Sex in Literature

Sex is a common theme in literature and its portrayal has evolved across authors and genres. The ancient Greeks were fascinated by sexual activities, so much so that they considered Eros, the god of love, a primal force without which life would be unthinkable. Writers in Ancient Greece paid a great deal of attention to the topics of love and lust, providing detailed information about sexuality and its importance in society. It should be noted that all the information on sexuality in the ancient world appears to come from men, since Greek literature is primarily focused on the world of the male.

Literary texts describe great sexual freedom, at least for men. Married men were allowed to have sexual relationships with prostitutes. They could hire a heitara, a high-class female prostitute, and use her for sexual gratification and even for intellectual discussions. Ancient Greek literature also provides evidence that love was not in short supply in marriage. Homer's depictions of Hector and Andromache and Odysseus and Penelope testify to marriages full of love and desire. While the depiction of a sexual intercourse with a prostitute was socially acceptable, ancient writers generally avoided delving into the sex lives of a husband and a wife.

In Ancient Roman literature, men are also described as being free to have extra marital relationships. Women, too, had relative sexual freedom, although those who veered away from a respectful marital relationship were often condemned by writers. Sallust's portrait of Sempronia describes a woman indulging in casual sexual relationships who "had often committed many crimes of masculine audacity." Allusions to Julius Caesar's (100 BC-44 BC) numerous affairs with married women also hint at sexual freedom for women. The attitudes to male same-sex relationships in Roman literature differ from those in Greece. Under Roman legislation, it was illegal for a Roman citizen to be in a relationship with a freeborn youth. Roman citizens, however, were allowed to seek sexual gratification as the active partner with male prostitutes, slaves or foreign youths.

In the works of William Shakespeare (1564-1616), sex is portrayed to the reader in a discreet manner, often by way of puns and metaphors. In Othello (1603), for example, Iago reports to Brabantio: "I am one, sir, that comes to tell you, your daughter and the Moor are now making the beast with two backs." A version of this quote can be found in Rabelais' Gargantua and Pantagruel, published around 1532: "These two did oftentimes do the two-backed beast together, joyfully rubbing and frotting their bacon ‘gainst one another." Although these two cases do not offer a detailed description of a sexual intercourse, they provide key details that help the reader clearly visualize the scenes.

Perhaps the best known book in this genre of literature is Lady Chatterley's Lover by the English author D.H.Lawrence (1885-1930) which was attacked for being a "dirty book" when it was published in 1928. The novel, which tells the story of an adulterous affair between an upper class woman, Lady Chatterley, and her gamekeeper Mellors sold out with a total of 200,000 copies flying off the shelves of book shops on the first day of its publication. Penguin was ordered to send copies of the book to the Director of Public Prosecutions and this was followed by a landmark court trial at the Old Bailey which saw a victory for the book's publisher Penguin.

Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure, also known as Fanny Hill, was written by John Cleland (1709-1789) and first published in England in 1748. It is one of the most prosecuted and banned books in history. After the death of her parents, Fanny Hill goes to London where she becomes a prostitute. The ingenuous young woman soon embarks on her own path in pursuit of pleasure. The erotic novel was denounced after its publication by the then Bishop of London as "an open insult upon religion and good manners," while James Boswell called it "a most licentious and inflaming book."

In Zadie Smith's (b.1975) third novel On Beauty (2005), sex scenes are described in explicit detail, with a single sexual encounter taking up a couple of pages. Sexual intercourse is described in a graphic way, eliminating symbolism and leaving nothing to the imagination. Smith was described as a "literary rock star" following the publication of her first and widely acclaimed novel White Teeth (2000), which also included sexual references.

Sex in Literature: Selected full-text books and articles

Sex Expression and American Women Writers, 1860-1940 By Dale M. Bauer University of North Carolina Press, 2009
Linguistic, Emotional and Content Analyses of Sexually Explicit Scenes in Popular Fiction By Whissell, Cynthia The Canadian Journal of Human Sexuality, Vol. 7, No. 2, Summer 1998
Peer-reviewed publications on Questia are publications containing articles which were subject to evaluation for accuracy and substance by professional peers of the article's author(s).
Taboos in German Literature By David Jackson Berghahn Books, 1996
Librarian’s tip: Chap. 5 "Of Madness and Masochism: Sexuality in Women's Writing at the Turn of the Century"
Gender and Sexuality in Modern Ireland By Anthony Bradley; Maryann Gialanella Valiulis University of Massachusetts Press, 1997
Librarian’s tip: "Gender, Sexuality, and Englishness in Modern Irish Drama and Film" begins on p. 159
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