When you think of erotica, images of Fabio’s muscular torso and Christian Grey’s red room may come to mind. But there’s so much more to this literary genre than cheesy book covers and hunky billionaires with an affinity for BDSM. Erotic novels can be sensual, provocative and even esteemed. Don’t believe us? Here are 20 books proving just how sexy (and well-written) good smut can be.
20 Erotic Novels That Won't Make You Cringe (Because Valentine's Day Is Around the Corner)
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This collection of poems, widely considered Nobel Prize-winner Neruda’s best work, are so sexually charged, we’re blushing just thinking about them. One of our favorite, tamer lines is, "My love feeds on your love, beloved, and as long as you live it will be in your arms without leaving mine." Swoon.
The handsome and charismatic Alex Claremont-Diaz became the American equivalent of a young royal when his mother became President. There's only one problem: Alex has a rocky relationship with the actual prince, Henry, in London. And when the tabloids get hold of a photo involving an altercation between the two, U.S./British relations take a turn for the worse. Those around Alex and Henry devise a plan for damage control, but what at first begins as a fake friendship soon grows deeper, with the two beginning a secret romance that could derail both of their families’ lives.
Stella Lane is a math whiz who's crushing it at her job. Her love life? Not so much. She's 30 years old and French kissing reminds her of a shark getting its teeth cleaned by pilot fish. She decides her best bet for practicing is to hire an escort, Michael. Before long, Stella comes to crave all of the things he's making her feel. Equal parts sexy and sweet, The Kiss Quotient proves that all the data in the world can't help you make sense of what your heart wants.
This controversial debut novel (first published in 2010) centers on Helen, an outspoken, sexually precocious 18-year-old lying in a hospital bed as she recovers from an operation. To distract herself, she meditates on her past adventures in increasingly uncomfortable detail. The result is a funny and intimate manifesto on sex, hygiene and why the idea that girls should be clean, quiet and nice is B.S.
Queer romance, family secrets and ambition abound in this summery story of two families: the Kellys—loud, loving Australians—and the Lees—sophisticated, aloof Americans. The two clans have nothing in common, except for the fact that their daughters are married. While vacationing on a remote island off the coast of Queensland, a nearby volcano erupts and the two families are stranded together for six weeks. During those weeks, everyone is forced to question what—or who—they really want, along the way proving it's never too late to change your destiny.
When painting student Lucy Coover trips over a naked man passed out in an East End alley, she covers him up and finds help. Instead of moving on from the incident, though, she can't stop thinking about him—his muscular physique in particular—so she paints him. In need of rent money, she puts the artwork up for sale. When Anthony Philby, Duke of Weston, discovers it’s a portrait of himself, he decides to buy it, burn it and confront the artist. When they meet, however, an irresistible, potentially dangerous, passion ignites between them.
A mold-breaking anthology of 15 short stories, this book was published posthumously in 1977 but mostly written in the 1940s, and has been setting hearts aflutter ever since. Decades later, the lurid tales of Hungarian adventurers, French courtesans and Peruvian opium dens still burn up the pages.
Just as nurse Claire Randall is reunited with her husband post-WWII, she gets zapped away to 18th-century Scotland. There, she’s deemed a “Sassenach,” or Outlander, and is forced to marry Jamie Fraser, a soldier with a troubled past and a fiery temper. The eight-part series hops back and forth in time as Claire becomes torn between her desire for two men—in two different centuries. Read the books first and then stream the equally-riveting TV show on Netflix.
This modern classic about love and politics in communist-era Czechoslovakia centers around four lovers and their conflicting desires. If you want something that’s sensual and thought-provoking (Kundera delves into a lot of philosophical questions about love and the decisions we make), this is the read for you.
This coming-of-age story is a beautifully written tale of all-consuming love and attraction set against the backdrop of 1980s Italy. The movie is wonderful, sure, but the book will give you chills.
For fans of YA, check out this teen novel from Blume (yes, the same author behind Are You There God? It's Me, Margaret) that tells the story of Katherine, a New Jersey teenager, and her blossoming relationship with Michael where they—gasp—have sex. This honest portrayal of first love (including the awkwardness of your first sexual encounter) was particularly groundbreaking when it was published in 1975, but still feels relevant today.
Eva Tramell is a 20-something aspiring advertising executive. Billionaire Gideon Cross is a hunky yet mysterious business tycoon. They work in the same building and when their paths cross, it’s fireworks. But their office romance quickly turns complicated as they both must confront their sexual pasts and secrets. Sounds familiar? OK, yes, but fans say the writing is less cringy and more sultry than, well…you know which book we’re talking about.
We love these nine short stories about modern love, friendship and sex, all told through Gaitskill’s unique and provocative voice. The most famous of the tales was made into the 2002 film The Secretary, starring Maggie Gyllenhall. But fans of the film should know that the written tale is quite a bit darker than the screen version (which Gaitskill called “the Pretty Woman version” of her story).
An account of a woman's first same-sex relationship and the earth-shattering discoveries and heartbreak that come with it. This novella beautifully captures love and longing, with a can’t-put-down sense of urgency.
Before 50 Shades, there was The Story of O. Published anonymously in 1954, this read about a woman’s BDSM training at an elite and secret club has become an erotic classic. Passion, desire and obsession mixed in with social commentary—it’s all here.
An epic tale of forbidden love in the Australian Outback that has enthralled readers for generations (seriously, ask your mom about it). You’ll root for multiple members of the Cleary family—a clan of ranchers—but especially their only daughter, Meggie, and her intense connection to the handsome priest, Ralph de Bricassart.
This semi-autobiographical account of the author’s sexual exploits in 1930s Paris is so full of debauchery that it was banned in the U.S. for nearly 30 years and only declared not-obscene by the Supreme Court in 1961. Scandalous, daring and totally gripping.
Introducing the female version of Tropic of Cancer. Here, Millet describes her sexual exploits in Paris (isn’t it always Paris?) unapologetically and in graphic detail. This one is salacious, humorous and definitely explicit.
The ‘90s hit teen flick Cruel Intentions was loosely based on this sexy novel that crackles with eroticism. Two 18th-century nobels—Vicomte de Valmont and his ex-lover Marquise de Merteuil—make wicked plans to mess with other people’s lives just for fun.
This best-seller is like your favorite rom-com—fun and flirty—but with some very raunchy bedroom scenes. When two strangers, Drew and Alexa, are brought together by a chance encounter in an elevator, they decide to go on a date together. But what starts out as a fun weekend away quickly turns into so much more. A feel-good, effortless read.