10 Books About Women Who Want to Have Sex
Literary writing that takes women's desires seriously
I believe that all readers secretly have one particular book they’re looking for, an ideal book that will fill a primal hole in their literary experience. The book I want is a literary novel about a woman who lusts after a man and it doesn’t destroy her life. I’ve recruited some extremely well-read friends into this mission, but I still haven’t quite found it, at least outside of the confines of the erotica genre. Fine, then. At least give me a woman who wants, a woman who is a subject, not an object, and whose lusts are as vivid and bodily as any of the men in a work by James Salter or John Updike.
My wish to read this book, and the incredible difficulty of finding it, led me to write Little Rabbit, my debut novel about a 30-something woman who pursues an intense sexual relationship with an older man. My protagonist, who for much of the novel remains unnamed, is old enough and experienced enough to embrace her own desires while still finding surprises within them, qualities I value and wish for us all.
I would love to deliver a list of books of lusty women whose desires don’t get them into trouble. But then I would have trouble meeting EL’s seven-book minimum. So I’ve broadened the list to be women who are the active agents of their own sexual urges, rather than the passive prize of someone else’s, women who follow their wants into conflict and self-revelation. The books in this list explore, inhabit, and investigate physical hunger with excellence and flair, taking female desire seriously and helping to center it in the literary world. Many went into the writing of Little Rabbit and helped me live a fuller, deeper, more pleasurable life.
Luster by Raven Leilani
This landmark novel about Edie, a 22-year-old Black painter, shattered inherited biases about how literature depicts bodies and sex. Edie wants, she sweats, she lives in a body that orgasms and has IBS. She begins dating Eric, an older white man who lives with his family in the suburbs. After Edie loses her job, Eric’s wife invites her to temporarily live with them and their adopted Black daughter. The intimate scenes (not just the sex) are nuanced, delicate, and bold, showing the complexity of want and vulnerability.
By Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Wept by Elizabeth Smart
I read this poetic prose novel by the Canadian author Elizabeth Smart when I was in my early 20s. The raw, operatic desire of the protagonist is so fantastically intense that upon reading the book, I immediately realized what I’d been missing in my reading. The book is a light fictionalization of Smart’s affair with an older married man, but he as a person is less important than the intensity of the narrator’s own passions, which compel her to cross borders, get pregnant, and horrify her family.
My Education by Susan Choi
Ginny, a first-year graduate student at Cornell University, is warned off the handsome young professor Nicolas Brodeur, who she first sees brooding in the back of a lecture hall, wearing a duster and not-intentionally ripped pants. Additionally, he is married to the intense and fascinating Martha, a fellow academic who likes to show up at the town bar in a motorcycle jacket and boots. Ginny’s interest—and explosive obsession—ends up dismantling the delicate balance of their lives. Note that I am completely obsessed with this book. I re-read it about once a year. It’s probably about time for me to read it again.
Abandon Me by Melissa Febos
Melissa Febos is the queen of writing embodied intimacy in a way that startles and electrifies, undercutting our received notions of sex and guiding us, without entirely realizing it, into quiet, startling revelations. Her second book describes the sudden dismantling of the stability she’d fought her way toward in her first memoir. Her life is upended by a kiss from a stranger, a woman with a mouth like “the soft nail on which my life snagged, and tore open.” The intimate scenes in this book are much like this line—focused and surprising, mixing tenderness and devastation.
I Love Dick by Chris Kraus
A tale of infatuation, abjection, and art. Back around 2012 (sorry to date myself), Chris Kraus’s novel, written in the form of letters to the titular art critic, “Dick,” seemed to be in everyone’s tote bag. At first, the narrator, a failed filmmaker also named Chris, authors the letters with her critic/academic husband Sylvere, and the obsessive letters are a game in their cerebral marriage. Eventually, though, the narrator breaks away, and the letters mingle the hunger for Dick with questions about why and how we make art. This novel was the first book that helped me draw the connection between sexual desire and the creative impulse.
Bluets by Maggie Nelson
This lyric work of nonfiction by poet and critic Maggie Nelson weaves the want for a color with the want for a lover, the “prince of blue.” The narrative is also laced with tragedy, as Nelson cares for her mentor, who has been left paralyzed after a bicycle accident. Separated into 240 short numbered sections, or “propositions,” the book flows not chronologically, but by its own logic. The want is palpable not just in the descriptions, but in the language itself. “When I met you, the blue rush began,” Nelson writes, and we don’t have to know precisely what the words mean in order to feel the hunger ourselves.
The Break.up by Joanna Walsh
Joanna Walsh’s “novel-in-essays” questions whether it’s ever possible to actually break up in an age of constant connection. This entry is an odd one, because the narrator’s hunger for her lover is almost extra-bodily. She travels Europe and sits in hotels, waiting for texts and sending emails, her longing focused on her screens. Most of the desire happens via electronic distance. Two years into the pandemic, this is maybe too familiar a feeling.
A Simple Passion by Annie Ernaux
In this slender volume, French writer Annie Ernaux focuses exclusively on her passionate affair with a married man only known as A. Because of his need for secrecy, she’s dependent on his schedule for their encounters. Everything about their brief experiences together, from smells to old button-down shirts, turns into talismans and signs. Ernaux’s subject is ultimately not A, or their relationship, which has no trajectory, but her own experience of her passion for him.
Her Body and Other Parties by Carmen Maria Machado
Machado’s blockbuster debut collection tapped into a deep vein of hunger for stories that depict women’s embodiment and lust. From “Inventory,” a list of a woman’s lovers through the end of the world, to the lead story “The Husband Stitch,” the stories in Her Body and Other Parties burrow into the desires of women and reflect the world’s response through Machado’s unique blend of horror, humor, and brilliance.
Vladimir by Julia May Jones
The cover announces this book’s intentions before you even get a chance to flip beyond the title page. A 50-something professor in a small liberal arts college copes with her husband’s #MeToo scandal by developing an intense, obsessive attraction to the English Department’s new hire, the titular Vladimir. This recent debut is a subversive take on the campus novel with a lusty post-menopausal narrator at its core.