For Philyaw, it was important to put sex in the realm of pleasure. “I wanted to challenge the idea that sex and sexuality are always risky, and that we should function as sexual beings from a place where fear, shame, or guilt abound,” she says. “What if the first things we learned about our bodies instead were that they are good, that they belong to us, and that we should prioritize our pleasure? What if we learned to prioritize our own satisfaction over service and pleasing others?” Her characters are not raised that way, but they strive To be free and to follow their desires. “The results are messy and complicated,” says Filiau.
The Secret Lives of Church Ladies tell of experiences very different from those in Fishman’s service business, Forrest’s Busy Being Free or other recent books that explore female sexuality. However, while all of these books detail individual experiences, there is a common thread – women try to figure out what they really want, and separate their true desire from what is expected of them.
This comes at a time when a person feels increasingly charged. Over the past few years, Trump, #MeToo, the rise of revenge porn, and the collapse of Roe v Wade have all contributed to feelings of anxiety about sex. Several recent non-fiction books—including Bad Sex by Nona Willis Aronowitz, Kristin Empa Rethink Sex: A Provocation and Want Me by Tracy Clark-Flory—look at what sexual liberation really means to women living in a misogynistic and patriarchal society. Desire — expressing it, pursuing it — seems more complex than ever.
“What makes it even more difficult is to let go of the side no matter what you’re doing,” says Fishman. “On the one hand, if you’re a feminist from a distance, you want to believe in and express and demonstrate a real kind of sexual freedom. Then at the same time, there’s also this deep belief in love and family and these are the accomplishments in life that casual sex will never satisfy. It’s definitely A trap in any way. And I think we are all aware of that.”
But now, as always, the page remains a place for women to freely explore the intricacies of desire—as it has for Anais Nin, Erica Jung, Ann Rice, Catherine Millett, Mary Getskill, and more. For Fishman, sex in literature is a form of communication – “an extension of conversations between characters, which express something they cannot verbally express or are very afraid of.” She says that Sally Rooney is the “lady” of this. “It’s a satisfying thing a novel can do, and I think it does it pretty well.” But she also believes that contemporary authors are often more shy about sex than 20th century writers. “There are some writers from the middle of the century who have been really formative to me in terms of how much sexually explicit writing you can get away with, like Mary McCarthy. There are like a few amazing passages in the set about sex.”
Eve Babitz – who passed away late last year – is another inspiration, even giving her name to Fishman’s narrator in Acts of Service. Emma Forest is also a big fan of the Los Angeles writer, who is best known for writing about life in the 1960s and 1970s in Los Angeles. “What I love about Eva Babitz about sex is that she sees it as an art form; that wonderful sex is art. It brings her almost religious fervor.”
For Philyaw, the best writing on sex “depicts unapologetic women who embrace their desires and pursue pleasure, even at the expense of others. Sola Toni Morrison will always remain the gold standard for me in this regard.”
On why sex continues to lure writers, she pointed to writer Garth Greenwell — hailed as one of the best contemporary sex writers, and who edited a collection of erotic stories, Kink, last year. Greenwell wrote in the guard: “Sex is a kind of crucible of humanity, and so the question is not why one writes about sex, why one writes about anything else.”
If sex is a way to explore the big questions about humanity and interrogate our culture, it might as well be fun for writers, too. “The most free, disruptive, and unapologetic [my characters] “The more fun it is to write,” says Filiao. So, can we expect literature to maintain sexual desire? She certainly hopes so. “There is so much to explore.”
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