The books that taught us everything we needed to know about sex

Four writers recall how literature set a very different sort of sex education curriculum… 

What’s in a banned book? Usually, sex that threatens the status quo. So it was with Lady Chatterley’s Lover, the DH Lawrence novel that launched a thousand libidos.

Despite being first published in 1929, it took 31 years for an uncensored copy of Lady Chatterley’s Lover to be released in the UK. When it was, the contents – which follow Lady Constance Chatterley as she discovers herself through an intense sexual affair with gardener Oliver Mellors – so shocked the British public that publisher Penguin Books was prosecuted under the Obscene Publications Act.

In September, it was announced that a copy of Lady Chatterley previously belonging to Sir Lawrence Byrne – the judge who presided over the obscenity trial in 1960 – was set to be auctioned. The text includes helpful annotations identifying its most explicit passages, courtesy of Byrne’s wife, and is predicted to fetch at least £15,000.

Byrne’s wife also sewed a little damask bag for her husband’s copy of Lady Chatterley, so that he wasn’t photographed carrying it. There is a certain amount of irony in this, as the book became an accessory in its own right in the months following the jury’s ‘not guilty’ verdict. Over three million copies were sold, thanks largely to the publicity created by the history-making trial. The fears of the prosecution (who opened the trial by asking “Would you approve of your young sons, young daughters – because girls can read as well as boys – reading this book?”) were horribly realised.

But the world didn’t end, and moral depravity didn’t take over. Instead, the uncensored publication of Lady Chatterley welcomed in a new era where sexual relationships were far more freely depicted in the arts. The chastity belt that had long been tightened around erotic literature was loosened a little.

Reading about the furore surrounding Lady Chatterley’s Lover – and the fear of young women being unduly influenced by its contents – transported me back to my own adolescence. Looking back, I had unusually comprehensive sex education in my teens. But I didn’t get it from the staid classroom lessons that did little to prepare me for anything, apart from wrestling a banana into a condom.

Instead, I learned about the intricacies of sex from books. My voracious appetite for literature and habit of sneaking novels off my mother’s shelf introduced me to the physical side of sex early on: oral sex, quickies and masturbation galore.

But what literature really impressed upon me was the emotional side of sex. The clinical nature of school sex education never conveyed the feelings involved in erotic encounters, whereas books could pull me into a character’s shoes. A protagonist’s reactions felt my own: the nerves, the sudden awareness of every inch of your skin, the fizzy excitement in the stomach (or elsewhere). Troubling issues like consent could also be explored far more fully in the written form than in a fuzzy educational video. The complexity of sex and relationships were communicated through emoting along with the characters, not via detached instruction from a teacher. It was magic.

“My sex education at school was focused almost exclusively on the physical act of sex – pregnancy and disease prevention,” says award-winning sex blogger Girl on the Net.

“But when it came to books I learned [that] sex was a lot messier and more complicated than sex education had taught me. In school you’re given a traditional ideal: you fall in love, you shag, you get married, you have babies, live happily ever after. Books were a place to explore how [tangled] relationships can really be.”

With this in mind, I asked three writers to select the key texts that made up their own personal sex ed curriculum – and threw in a few recommendations of my own. Read on… 

Sex blogger   Girl on the Net   chooses:

“I loved this book as a girl, it’s a coming-of-age story that touches on sex and intimacy occasionally. Towards the end of the book, the main character Francie falls for a soldier who is home on furlough. They go on a date; he kisses her and it’s then that she feels her first real sexual awakening. She doesn’t go home with him for the night, and deeply regrets not doing so as he gets married and she missed her chance.

Francie asks her mum if she did the wrong thing by not spending the night with him. I’m paraphrasing, but her mum says something like: “As a mother I’ll tell you the truth: it would have been a terrible thing to spend the night with this man, a virtual stranger. But as a woman, I’ll tell the truth: it would have been a beautiful thing, because it isn’t often that you feel this way for someone.”

Reading this book, it really struck me that passion and lust can be beautiful too. We don’t always have to do what’s ‘right’, sometimes we can do what feels good.”

A Midsummer Night’s Dream by William Shakespeare

“I did this play a lot in school and felt very like Helena’s character – aching for Demetrius and begging him to use her as he would a dog (“The more you beat me I will fawn on you”). As a teenager I was desperately in love with a boy who didn’t love me back, and saw a lot of myself in Helena. 

It was only years later, reading Jillian Keenan’s brilliant book Sex With Shakespeare, that I realised possibly one of the reasons I was so drawn to Helena wasn’t just my unrequited love but my penchant for submission. I saw submitting wholly to someone as a deeply sexy thing, even if it was tied up in a lot of self-loathing at the time.”

Writer Emily Reynolds chooses: 

Valley of the Dolls by Jacqueline Susann

“I did have a fairly comprehensive sex education, which I know is quite rare, but there wasn’t much about the emotional side of sex. Literature had a big influence on me, but it wasn’t all good.

I recently re-read Valley of the Dolls which is a brilliant book: so clever and funny and uncanny and strange. But its attitude to sex is… not great. There is some good sex in it, but a lot of the time sex is used as a tool or ‘weapon’. Characters also have sex in this compulsive way, where they don’t really want to but feel that they have to in order to ‘get what they want’.

This was not the sex education that I needed; they are cultural messages girls are getting anyway, so having that strengthened in any way was probably not good for me in terms of how I thought about sex.”

Sugar Rush by Julie Burchill

“I was about 15 when I read Sugar Rush and watched the subsequent TV adaptation. It didn’t so much awaken something in me as confirm what I knew: that I was bisexual.

I was very frightened of coming out and there really wasn’t much bisexual representation in the media at that point in the mid-Noughties.I had nothing I could look at that showed me positive, meaningful, fun sexual relationships between two women – other than porn, where girl/girl scenes almost always catered to the male gaze.

So being able to read something that was sexy and fun about two women was really important for me. It made me realise that desiring other women was nothing to be ashamed about. It also put into context some of my friendships with other girls at the time, which I think had a deeply romantic feel to them.

This didn’t immediately translate to my sex life, mainly because I didn’t have one. But the removal of any shame was really important for me, and I’m no longer afraid to talk about being bisexual or in loving or fancying other women. That’s partly down to books like Sugar Rush.”

Moya Lothian-McLean, editorial assistant at Stylist

Tipping the Velvet by Sarah Waters

“You’re not to read this until you’re 18,” my mother told me, tapping a freshly purchased copy of Sarah Waters’ debut, Tipping the Velvet.

I nodded with all the innocence of a 13-year-old who has absolutely no intention of keeping a promise. The instant I was left alone, I cracked open the cover.

For anyone who’s not had the pleasure of reading Tipping the Velvet, it’s a coming-of-age story following Nan, a young Victorian woman exploring her queerness. It’s an affecting, passionate novel about discovering oneself. It’s also hot.

Waters writes about sex between women from the perspective of a woman who also has sex with women. Which means it’s real and sensual, not gratuitous lesbian sex imagined through a male lens.

But each sexual encounter also comes part and parcel with a new emotional lesson. Nan learns from her partners about what works for her, what she’s comfortable with and what feels good. Sometimes the sex she has is purely lustful, sometimes it’s loving, and sometimes it’s a transaction that leaves readers uneasy.

Reading this at 13 introduced me to the idea of queer identities long before I was in a position to be able – or want to – explore them for myself. Later I would look back and realise, sadly, that my mother subconsciously categorised lesbianism as an R-rated orientation. She certainly didn’t seem to be as stringent with the Pat Barker novels I also read around that age, featuring the bisexual Billy Prior who had graphic sex with both men and women.

But reading Tipping the Velvet so early seemed to protect me from a similar shame. Nan’s journey normalised the idea of sexual fluidity, and instilled in me a strong sense of the importance that should be placed upon female sexual pleasure. Plus, did I mention? It’s hot.”

Michael, Michael by Wendy Perriam 

“This is a terrible book. It was another one of my mother’s – she once walked in on me with it and looked appalled, asking: “What on earth are you reading that nonsense for?”

I can remember very little of the plot, except there are two Michaels. But I will always be able to recall the first sex scene, which features a picnic. Food imagery and sexual imagery are often used interchangeably in literature; in Michael, Michael the words ‘guzzling’, ‘greedy’ and ‘gorge’ are working overtime. All the clichés are present: champagne, strawberries, a man with a flashy sports car. At one point there’s definitely a rubdown involving soft cheese. It is ridiculous.

But I revisited the book anyway, because of the sheer, shameless joy the characters seemed to take in their overblown, performative picnic sex. It was fun! It was frothy! They had a good old time! Plus, the protagonist Tessa didn’t shave her vulva and that was a precedent I felt relieved to follow.

Michael, Michael made me realise that sex is inherently ludicrous – except for the people doing it. The point is to throw your inhibitions to the wind and go all in; embarrassment only restricts your own enjoyment. 

Later, it was a lesson I’d also apply to my own approach to discussing sex: try to be as open and frank as possible and don’t submit to others trying to project their own shame onto me. ”

Anna Fielding,  Associate Editor at  Stylist 

Hollywood Wives by Jackie Collins

“The majority of my knowledge about sex came from teen magazines – especially Anita Naik and Dr Nick Fisher on the problem pages of Just Seventeen. It’s easy to smile about the sheer volume of letters where girls had “been fingered” and were worried about pregnancy, but, retrospectively, I think they did a valuable and responsible job. But the magazines were very conscious of their audience’s age, so to find out anything beyond the practicalities, I turned to books.

I read this at my aunt’s house (everyone needs a fun aunt) when I was about 12. It’s completely ridiculous, but it is full of sex, so in a way it was educational. I learned about the socially accepted shape of public hair (“Daphne’s fingers were quick to touch the warm triangle of fluff”), sex in marriage, unfaithful sex, beach sex (inaccurate, no mention of sand), fitness instructor sex. It did give you quite a full picture. 

But, even at 12, I knew when something was quite obviously made up. The scene where a director, cheating on his wife, gets STUCK INSIDE an actress after a shag-and-amyl-nitrate induced heart attack? And they have to be delicately manoeuvred to hospital? Even in my relative innocence I knew that was… unlikely.”

Fear of Flying by Erica Jong

“This is one of those classic ‘learn about sex’ books. It’s the origin of the phrase “zipless f***” – the kind of occasionally perfect sex where clothes fall away and emotions are irrelevant, the moment is everything. It was published in 1973, when it was genuinely revolutionary, but even for me in my late teens, it was enthralling to read a woman be so frank about sex. About how much you could want it. About how desire clouds judgement. About how even disappointing sex can still be worth something. 

The heroine Isadora was full of lust and acted on it. She, and the book, were free of any sense that nice middle class girls, educated girls, didn’t have sex outside of relationships. Isadora had delight and disgust in her own body and others. 

It’s a freeing book to read, even as it’s very of its time. Erica Jong’s novels are also responsible for most of my knowledge about psychoanalysis, discovering the issues with making a living as a writer and picking up a smattering of Yiddish words. Educational!”

Images: Sylvie Tittel, iamseven, other images provided by publishers


Share this article

Recommended by Moya Lothian-McLean


'Girls are conditioned to feel shame about their sexuality, that's not OK' says Reese Witherspoon

'Girls are conditioned to feel shame about their sexuality, that's not OK' says Reese Witherspoon

Posted by
Stylist Team

Literature's most powerful and poignant letters

Literature's most powerful and poignant letters: fictional messages of love, tragedy and passion from our favourite books

Posted by
Stylist Team
Long Reads

“Why we need to change the way we think about casual sex”

An encounter being casual doesn't mean it can't be meaningful, pleasurable or respectful

Posted by
Emily Reynolds

The next 15 erotic books on your reading list

The next 15 erotic books on your reading list

Posted by
Stylist Team