So many novels are published each year that most of them ago completely unnoticed. Once in a while, a book makes a stir: perhaps it sold for an exceptionally large amount of money or is already being turned into a movie. Very rarely is a book truly scandalous — we reserve what little is left of our pearl-clutching tendencies for television.
In the era before TV and movies completely overtook literature as the popular entertainment du jour, however, novels caused their fair share of scandals. Racy content in books, whether full-on orgies or just teenagers having sex, was seen as damaging to society and encouraging of poor moral fiber. In the U.S., books with explicit sexual content were often banned for obscenity, forcing authors to release their novels in France or Italy, where authorities were unconcerned with prosecuting English-language books, instead.
Thanks to the legal challenges from publishers in the 1960s, we no longer have to worry about censors banning books for obscenity (or banning them at all, really). We can happily revisit the novels that set our grandparents’ hair on end (or in a few cases, our great-great-great-great-great-great grandparents) and ushered in out current era of terrible moral degeneracy. As tame as they may seem now, each of the following 14 books caused a scandal when they first came out. Sure, you can read them for their literary and historical value, but if you just want to check out the sexy bits, well, I won’t judge.
Ulysses By James Joyce
Although you're probably used to thinking of Joyce's modernist masterpiece as an avant-garde tome taken on by only the most ambitious of readers, when the novel first came out, it was mostly notorious for its sexual content. Censors in both the U.S. and U.K. agreed with Virginia Woolf's notoriously unfavorable assessment of the novel and banned it as obscene.
Flowers In The Attic By V.C. Andrews
This book and its sequels gleefully embrace one of our society's last great taboos — incest — and then pile dramatic twist after dramatic twist on top. Though it was published as adult fiction and banned in many schools, the novel's most devoted fans were teenage girls. Reading it in secret only heightened the appeal.
Lolita By Vladimir Nabokov
With Lolita , Nabokov was so successful at putting the reader in the shoes of sociopathic pedophile that even he found the effect somewhat unsettling. Though it's now considered a 20th century classic, Nabokov struggled to find a publisher for the novel, and upon its release in 1955 newspaper editor John Gordon declared it "the filthiest book I have ever read."
The Country Girls By Edna O'Brien
This debut novel was both popular and critically acclaimed in the United States and England. But O'Brien's frank discussion of young women's sexuality didn't go over so well in her home country of Ireland: not only did the censor ban The Country Girls , her family's parish priest publicly burned three of the few copies that did make it into the country.
The Satanic Verses By Salman Rushdie
Most of the authors on this list have gotten some angry letters from offended readers, but Salman Rushdie is the only one to have a price put on his head. The Ayatollah Khomeini of Iran was so offended by what he heard about the book, especially a scene in which prostitutes dress up as the wives of a fictionalized version of Mohammed, that he issued a fatwa, declaring it Muslims' duty to kill the author, which forced Rushdie to go into hiding. Perhaps even more unsettling is how many of the British literary establishment (including John Le Carre, John Berger, and Roald Dahl) thought that Rushdie was more less getting what he deserved and agitated for the book to be pulled from shelves.
Lady Chatterly's Lover By D.H. Lawrence
Supposedly this novel contains an anal sex scene, though it went right over my head when I read the book in high school. Regardless, Lady Chatterly's Lover , with its enthusiastic portrayal of extramarital sex, is the most scandalous of Lawrence's many racy novels: although it was first published in 1928, the unexpurgated version of the book was banned in both the U.S. and the U.K. until the 1960s.
And Tango Makes Three By Peter Parnell And Justin Richardson, Illustrated By Henry Cole
Considerably more adorable than most of the other books on this list, And Tango Makes Three still caused quite the stir when it was published. Social conservatives objected to the book's fictionalized narrative of two male penguins at the Central Park Zoo raising a baby penguin because they worried it sexualized penguins and gave children an inaccurate perspective on reproduction. (How their objections were not immediately overridden by squees I will never understand.)
Fifty Shades Of Grey By E.L. James
As much well-deserved mockery as Fifty Shades of Grey has come in for over the past four years, it's worth remembering that when it first came out, the book opened a new conversation about sexuality — one that may have involved your mom inquiring about fuzzy handcuffs.
Forever By Judy Bloom
Fanny Hill By John Cleland
The alternate title of this 1748 novel, Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure , makes it pretty clear why people objected to the book — especially since it definitely lives up to its name. This book is wall-to wall sex, and, perhaps even more shocking (if not terribly realistic), the titular heroine actually enjoys her dissolute lifestyle and ends up wealthy and married.
Tropic Of Cancer By Henry Miller
Like Ulysses and Lady Chatterly's Lover, Tropic of Cancer enraged 20th century moralists and brought down the wrath of censor boards. To be fair, the novel does include quotes like "I will bite your clitoris and spit out two francs," which is, y'know, pretty weird.
Portnoy's Complaint By Philip Roth
This novel's infamous masturbation scene, in which the titular narrator attempts to have sex with a piece of raw liver, ensured that I, at least, will never look at offal the same way again. Although the explicit descriptions of self-pleasure were quite scandalous in 1969, most of the controversy about the novel actually revolved around Roth's irreverent and often unflattering portrayal of Portnoy's Jewish identity and community, which earned him the label of a self-hating Jew.
Justine By Marquis De Sade
Though plenty of the books on this list were banned, Justine (along with its companion piece Juliette) is the only one that got its author thrown in an insane asylum. Though De Sade's sexual exploits landed him in plenty of scrapes, it wasn't until Napoleon Bonaparte demanded the author of the scandalous pair of novels be imprisoned that De Sade was put away permanently.
Fear Of Flying By Erica Jong
Notorious for introducing the concept of the "zipless fuck," Erica Jong's semi-autoibiographical novel was one of the first to seriously explore women's sexuality and caused a considerable stir when it was published in 1973. Republican Senator Jesse Helms was incensed that public funds had been used to support something "filthy and obscene" (Jong received an NEA grant of $5,000 shortly before publishing the novel), which just goes to show that old dudes yelling at a woman about government funding is a time honored tradition in Washington.