For Philyaw, it was important to put sex in the realm of pleasure. “I guess challenging and the idea that sex is always a concern, we should operate as sexual beings where there is fear, shame or guilt,” she said. “What if instead, the first thing we were taught about our bodies was that they are good, that they belong to us, and that we should prioritize our own happiness? What if we were taught to put our own satisfaction above service ?To please others?” Her characters didn’t grow up that way, but they were struggling to break free and follow their desires. “The result was messy and complicated,” Philyaw said.
The Secret Life of a Church Lady tells a very different experience than in Fishman’s Acts of Service, Forrest’s Busy Freedom, or other recent books exploring female sexuality. However, while these books all detail unique experiences, there is one thing in common—women try to figure out what they really want, separating their true desires from what is expected of them.
This comes at a time when the subject is increasingly worrying. Over the past few years, Trump, #MeToo, the rise of revenge porn and the collapse of Roe v. Wade have all contributed to anxiety about sex. Several recent nonfiction books — including “Sexual Behavior” by Nona Willis Aronowitz, “Rethinking Sex: Provocation” by Kristen Emba and Tracy Clarke — Flory’s Want Me – Explores what sexual liberation really means for women living in a misogynistic, patriarchal society. Desire – expressing it, following it – feels more complex than ever.
“What makes it even more difficult is that no matter what you do, you’re going to let yourself down,” Fishman said. “On the one hand, if you’re a feminist, you want to believe in, express, and embody a true sexual freedom. At the same time, there’s this deep belief in love and family, which are lives that casual sex can never satisfy Achievement. It’s definitely a trap in every sense of the word. I think we’re all aware of that.”
But now, as always, the page is still a place for women to freely explore the complexities of desire — like Anaïs Nin, Erica Jong, Anne Rice, Catherine Millet, Mary Gaitskill, and more. For Fishman, sexuality in literature is a form of communication—“an extension of the dialogue between characters, expressing what they could not orally express or dare not express”. She said Sally Rooney was a “master” at this. “What a novel can do, it’s so satisfying, and I think she’s doing a fantastic job.” But she also believes that contemporary writers tend to be more shy about sexuality than 20th-century writers. “There are some mid-century writers that really matter to me how much sexually explicit writing they can get away with, like Mary McCarthy. The articles on sex in The Group are amazing.”
Eve Babitz, who died late last year, was another inspiration, and she even lent her name to Fishman’s narrator in Service Action. Emma Forrest is also a big fan of the avid Los Angeles writer, best known for her work on life in Los Angeles in the ’60s and ’70s. “One of the things I like about Eve Babitz about sex is that she sees it as an art form; great sex is art. It’s almost a religious passion for her.”
For Philyaw, the best sexual writing “depicts women who are unapologetic about embracing their own desires and seeking pleasure, even at the expense of others. Tony Morrison’s Sulla will always be what I am in The gold standard for this.”
As to why sex continues to fascinate writers, she points to author Garth Greenwell, hailed as one of the finest sex writers of our time, who edited the erotic collection Kink last year. Greenwell wrote in The Guardian: “Sex is a melting pot of human nature, so the question is not why sex is written, but why other things are written.”
If sex is a way of exploring the big questions of humanity and interrogating our culture, it’s also a joy for writers. “The more free, the more subversive, the more unapologetic [my characters] Yes, the more fun I have writing them,” Philyaw said. So, can we expect literature to maintain its sexuality? Of course she hopes so. “There is still a lot to explore.
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