Five steamy literary sex scenes

Jill Alexander Essbaum, author of Hausfrau and contributor to The Best American Erotic Poems: From 1800 to the Present, shares some of her favourite literary sex scenes in books.

Jill Alexander Essbaum is the author of several collections of poetry, and regularly appears in The Best American Poetry, as well as its sister anthology, The Best American Erotic Poems: From 1800 to the Present. In her first novel, Hausfraushe explores the life of Anna Benz, as she enters into a number of sexual affairs and startling new experiences. Here, she shares her list of the best written literary sex scenes . . .

Oh, admit it. You're among friends. You're reading a book and then, sometimes quite suddenly, things get a little steamy. And then you get a little hot yourself. The most well-written sex scenes bring us into the privacy of bedrooms we are at all other times barred from entering. On some level, that's the genesis of both our fever and our delight, the blush of embarrassed intrusion rising to our cheeks and the glee that only that which is taboo can present. Sometimes seductive, other times salacious or surprising, these scenes – the very best ones – highlight a few undeniable truths. That no two people share the same desires. That bodies bump into each other in beautiful ways, and in violent ways, and in funny ways – and sometimes all at once. That the most arousing descriptions are the ones that are the most forthright. That tenderness, too, is a mark of Eros, and that sexual congress is a deeply human event.

My own top five list includes a classic, a young adult novel, a correspondence, and works by two contemporary authors whose prose consistently . . .  arouses my interest.

Fanny Hill: Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure (1748)

by John Cleland

Book cover for Fanny Hill: Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure (1748)

Ah yes. This one. Open to any page and you'll find some act of hyper-erotic behaviour. Sodomy? Check. Bisexuality? Yup. Masturbation? Indeed. The prose is overblown and pretty dated so it's more likely to come off comical than sexy, but it's so full of doing and being done that it's practically a handbook for the burgeoning libertine. (And bonus points for using ‘vermillion' as a verb!)

'The young gentleman, by Phoebe's guess, was about two and twenty; tall and well limbed. (…) then his grand movement, which seemed to rise out of a thicket of curling hair, that spread from the root all over his thighs and belly up to the navel, stood stiff and upright, but of a size to frighten me, by sympathy for the small tender part which was the object of its fury, and which now lay exposed to my fairest view; for he had, immediately on stoppings off his shirt, gently pushed her down on the couch, which stood conveniently to break her willing fall. Her thighs were spread out to their utmost extention, and discovered between them the mark of the sex, the red-centered cleft of flesh, whose lips vermillioning inwards, expressed a small ruby line in sweet miniature, such as guide's touch or colouring: could never attain to the life or delicacy of.'

Selected Letters of James Joyce (1909)

Book cover for Selected Letters of James Joyce (1909)

While these don’t technically comprise a sex scene, these letters are fifty shades of great balls of fire – which is to say: hot. Yes, there are dirty words and yes there are Joyce’s particular fixations that titillate, but it’s the forthright intimacy between the couple that produces in me that unmistakable frisson of bliss.

An excerpt from a letter dated 9 December 1909:

'…you seem anxious to know how I received your letter which you say is worse than mine. How is it worse than mine, love? Yes, it is worse in one part or two. I mean the part where you say what you will do with your tongue (I don't mean sucking me off) and in that lovely word you write so big and underline, you little blackguard. It is thrilling to hear that word (and one or two others you have not written) on a girl's lips. But I wish you spoke of yourself and not of me. Write me a long long letter, full of that and other things, about yourself, darling. You know now how to give me a cockstand. Tell me the smallest things about yourself so long as they are obscene and secret and filthy. Write nothing else. Let every sentence be full of dirty immodest words and sounds. They are all lovely to hear and to see on paper even but the dirtiest are the most beautiful . . .'

A House Like a Lotus (1984)

by Madeleine L'Engle

Book cover for A House Like a Lotus (1984)

This is a young adult novel. Polly is travelling through Greece and Cyprus as she’s trying to process a troubling event in her recent past. The story is told both in the present time and in flashbacks. During one of the flashbacks of the book, Polly loses her virginity. That alone is remarkable enough, given both the genre (YA), and the year of publication (1984). But the man she sleeps with is a med school intern which makes him at least 24 or 25 years old. Their relationship in the novel is laid out very carefully as one of respect, mutual consent, and intellectual connection, and afterwards, Renny, the intern, apologized and made it clear that what had happened must not happen again. Nevertheless, L’Engle’s description of the actual event is delicate, warm, sensual, and sweet. It’s the first time so many of us longed for.

'…and he was kissing me again, and slipping the shorty nightgown over my head. his strong and gentle hands began to stroke me, his hands, his lips, his tongue.

Gentle. Not frightening. Knowing what he was doing. I felt my nipples rise, and it startled me.

‘Shhh,’ Renny whispered. ‘Shhh, it’s all right, don’t worry, just relax and listen to your body.’

He was slow, rhythmic, gentle, moving down my body, down . . . 

And I was nothing but my body

There was a sharp brief pain


And then a sweet spasm went through me

And i seemed to rise into the air

No more pain

Just the sweetness

The incredible

Oh, the

And then Renny, panting

I pressed him hard against me.'

Vox (1992)

by Nicholson Baker

Book cover for Vox (1992)

A novel by one of my favourite writers, Vox takes place entirely on a phone sex / hook-up party line. By turns arousing and odd, Jim and Abby’s conversation ends in an explosive, fantastic erotic fantasy.

'… I run my fingers just down the long place where the insides of your thighs touch, all the way to your knees, and then I’d let go of your legs, and they’d fall slightly apart, and as my hands started to move up inside them, with my fingers splayed wide, they’d move farther and farther apart, and then I’d lift your knees and hook them over the arms of the armchair, so that you were wide open for me, and in the darkness your bush would still be indistinct, and I'd look up at you, and I’d move on my knees so I'm closer, so I could slide my cock in you if I wanted, and I touch your shoulders with my hands, and pass my fingertips all the way down over your breasts and over your stomach and just lightly over your bush, just to feel the hair, and then say, ‘I’m going to lick you now,’ and I lick both your nipples once very briefly good-bye, and I breathe my way down, and I pass over your bush this time with my mouth, and I see where the tan stops, and where the hair begins, and I keep going, and your legs are spread wide, and so I kiss inside one knee, and then across to the other, and up, back and forth, and at the end of each kiss I give a little upward lick with my tongue, up lick, lick, lick, back and forth, moving closer and closer to where your thighs meet.'

The Powerbook (2000)

by Jeanette Winterson

Book cover for The Powerbook  (2000)

An early scene in the book recounts the tale of a woman in the late 1500s who disguises herself as a man by way of tulips strapped beneath her trousers. She is ordered to the bedside of a princess and under threat of decapitation commanded to sexually please – deflower, if you will – her. the princess had never seen the nude male form.

'‘Take off your trousers and let me see you.’

So this was the moment. All would be revealed. I no longer cared. Come death, come life, there is a part to play and that is all.

Hesitatingly, I let down the blue and gold of my trousers. There was a silence. then the princess said . . . 

‘I have never seen a man before.’

(You’re not seeing one now.)

‘The stories I have heard . . .  the fleshiness, the swelling . . .  but you are like a flower.’

(This was true.)

She touched my bulbs.

‘They are like sweet chestnuts.’

(Tulips, my darling, tulips.)

She stroked the waxy coating I kept fresh to protect them. The tips of her fingers glistened.

‘What do you call these?’

‘This one is key of pleasure, and this one is lover’s dream.’ I said this quite sincerely because it was so.

‘And what do you call this?’

Her fingers had reached the centre now. I had to think fast.

‘I call it my stem of spring.’

She laughed delightedly and kissed the red flower, its petals fastened tight into a head. Fortunately my mother had made it quite secure and the princess could play with it all she liked.

Then a strange thing began to happen. As the princess kissed and petted my tulip, my own sensations grew exquisite, but as yet no stronger than my astonishment, as I felt my disguise come to life. the tulip began to stand.

I looked down. There it was, making a bridge from my body to hers.

I was still wearing my tunic and the princess could not see the leather belt that carried everything with it. All she could see, all she could feel, was the eagerness of my bulbs and stem.

I kneeled down, the tulip waving at me as it had done on the hillside that afternoon I cut it down.

Very gently the princess lowered herself across my knees and I felt the firm red head and pale shaft plant itself in her body. a delicate green-tinted sap dribbled down her brown thighs.'

If you're looking for even more steamy books, Emma shares her favourite books with naughty scenes in this episode of Book Break:


by Jill Alexander Essbaum

Book cover for Hausfrau

Jill Alexander Essbaum is the author of Hausfrau, the story of Anna Benz, American expat in Switzerland who finds the only way she can assert herself in the world is to engage in short-lived but intense sexual affairs.

But she soon finds that she can't easily extract herself from these relationships. Having crossed a moral threshold, Anna will discover where a woman goes when there is no going back . . .