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 14 sexy books proving just how sexy (and well-written) good smut can be.
1. Delta of Venus by Anais Nin
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.
2. Outlander by Diana Gabaldon
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.
3. The Unbearable Lightness of Being by Milan Kundera
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.
4. Call Me By Your Name by André Aciman
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 starring Armie Hammer and Timothée Chalamet is wonderful, but the book will give you chills.
5. Forever by Judy Blume
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.
6. Bared to You by Sylvia Day
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.
7. Bad Behavior by Mary Gaitskill
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).
8. Women by Chloe Caldwell
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.
9. The Story of O by Pauline Réage
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.
10. The Thorn Birds by Colleen McCullough
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.
11. Tropic of Cancer by Henry Miller
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.
12. The Sexual Life of Catherine M. by Catherine Millet
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.
13. Dangerous Liaisons by Pierre Choderlos de Laclos
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.
14. The Wedding Date by Jasmine Guillory
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.