Valentine's Day is this week, and although the film adaptation of Fifty Shades of Grey will be premiering, I'll be staying under the covers paging through a different dirty publication. Granted, the subject matter that E.L. James deals with is hot — in fact, it's my favorite — but some of us prefer our eroticism with a little more intellectual rigor expressed through, say, a clever plot line or florid language that doesn't ever include the phrase, "inner goddess."
Books to read with one hand are as old as the printing press, but I'm always surprised by how great writers of the past few hundred years manage to approach sex as if it's a fresh subject, breathing electric life into trembling thighs, snaking tongues and lusty sighs. There may be no new ideas, and there are certainly no new sex acts (unless they involve a robot or time travel or something), but a spellbinding erotic novel makes you believe that there just might be. Whether the story is explicit or subtly sensual, the best erotic literature can be both satisfying and edifying.
If you do happen to be a fan of Fifty Shades (ain't no shame), you might find that the series can act as a gateway drug to other literary pleasures. For more sexy stories and perverted page-turners, look no further than this list of erotic tales that range from bitingly political to wickedly funny. Whatever your kink is, one of these is sure to whet your appetite.
Delta of Venus by Anaïs Nin
Delta of Venus is a pioneering work of erotica featuring 15 debaucherous vignettes. In them, Anaïs Nin deftly undresses gender norms, homosexuality, incest, dominance, and other proclivities that few female (or male) authors of the time dared to address. Her personal life is as legendary as her publications, and as her autobiography filled with tales of wild affairs will tell you, she was definitely writing from experience.
Venus In Furs by Leopold von Sacher-Masoch
Many know that sadism comes from the Marquis de Sade's writings, but fewer are aware that the term masochism originated with this work by Leopold von Sacher-Masoch. Venus In Furs is about a man who demands to be cruelly dominated by a woman he falls deeply in lust with. She is a creature of rare sensual talents, and by the author's dazzling, poetic descriptions of the submissive's psyche, it's easy to see why he would want to bend to her will.
Story of O by Pauline Reage
The Story of O is perhaps the most infamous erotic novel written by a woman, and Reage (a pseudonym for Dominique Aury) crafts a brutally frank tale of sex and sadism. The author was inspired by de Sade (as is clear by the kind of vicious behavior portrayed in the book) and wanted to impress her lover with this extraordinary, anonymous story of wanton abandon. If flogging, genital piercing, secret societies, and humiliation excite you, look no further for your O-gasm.
Pleasure by Gabriele D'Annunzio
Pleasure is straight out the Decadent school of literature, and features an amoral, aristocratic ne'er do well who seduces women across Rome. Sure, it might sound like your classic sexist sleaze, but D'Annunzio spins such a seductive tale of pleasure for pleasure's sake that it's hard to resist his advances. Fans of Oscar Wilde will likely enjoy these tongue-in-cheek escapades of an aesthete.
Fanny Hill by John Cleland
Fanny Hill is one of the most banned books in history, which is exactly why it's such a titillating read. Cleland's tale centers around a girl who encounters sex work, orgies, drag balls and huge penises — and lives to tell the tale. If ever there was an 18th century fictional character to take charge of her own sexual pleasure, it's Fanny.
Gamiani, or, Two Nights of Excess by Alfred de Musset
This short and delightful romp through upper crust ecstasy isn't as well known as some erotic novels, but is still worth exploring. De Musset's language is lyrical and hypnotic, with gilded flourishes to match the opulent setting for the tale's ongoing threesome. Expect sacrilege, same sex trysts, and Shakesperean plot twists.
Fear of Flying by Erica Jong
Erica Jong's controversial 1973 novel is considered a feminist classic for its unabashed portrayal of female sexuality. Her story of an erotic poet's erotic adventures overseas is a treatise on no-strings-attached encounters — which she famously calls, "the zipless fuck." Jong's writing is clever, funny, bold, and, most importantly, sexy as hell.
Dangerous Liaisons by Pierre Choderlos de Laclos
If you've seen the film adaptation of Dangerous Liaisons or even the campy 1999 movie Cruel Intentions (which is loosely based on the same story), then you already know how fraught with erotic tension this tale is. At the heart of Dangerous Liaisons is a sex bet which doesn't go quite as planned. Fans of the French aristocracy, romantic letter writing, and toe-curling suspense will not be disappointed.
Justine by Marquis de Sade
Justine, like Fifty Shades of Grey, is a novel about innocence lost. Heavy on philosophy and metaphor, it follows the early life of girl who sets out to live a life of virtue and is instead taken advantage of (sexually) by many men and women along the way. Unlike E.L. James' series, however, there is no facade of romance to make the sadistic acts more palatable. For those who prefer their eroticism dark, dangerous and without redemption, this is for you.
Push the Button by Feminista Jones
Sex positive feminist activist Feminista Jones wrote Push the Button as a direct response to Fifty Shades of Grey to illustrate a more nuanced, realistic vision of a D/s (dominant-submissive) relationship where consent is king. Jones portrays the couple's compelling connection in a way that normalizes kink without sacrificing the steaminess. The book is also important as it gives visibility to BDSM in a black relationship, countering the "kink is for rich white people" stereotype that is in dire need of a re-write.