Sex representation in novels may feel like a modern addition to literature. However, there’s plenty of examples of classics in which sex scenes feature, or even where sex plays a dominant role in the plot line.
The earliest example in English literature is Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure, published in 1748 by John Cleland. A fictional tale of fifteen-year-old Fanny Hill, the two-part novel is an autobiographical tale of Fanny’s experiences as a sex worker. Whilst not a traditional romantic novel, it can certainly be argued that Cleland romanticises prostitution. Cleland doesn’t downplay these experiences – Fanny’s sexual encounters are described in vivid detail, which may come as a surprise for its early publication date. The novel is without a doubt vulgar yet adds a crucial insight into sex work and life in the 16th century.
Delta of Venus by Anais Nin features a collection of fifteen short erotica stories, published in 1977 (although mostly written in the 1940’s for a private erotica collector). The novel could be described as the classic to E. L. James’ Fifty Shades of Grey. Nin has been described as creating her own ‘language of the senses’ through her depictions of sexual experiences and encounters within the novel. It presents a progressive take on sex representation, placing female pleasure and desire at the centre, Nin’s focus was orientated around “women’s language, seeing sexual experience from a woman’s point of view”. In these examples, sex representation in literature certainly holds importance for its progressivity, and plot development.More recent examples of sex representation in novels include the popular series Fifty Shades of Grey. The plot revolves around sex without much focus on any accompanying narrative. Within the series, sex feels like it holds too much influence, to the point where the novel has been criticized for being shallow and poorly written. In this example sex representation doesn’t add depth. The same can be said for Julia Quinn’s Bridgerton, with a focus on sexual representation across the series. Although both novel series should be celebrated for their representation of sexual experiences and diversity within these experiences, it can feel that overt and constant references to sex diminish the plot, often seeming unnecessary.