We’re all friends here, right? So, when I tell you that my very first sexual awakening came courtesy of Bernard the Christmas Elf, starring character (as far as I was concerned, anyway) of the 1994 family film The Santa Clause, we’re all going to agree that this is not subject for judgment, amusement, or mocking, mmkay? What I’m trying to say is, we all have our things, if you know what I mean, and sometimes those things that awaken your inner sex goddess — whether for the first time or the five thousandth — are not always what you might expect.
But first sexual awakenings definitely aren’t reserved solely for the territory of dark-haired, elfin film characters. As lots of readers know, there are books that have inspired sexual awakenings as well — and from Kate Chopin to Annie Proulx, these books are helping readers everywhere discover what we like and who we’d like it with (speaking of which, what is David Krumholtz up to these days…?). It’s an important undertaking in a world where the full spectrum of human sexuality is still subject to attack, and where even several of the books on this list have been challenged or banned for their content.
No matter who you love, or love to love on — human, elfin — there’s probably a book for that. Here are nine books that gave readers a sexual awakening.
1. 'The Awakening' by Kate Chopin
Heading right to the source, this novel is called “the awakening” for goodness sakes — and it’s been sexually awakening readers since 1899. The Awakening, by Kate Chopin, zeroes in on female sexual fulfillment, uninhibited womanhood, and the still-gender-biased subject of female marital infidelity. Edna Pontellier, the novel’s protagonist, speaks to the experiences of a woman who feels totally trapped and sexually suffocated in her marriage, and makes the decision to find solace, excitement, and connection in an intimate relationship outside of her legally binding union.
2. 'Tipping the Velvet' by Sarah Waters
In case you need a reminder: love is love is love is love is love. And Tipping the Velvet has got that covered. This novel, by Sarah Waters, is the Victorian-era story of Nan King, a woman who falls head-over-heels in love with the cross-dressing music hall singer, Kitty Butler. Although Kitty ultimately breaks Nan's heart, she acts as the catalyst for Nan’s own sexual awakening (and readers’), inspiring her to begin cross-dressing herself, introducing her to a world where she is much more at home than she was in her old one.
3. 'The Virgins' by Pamela Erens
The Virgins, by Pamela Erens, takes on a gamut of sexual complications — from attempted rape to interracial racial relationships, and is narrated by an often bitter, violent, yet improbably perceptive man named Bruce Bennett-Jones, who is reflecting upon his time in boarding school and his obsession with a Jewish girl named Aviva Rossner, who rejected him in favor of dating a Korean-American boy named Seung Jung. Not all youthful sexual awakenings are lovely, and Erens explores the anxieties, vulnerabilities, power, frustration, and poignancy of this in The Virgins.
4. 'If I Was Your Girl' by Meredith Russo
A poignant and stirring coming-of-age novel, Meredith Russo's If I Was Your Girl tells the story of one transgender teen learning to be who she truly is, inside and out. After a violent incident in her hometown of Atlanta, Amanda moves in with her father in Tennessee, hoping to make a fresh start. There, she finds a set of friends she thinks she can trust and a boy named Andrew, whom she might actually be falling in love with. Diving headfirst into the struggles of coming out as a teen, this novel is all about finding and becoming yourself, whoever that might be.
5. 'Forever...' by Judy Blume
Judy Blume wrote her 1975 novel Forever… because she wanted her own daughter to be able to read a story about teenage women feeling empowered over their own sexuality. The result was that not only Blume’s daughter, but countless other daughters were offered messages outside the traumatic, violent, and shame-filled norm of stories about teens losing their virginity. Forever… is about two teens, Katherine and Michael, who fall in love, make responsible reproductive decisions (like getting birth control) and have sex, ultimately break up, and — spoiler alert — end up completely fine.
6. 'Fear of Flying' by Erica Jong
Selling more than 20 million copies worldwide, there’s clearly something in Erica Jong’s 1973 novel, Fear of Flying, that readers totally love. Could it be Jong’s totally feminist portrayal of female sexuality? The fact that protagonist Isadora Zelda White Stollerman Wing is uninhibited intellectually and sexually? Is it all that erotic poetry Isadora's writing? Or the fact that her “zipless fuck” was a precursor to the shame-free, mutually-consenting, one-night-stand? I’m going to go with all of the above. No walks of shame here.
7. 'Fifty Shades of Grey' by E. L. James
Love it or love to hate it, there really is no denying that E. L. James’s Fifty Shades of Grey left plenty of women feeling a little bit freer about exploring the hidden depths of their seductive side. And while Christian Grey and his freaky ways aren’t for everybody, it’s important to acknowledge that he’s not really as out there as some folks make him seem — anthropologically speaking, the interplay of dominance and submission is one of the oldest sexual fetishes in human history. So, if both partners consent with the full knowledge of what they’re getting into, I say go for it.
8. 'Brokeback Mountain' by Annie Proulx
With a mix of the super steamy and the totally tragic, Annie Proulx’s Brokeback Mountain explores the full spectrum of sex, taboo, love, violence, and heartbreak. When Ennis del Mar and Jack Twist meet one summer, their instant friendship quickly becomes something more — not only awakening them to their hidden depths of feeling, but awakening tons of readers as well. In the hardened mountain-town landscape of Ennis and Jack’s love, a public relationship between two men is impossible, reminding readers that the journey to love equality has been a long and complicated one.
9. 'Rubyfruit Jungle' by Rita Mae Brown
Another sexually liberating novel that was generations ahead of its time, Rubyfruit Jungle, released in 1973, did and does act as an empowered, radical voice for any woman in the midst of her own identity and coming-out journey. The protagonist, Molly Bolt, discovers her sexual identity early and has her first same-sex relationship in the 6th grade — in a time and region of the United States that is often decidedly hostile to homosexuality. Molly is tough, unapologetic, and relatable, and her story has both awakened readers and changed lives.