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5 Greatest depictions of heterosexual sex in fiction

BY Annie Dabb

10th Aug 2023 Book Reviews

5 Greatest depictions of heterosexual sex in fiction

From 18th century pornographic fiction, to racially interrogative YA novels, and on to contemporary sex scenes that might even make you cry a little bit (in a good way), here are five of the greatest depictions of heterosexual sex in fiction 

Whether shockingly scandalous, laughably ludicrous or romantically riveting, people have been writing about sex for centuries. You've heard of the Bad Sex in Fiction Award, now have a raunchy read on to learn about the translation of power dynamics into intimate settings, or to discover what men think women really talk about when they talk about sex. 

1. Michel Millot, The School of Venus or The Lady's Delight, 1680 

Cover of Michel Millot, L'Ecole des filles

Credit: Amazon 

Although he is best known for his later, original text, Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure, English novelist John Cleland first translated Michel Millot's erotic French text L'Ecole des filles, into the English The School of Venus in 1680. 

At this time in 17th century England, the concept of a pornographic text didn't really exist. A text Millot's was much more likely to have been seen as a novel about desire, written by a man for men to understand what women supposedly talk about when men aren't around. Of course, the problem with this presents itself immediately given that both Millot and Cleland were, undeniably, men. 

What's more, novels at this time, especially ones of illicit nature, were expensive to purchase and it was considered shameful to be seen with one. Nevertheless, there are several accounts from this period which demonstrate that books like this were in circulation.

Readers (mostly upper class men, as they were the only ones who could afford novels) would purchase them in plain binding, due to the sense of desire and shame that runs through the pornographic genre, and which continues to do so today. 

One of the most famous accounts of an English reader encountering The School of Venus is that of diarist Samuel Pepys, who wrote that he read the text following an evening of drinking and socialising with friends, and immediately burned his copy afterwards, so great was his shame at the feelings and sensations it had aroused in him. 

"Samuel Pepys read the text and burned his copy afterwards, so great was his shame at the sensations it had aroused in him"

The School of Venus makes use of extremely raw, blunt language to describe an educative dialogue between two female cousins. Frances, the older of the two women, has been asked to talk to her younger cousin Katherine to convince her to have sex with the man who is pursuing her. Frances desribes her own sexual experiences, the various positions Katherine might enjoy, and what people do with their bodies during intercourse. 

What's clever about the description of sex in this text is that although it makes use of supposedly obscene language, if readers were to change the vulgar nouns for more innocent ones, the description of sex could be applied to virtually anything else, like horse riding or another sport. 

Extracts from this text can be heard in Fara Dabhoiwala's BBC Radio 4 series, The Invention of Free Speech. 

2. John Cleland, Fanny Hill, or Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure, 1748-49

Cover of Memoirs of a woman of pleasure by John Cleland

Credit: Oxford University Press 

Up until the 18th century, sex outside of marriage was prohibited, and afterwards extra-marital sex was still considered sinful or unlawful. This was, in part, what made writing about sex at this time even more scandalous than it is today. 

Fanny Hill was the first pornographic novel ever to be written in English, however it was immediately banned and suppressed following the publication of both of its parts in 1748 and 1749 respectively . For more than two centuries, it was printed and circulated clandestinely, and not until the 1970s could readers legally purchase a copy. 

Although already having translated Millot's text into English in the 17th century, Cleland wrote Fanny Hill after being challenged by his friend Charles Carmichael to write a pornographic text without "resorting to the coarseness of the school of venus". This is why, although the descriptions of sex in the text are certainly graphic, sexual intercourse is described through heavy use of euphemism and double entendre. 

In fact, Fanny Hill includes the first use of the phrase "any port in a storm" recorded in the English language. Granted this particular passage is about her experience with a sailor, they're not exactly out at sea. 

3. Malorie Blackman, Double Cross, 2008

Cover of Double Cross by Malorie Blackman

Credit: Amazon 

Fast forwarding to the 21st century then (only just), Double Cross is the fourth book in Malorie Blackman's Noughts and Crosses sequence. It is certainly a lot tamer than the 18th century erotica we've already looked at, although this proves the uneffectiveness of supposed restrictions on sexual material.

Philosopher Michel Foucault wrote about this phenomenon in The History of Sexuality, Volume one (of three), in which he coined the term "repressive hypothesis" to describe how the relationship between power and sex has been repressed. However, he argued that it was this very repression of such taboo topics that created more of an incentive for people to talk about so-called forbidden topics. 

Double Cross is very much about the relationship between power and sex. While Blackman's YA novel may not only be more palatable for a younger audience, it's also much more politically conscious than Millot and Cleland's texts.

Situating the novel's sex scene amidst an alternative Britain where racial power dynamics are reversed protagonists Callie Rose (daughter of a cross mother and nought father), and Tobey (a nought) fall in love in a world in which black people (crosses) have the power over white people (noughts).  

Callie Rose and Tobey embody the confused teenager character-type. Not only do they both have hormones and desires to worry about, but they're struggling to come to terms with these feelings while being caught in a cycle of poverty and violence related to racially fuelled politics. 

Given the aforementioned YA genre of this novel, it might not be the raunchist sex scene ever, but Blackman almost humorously depicts a teenage boy's struggle between reason and sexual attraction, while emphasising consent and healthy communication between young adults having sex for the first time.

4. Sally Rooney, Normal People, 2018 

Cover of Normal People by Sally Rooney

Credit: Faber and Faber 

Sally Rooney is one of the biggest names on the literature scene right now and for good reason. Heralded as the "Salinger for the Snapchat generation" (by someone who has clearly never used snapchat in their life), she speaks to a predominently millennial generation.

Although to reduce Rooney as purely a millennial novelist would certainly be doing her a disservice, and I would urge anyone of any age interested in the brillaint depiction of a genuinely intimate and loving sexual relationship to read her entire back catalogue. 

Having studied a literature degree at Trinity College, Dublin, Rooney overtly draws on iconic novelists such as Jane Austen and Henry James in her own writing. Making Marxism sexy, Normal People overtly confronts and deals with class and capitalism, particuarly in relation to the 2008 economic crash in Ireland, in a series of contemplative and conscious discussions between the novel's romantically involved protagonists Marianne and Connell.

"Connell and Marianne's sexual relationship begins as a secret, as each use sex to escape the social aspects of life that they find painful"

Socially, Marianne is far below Connell in high school. However, as the novel follows the characters into university and the more grown up world, the economic disparities between the pair, which are immediately apparent at the beginning of the novel (Connell's mother cleans Marianne's mother's house), are awarded further analaysis. 

Connell and Marianne's sexual relationship begins as a secret, as each use sex as a way to escape the social aspects of life that they find painful, in an erotic escapism from Jean-Paul Satre's belief that "hell is other people".

However, although Rooney writes about the power inherent within sexual relationships, and which arguably leads Marianne to find herself in sexually exploitative situations with other partners, the sex that she depicts between Connell and Marianne is loving and intimate and at times even heartbreaking to read. 

5. Meg Mason, Sorrow and Bliss, 2020    

Cover of Sorrow and Bliss by Meg Mason

Credit: Weidenfeld and Nicolson

Predominently dealing with the issue of long-term mental health and how complicated it can make protagonist Martha's relationships—both with herself and other people—Sorrow and Bliss is told from the perspective of a middle-aged woman as she tries to navigate a life that she doesn't feel capable enough to deal with all of the time. 

Mason's brilliant observations, told through Martha's first-person perspective, make this book both absolutely hilarious, and also gut wrenchingly sad. She manages to present some of the most loveable and deplorable aspects of the mundaneity of married life, when even though your partner is your best friend, sometimes you can't stand them because you simply can't stand yourself. 

"Mason has managed to describe sex with the love of your life as a laughably awful experience, and not let that be a deterrant."

Although not explicitly about only sex, this novel absolutely deserves to be in this list because in it, Mason has managed what few other novelists seem capable of, which is to describe sex with the love of your life as a laughably awful experience, and not let that be a deterrant. 

Banner credit: Antonio_Diaz

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