The captivating new books exploring sex, desire and power

Written by Francesca Brown

Francesca Brown is books editor for Stylist magazine and Stylist Loves; she also compiles the Style List on a weekly basis. She is a self-confessed HBO abuser and has a wide selection of grey sweatshirts. Honestly, you just can’t have enough. @franabouttown

From uplifting celebrations of lust and relationships to darker takes on #MeToo, sex and desire: meet the books giving voice to our inner lives. 

Erotic fiction has evolved. In the past few years, a new wave of books exploring power, desire and sexuality have come to the fore, reshaping what erotica means for this generation of readers. It’s a far cry from 11 years ago, when 50 Shades Of Grey defined the genre, selling 150 million copies and launching a sea of copycats (Dirty Billionaire anyone?).

While EL James indisputably tapped into a mainstream desire, her books were a world away from the revolutionary breakthroughs of the 20th century such as Anaïs Nin’s posthumous 1977 book of short stories, Delta Of Venus, written in the 40s for a private collector, and Erica Jong’s 1973 novel, Fear Of Flying. 

However, a return to that more complex and lesser-vocalised sexuality is now coming to the fore. While well-written commercial erotic fiction remains buoyant – see the joyful works of Tia Williams, Rosie Danan and Olivia Dade – there’s a new wave of titles exploring power dynamics, passion, gender, sexuality and non-heteronormative desire that owe more to the work of Jeanette Winterson, Sarah Waters, Sally Rooney and Susanna Moore’s recently reissued In The Cut. As the New York Times ruminated in its review of Michelle Hart’s coming-of-age story What We Do In The Dark: “Maybe this is what the new erotic thriller has morphed into in literature – less about the horror of sex and romance and more about the thrill of quiet despair and ruin.”

Francesca Main, publisher of Phoenix Books, suggests that it’s something that’s speaking to us viscerally right now across culture (think Don’t Worry DarlingInsecure or Normal People’s runaway succesand Bridgerton upending tightly laced Regency tropes) and it’s permeating this new release of books. “Whether this is driven by similar themes in psychological suspense, box-set TV or simply a desire to explore relationships in a bolder, more honest and unvarnished way, there is a notable trend for literary novelists delving deeper into the dark side of relationships and writing about sex with more intimacy and candour,” she explains.  

These books are smart, sophisticated and sexy (often with unnamed narrators – a device that allows them to work as escapist reflections of our own desires) and run a complex gamut of plotlines: some are uplifting celebrations of sexual liberation while others are dark experiences of power dynamics. 

These are some of the titles leading the genre. 

  • What We Do In The Dark by Michelle Hart

    New erotic books: What We Do In The Dark by Michelle Hart

    Described as “the Dolly Parton of the book world” by Bomb Magazine, thanks to Hart’s role in championing LGBTQ+ voices at O, The Oprah Magazine and Oprah Daily, What We Do In The Dark is the story of intense gay affair between college-age Mallory and an unnamed older woman who’s also married. Filled with erotic charge, it’s about desire, grief and loneliness and described by fans as “lesbians… regardless of how you fit into this label, this is for us. This novel understands our unique experience”. Unmissable. 

    Shop What We Do In The Dark by Michelle Hart (Headline) at Bookshop, £18.98

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  • The Book Of Most Precious Substance by Sara Gran

    New erotic books: The Book Of Most Precious Substance by Sara Gran

    The Book Of The Most Precious Substance is a 17th century manual on sex magic, rumoured to be the most powerful occult book ever written – if it really exists at all.” A compulsive thriller and supernatural horror, it centres around rare book dealer Lily, who is caught in a cycle of drudgery, caring for a sick husband and work, but her pursuit of this magical title leads her on an adventure of sexual awakening that underlines why pleasure is so essential to human existence.

    Shop The Book Of Most Precious Substance by Sara Gran (Faber) at Bookshop, £14.99

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  • You Made A Fool Of Death With Your Beauty by Akwaeke Emezi

    New erotic books: You Made A Fool Of Death With Your Beauty by Akwaeke Emezi

    Sensual and sexy, Emezi’s brilliant book is named after a lyric from Florence & The Machine’s song Hunger – and it’s hunger that permeates the whole of this book: hunger for love, life and freedom. Sweeping up a spectrum of queer identity, it’s a hot, rollicking adventure about a young widow that also touches on grief and finding recovery and resolution after trauma.

    Shop You Made A Fool Of Death With Your Beauty by Akwaeke Emezi (Faber) at Bookshop, £14.99

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  • Vladimir by Julia May Jonas

    New erotic books: Vladimir by Julia May Jonas

    Vladimir’s main protagonist is an unnamed narrator working as an academic on a liberal arts campus, whose husband has been outed as part of the #MeToo movement following his inappropriate relationships with students. Undeterred by this, due to their agreed open marriage, the novel focuses on the woman’s obsession with a much-younger married academic, Vladimir, while exploding the contradictions, complexities and needs of female desire. Women can have questionable morals too…

    Shop Vladimir by Julia May Jonas (Picador) at Bookshop, £14.99

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  • Permafrost by Eva Baltasar, translated by Julia Sanches

    New erotic books: Permafrost by Eva Baltasar

    A bestselling book for this Catalan writer, Permafrost’s funny and frank narrator explains: “My subconscious seems only to want to travel and to fuck. I spend nights in hotel rooms, camping tents, caravans, cars, and stagecoaches. Never on planes. I have a lot of sex with strangers, and, funnily, these women and I are impressively in tune throughout.” Written with verve and insight, it’s a joyous take on sex and being female.

    Shop Permafrost by Eva Baltasar, translated by Julia Sanches (And Other Stories) at Bookshop, £10

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  • New Animal by Ella Baxter

    New erotic books: New Animal by Ella Baxter

    Amelia works in a funeral parlour, applying make-up to the dead and finding a quotidian physical escape with the men she meets online. One day, even this existence is capsized by a terrible loss. Launching herself on a 72-hour mission to outrun her grief, she pursues pain, a missing father, BDSM sex clubs and freedom in an effort to find a restorative release. 

    Shop New Animal by Ella Baxter (Picador) at Bookshop, £14.99

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  • Insatiable by Daisy Buchanan

    New erotic books: Insatiable by Daisy Buchanan

    Like the brilliant 2019 books In At The Deep End by Kate Davies and Queenie by Candice Carty-Williams, here we see a trad romcom protagonist meet a more relevant take on sexual liberation. Captioned “A love story for greedy girls”, Violet flees a life that’s not going anywhere fast when she meets the rich and sensual Lottie and Simon, who offer her a job and introduce her to a new world of lust, intimacy and satisfaction. But is it what she really wants? 

    Shop Insatiable by Daisy Buchanan (Little Brown) at Bookshop, £8.99

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  • In The Cut by Susanna Moore

    New erotic books: In The Cut by Susanna Moore

    As The Water Cure author Sophie Mackintosh comments: “In The Cut is surely one of the most underrated books of all time. [Moore] looks… at what it means to be a reckless woman in a world of dangerous men.” A dark and disturbing thriller that’s also filled with eroticism, it explores the threat that men pose to women with an unflinching horror.

    Shop In The Cut by Susanna Moore (Orion) at Bookshop, £8.99

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  • Everything We Are by Karen Angelico

    New erotic books: Everything We Are by Karen Angelico

    Everything We Are’s publisher Francesca Main explains: “It’s a dark and addictive novel about marriage and friendship, love and sex, desire and betrayal. Karen’s writing won me over immediately, but I was also drawn to the book for its frank portrayal of sex and relationships in mid-life – of what happens to a couple a decade or more into their marriage and the impact of secrecy and infidelity. One of the characters is a sex addict who regularly hooks up with women unbeknown to his wife; another discovers his partner has been chatting to other men on an extra-marital dating website – you almost read through your fingers as they head on an unstoppable course of self-destruction.”

    Shop Everything We Are by Karen Angelico (Phoenix) at Bookshop, £16.98

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  • Cleanness by Garth Greenwell

    New erotic books: Cleanness by Garth Greenwell

    A follow-up to the much-loved What Belongs To You featuring some of the same characters, Cleanness is a collection of stories that examines sex, power, fear, self-hatred and desire through its gay malecharacters. It’s a book about connection and how humans reach out for one another in so many ways – for succour, comfort, pain and passion. 

    Shop Cleanness by Garth Greenwell (Picador) at Bookshop, £8.99

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  • Acts Of Service by Lillian Fishman

    New erotic books: Acts Of Service by Lillian Fishman

    Described by The Guardian as a “sex masterpiece”, Acts Of Service is the acclaimed tale of Eve, a twenty-something queer woman living in Brooklyn who posts pictures of herself online. This act leads to an explicit relationship with a woman called Olivia and her boss Nathan. So what does this sex mean? How do we relate it to modern society? And how do we meet our own desires?

    Shop Acts Of Service by Lillian Fishman (Europa) at Bookshop, £13.99

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  • At Certain Points We Touch by Lauren John Joseph

    New erotic books: At Certain Points We Touch by Lauren John Joseph

    Reflecting on the death of a former lover, this coming-of-age queer love story explores how its transgender protagonist is caught up in a tormented relationship and how they extract themselves from the complexities of falling for someone who does you no good. Conjuring up the chaos and magic of being young against a backdrop of London, New York and San Francisco, it’s a book that’ll resonate with anyone who’s ever fallen in love with someone they shouldn’t have.

    ShopAt Certain Points We Touch by Lauren John Joseph (Bloomsbury) at Bookshop, £14.99

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  • Acts Of Desperation by Megan Nolan

    New erotic books: Acts Of Desperation by Megan Nolan

    “How impoverished my internal life had become the scrabbling for a token of love from somebody who didn’t want to offer it?” In Acts Of Desperation an unnamed narrator negates herself in an attempt to win the love of her often-cruel boyfriend, Ciaran. Losing herself in sex, wine and self-inflicted domesticity, it’s the dichotomy of how an intelligent woman in the 2010s can debase herself for a man in an attempt to create self-worth and fulfil the patriarchal values that power such actions. By scrutinising this power axis, a truth to many everyday sexual dynamics is revealed.

    Shop Acts Of Desperation by Megan Nolan (Vintage) at Bookshop, £8.99

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Images: courtesy of publishers

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