assessment, resulting in the author’s imprisonment for “corrupting the King’s subjects”. Banned internationally for its ‘obscene’ and ‘pornographic’ content, legal wrangles in 1960s America challenged notions of censorship, paving the way for a new generation of writers.
#4 Lady Chatterley’s Lover
“Then as he began to move, in the sudden helpless orgasm, there awoke in her new strange thrills rippling inside her. Rippling, rippling, rippling, like a flapping overlapping of soft flames, soft as feathers, running to points of brilliance, exquisite and melting her all molten inside. It was like bells rippling up and up to a culmination. She lay unconscious of the wild little cries she uttered at the last.”
Even today, D.H. Lawrence’s 1928 novel still carries connotations of scandal and intrigue. Heck, some readers may remember thumbing through one of the earliest editions, modestly wrapped in anonymous brown paper, presumably to preserve bookshelves’ respectability. The plot centers on Connie – the eponymous Lady Chatterley – and her frustration at being emotionally and physically neglected by her war-wounded husband. So what does she do? She begins a passionate affair with handsome gamekeeper, Mellor. Smashing taboos of class, gender roles and sex along the way, Connie comes to understand that love is as much about the body as it is the mind.
Why it Matters
It took more than thirty years for an uncensored version of Lawence’s book to be published in the UK. That finally became available in 1960, coinciding with and arguably contributing to an altogether different kind of sexual revolution of the time. The delay largely came down to Lawrence’s penchant for then-unprintable language – think cunt, shit, fuck and the like. Penguin Books – the publisher of the unabridged 1960 edition – famously fought prosecution under the UK’s Obscene Publications Act 1959. It was a landmark case that forced prosecutors to accept not only the literary merit of Lawrence’s work, but also the changing social norms of the times.
#5 The Story of O
“As a matter of fact,” the other voice went on, “if you do tie her up from time to time, or whip her just a little, and she begins to like it, that’s no good either. You have to get past the pleasure stage, until you reach the stage of tears.”
Picking up where Marquis de Sade left off, French author Anne Desclos’ 1954 novel is a hotbed of dominance, submission and love. Originally published under a penname, the writer’s true identity was only revealed shortly before Desclos’ death in 1998. The book follows O, a young Parisian woman who is schooled by her lover in the art of unwavering submission. To that end, her anus is widened, her labia pierced and her bottom branded. Needless to say, blindfolds, whips and chains are par for the course. She becomes the willing slave, unrequited lover and ultimately ‘property’ of new master, Sir Stephen before things take an altogether darker turn…
Why it Matters
‘The Story of O’ appeared at a kind of moral crossroads in France: as it was picking up literature prize Prix des Deux Magots, for example, it was also fighting obscenity charges. But it was what happened some 40 later that really cemented O’s real significance: the revelation that it was written by a woman. For some, that only added to the outrage, with interpretations of the book’s cryptic ‘O’ as merely ‘object’ or ‘orifice’ or ‘hole’. The book’s themes resonated with the BDSM community in particular, and even inspired the name of America’s first lesbian S/M group – Samois, after a fictional estate mentioned in the work.
What all these works show is that the written word can be not only a powerful force for change, but also a pretty potent aphrodisiac. Reading has never been so sexy…