We all know that the birds and the bees are an integral part of the human experience, but with how often sex is tiptoed around in classic literature, it’s easy to get the idea that a book can’t be both steamy and acclaimed. Admittedly, sweltering sex scenes aren’t the norm in classic novels, but they’re not completely absent, either. In spite of the stereotypes, sexy time isn’t reserved exclusively for so-called “trashy” romance novels and erotica, nor is serious literature above such supposedly base content.
There are, in fact, esteemed authors who have sexed up their writing over the centuries, and they’ve done so just as skillfully as any modern erotica writer. I’m not talking just straight-up vanilla scenes, either (though there’s plenty of that, if that’s what you’re looking for). You can find a lot of kink in the classics, as well. Not surprisingly, many such books have ended up on banned lists in various countries over the years, but they’ve lived on — and perhaps even benefited from the notoriety. (Isn’t the forbidden sometimes the most tempting?)
Below are 10 classic novels with scenes so steamy, you may want to turn down the heat before we continue. It’s about to get hot in here.
1. Fanny Hill (or Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure) by John Cleland
Written by a man in debtors’ prison (with time on his hands to fantasize), it’s not shocking that Fanny Hill is fairly bursting with salacious scenes. John Cleland’s 1748 novel includes everything from voyeurism to masturbation, and lesbian hookups to anal. That it has a long history of being banned is a given.
My breasts, if it is not too bold a figure to call so two hard, firm, rising hillocks, that just began to shew themselves, or signify anything to the touch, employed and amused her hands awhile, till, slipping down lower, over a smooth track, she could just feel the soft silky down that had but a few months before put forth and garnished the mount-pleasant of those parts, and promised to spread a grateful shelter over the sweet seat of the most exquisite sensation, and which had been, till that instant, the seat of the most insensible innocence. Her fingers played and strove to twine in the young tendrils of that moss, which nature has contrived at once for use and ornament.
2. Lady Chatterley’s Lover by D.H. Lawrence
First published in 1928, D.H. Lawrence’s story of an upper class woman’s illicit affair with a working class man is nothing if not explicit at times. Lady Chatterley’s Lover even inspired a trial when the full unexpurgated edition was published in 1960. Whether you consider it scandalizing or titillating, there’s no denying its impact.
He too had bared the front part of his body and she felt his naked flesh against her as he came into her. For a moment he was still inside her, turgid there and quivering. 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, 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.
3. Ulysses by James Joyce
Yet another book to face obscenity trials, James Joyce’s Ulysses — published in parts from 1918 to 1920 — centers on a young aspiring writer, and a middle-aged salesman and his wife. In spite of the uproar, it has been praised for its parallels to Homer’s Odyssey and themes of Ireland’s relationship to Britain, among other elements. The sex is just part of it, but man, it’s a risqué part.
Wildly I lay on her, kissed her: eyes, her lips, her stretched neck beating, women’s breasts full in her blouse of nun’s veiling, fat nipples upright. Hot I tongued her. She kissed me. I was kissed. All yielding she tossed my hair. Kissed, she kissed me.
4. Dracula by Bram Stoker
Long before Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight got people all hot and bothered about vampires, there were works like Bram Stoker’s Dracula. The 1897 Gothic horror novel blends the scary and the sexy as it follows the vampire Dracula’s search for new blood and the obstacles he encounters.
The girl went on her knees, and bent over me, simply gloating. There was a deliberate voluptuousness which was both thrilling and repulsive, and as she arched her neck she actually licked her lips like an animal, till I could see in the moonlight the moisture shining on the scarlet lips and on the red tongue as it lapped the white sharp teeth. Lower and lower went her head as the lips went below the range of my mouth and chin and seemed to fasten on my throat. Then she paused, and I could hear the churning sound of her tongue as it licked her teeth and lips, and I could feel the hot breath on my neck. Then the skin of my throat began to tingle as one's flesh does when the hand that is to tickle it approaches nearer, nearer. I could feel the soft, shivering touch of the lips on the super sensitive skin of my throat, and the hard dents of two sharp teeth, just touching and pausing there. I closed my eyes in languorous ecstasy and waited, waited with beating heart.
5. The English Patient by Michael Ondaatje
Michael Ondaatjie’s 1992 novel The English Patient centers on four people who end up together in an Italian villa during World War II. There’s love, betrayal, and, you guessed it, illicit sex.
I sank to my knees in the mosaic-tiled hall, my face in the curtain of her gown, the salt taste of these fingers in her mouth. We were a strange statue, the two of us, before we began to unlock our hunger. Her fingers scratching against the sand in my thinning hair. Cairo and all her deserts around us.
6. The Garden of Eden by Ernest Hemingway
Published posthumously in 1986, The Garden of Eden may not be considered Ernest Hemingway’s best work, but it’s definitely one of his more provocative. The novel tells the story of a husband and wife who both fall in love with another woman while on their honeymoon. Adding still more controversy, the book also touches on gender identity and roles.
The girl was swimming ahead and David overhauled her. He reached out and kissed her as they treaded water. She felt slippery and strange in the water and they seemed the same height as they treaded water with their bodies close together and kissed. Then her head went under and he leaned back and she came up laughing and shaking her head that was sleek as a seal, and she brought her lips against his again and they kissed until they both went under. They lay side by side and floated and touched and then kissed hard and happily and went under again.
7. Gone with the Wind by Margaret Mitchell
The controversy surrounding Margaret Mitchell’s 1936 civil war novel Gone with the Wind is largely focused on issues like race and ethnicity, but sex is part of the hullabaloo too. While questions of consent definitely now come into play (that’s an issue for another article), you can bet the mere presence of the “marital act” once raised many eyebrows.
He was muttering things she did not hear, his lips were evoking feelings never felt before. She was darkness and he was darkness and there had never been anything before this time, only darkness and his lips upon her. She tried to speak and his mouth was over hers again. Suddenly she had a wild thrill such as she had never known; joy, fear, madness, excitement, surrender to arms that were too strong, lips too bruising, fate that moved too fast. For the first time in her life she had met someone, something stronger than she, someone she could neither bully nor break, someone who was bullying and breaking her. Somehow, her arms were around his neck and her lips trembling beneath his and they were going up, up into the darkness again, a darkness that was soft and swirling and all enveloping.
8. Tropic of Cancer by Henry Miller
There’s some serious dirty talk in Tropic of Cancer , so of course Henry Miller caused an uproar with the 1934 novel. The outcry was revived when the book was first published stateside in 1961, sparking an obscenity trial that went all the way to the Supreme Court. Even today, the language might make you blush.
O Tania, where now is that warm c--t of yours, those fat, heavy garters, those soft, bulging thighs? There is a bone in my prick six inches long. I will ream out every wrinkle in your c--t, Tania, big with seed. I will send you home to your Sylvester with an ache in your belly and your womb turned inside out. Your Sylvester! Yes, he knows how to build a fire, but I know how to inflame a c--t.
9. Sula by Toni Morrison
Toni Morrison doesn’t shy away from sex in the 1973 novel Sula . Centering on two childhood friends, Sula and Nel, the book follows them to adulthood and shows the way their bond evolves over the years. Sexuality definitely has an impact on their friendship, with Sula defying societal norms.
He liked for her to mount him so he could see her towering above him and call soft obscenities up into her face. As she rocked there, swayed there, like a Georgia pine on its knees, high above the slipping, falling smile, high above the golden eyes and the velvet helmet of hair, rocking, swaying, she focused her thoughts to bar the creeping disorder that was flooding her hips. She looked down, down from what seemed an awful height at the head of the man whose lemon-yellow gabardines had been the first sexual excitement she’d known. Letting her thoughts dwell on his face in order to confine, for just a while longer, the drift of her flesh toward the high silence of orgasm.
10. Atonement by Ian McEwan
A contemporary classic, Ian McEwan’s 2001 novel explores what happens when a young girl accuses a young man of raping her older sister, in spite of their encounter being consensual. Atonement ’s love story is obviously not all rainbows and sunshine, but it doesn’t lack hot moments.
There was nothing but obliterating sensation, thrilling and swelling, and the sound of fabric on fabric and skin on fabric as their limbs slid across each other in this restless, sensuous wrestling. His experience was limited and he knew only at second hand that they need not lie down. As for her, beyond all film the films she had seen, and all the novels and lyrical poems she had read, she had no experience at all. Despite these limitations, it did not surprise them how clearly they knew their own needs.