In honor of the New York Times Book Review dedicated to sex, we decided to revisit the sexiest books of our early memories, those tomes that (unintentionally?) made us aware that sex existed and sounded kind of awesome. Sure, classmates passed around underlined copies of Judy Blume’s Forever — but we prefer to reminisce on the unexpected books and passages that we revisited time and again.
Herewith, the Cut’s reading list for sexual awakening.
Stella Bugbee: “I spent the summer after sixth grade living in Mazatlán, Mexico, with my dad, who was taking a year off from America, ostensibly to write a book. He’d rented a water-logged hacienda owned by a retired, childless couple from Long Beach, California. I slept in the front guest room, which had an entire bookshelf populated solely with eighties-era Harlequin Romance novels. I was bored, and lonely, so I kept myself entertained by lathering on the baby oil, baking in the sun, and reading a romance novel cover to cover every single day — today’s equivalent of binge-watching your favorite show.
Many of the titles had the word Heaven in them. The covers universally featured white couples with Charlie’s Angels hair and clothes that looked like they came from Sears. Sexy. Even then I could tell they were cringe-y and lame. But they still induced a tidal wave of preteen sexual frustration. I plugged through each one with the kind of dogged obsession unique to 12-year-old girls, my satisfaction coming primarily from finishing a book. So what if I skipped a few pages here and there to get to the hot parts? I have those books to blame for both my sexual awakening and my skin cancer.”
Allison P. Davis: “My mom was a big Danielle Steele fan, so I spent ages 8 to 11 picking up her cast-off books about middle-aged women, often jilted by philandering husbands, who would find solace, self-confidence, and sexual reawakening in whirlwind romances with hot, rich men. I was particularly fond of one called The Klone and I, in which a woman’s vacation hookup cloned himself so they could carry on having steamy sex, even though he was an incredibly busy business guy. Sci-fi plus seduction! I guess this was some sort of gateway into trash-town, because my teenage obsession was secretly buying V.C. Andrews books from the Greetings & Readings. Every series featured an uncommonly beautiful and talented orphaned women who ‘overcame’ a lifetime of hardship/captivity/poverty to find solace, self-confidence, and sexual awakening in whirlwind romances with rich men … sometimes their siblings? In retrospect, an absolutely disturbing genre, but nobody writes a secret sex meeting as vividly as V.C. and her ghostwriters.”
Maggie Lange: “It’s anybody’s guess why one of the few literary descriptions of a hand job — probably the only literary scene of a hand job — is in my memory as my first erotic reading experience, but there we are. Anyway, I was 13-ish and read everything with a pen, so I could underline things that I thought were ‘ironic’ or ‘symbols.’ I was reading John Fowles’s The Magus, which is about a sad, young literary man who is entangled in a psycho-erotic manipulation plot coordinated by a mysterious millionaire on a Greek island. This book is filled with ‘symbols’; the cunning millionaire is named Cochis (like conscious). There are a lot of chess metaphors, mythology, and blurring of reality and fantasy, plus a lovely, elusive young woman who toys with the heart of our protagonist in an Estella-type fashion. Though most of the novel is heightened sexual tension rather than sex, she does give him a hand job in the ocean. No ironic symbols there, just salty sexy time.”
Charlotte Cowles: “My first was from The Tin Princess, which is a Phillip Pullman novel (an offshoot of the Sally Lockheart trilogy, if anyone’s familiar). I think I read it around age 11. It’s about a girl named Adelaide who grew up on the streets of London and somehow winds up married to the king of a fictional country named Razkavia, which seems like it would be in the Balkans if it actually existed. There’s a government coup (spoiler alert!), the king gets assassinated, and Adelaide has to flee along with her dead husband’s right-hand man, Jim, who is very shrewd and intense and can do clever things like make a shiv out of a broken window. (I imagine he looks like Leonardo DiCaprio at the height of his Titanic hotness — cleans up nicely, but rough around the edges.) There are many descriptions of the ‘electricity’ between them, but there’s no time for love, because they’re trying to escape the rebels, so tension mounts. Finally, their getaway train crashes, and they have nothing to do but make out in the rubble. Thinking back, there were barely any details aside from ‘hair stroking’ and ‘breathlessness,’ but it was all very romantic.”
Anonymous Cut Staffer: “Mine was just straight-up Gone With the Wind, in paperback, which I covered with a brown craft-paper jacket. I was so embarrassed …”
Maureen O’Connor: “I tried so hard, but I can’t remember any erotic reading experiences from my youth. My new theory is that the coming across The Joy of Sex and several Kama Sutra books in the basement of a neighbor’s house around age 9 so traumatized me that it actually stymied the development of sexual curiosity. I once asked my former neighbor if she remembered the day we found those books, and she didn’t — in her memory she discovered the books alone, and it was a beautiful sexual awakening. She didn’t recall the less-mature girl freaking out to the point of tears sitting right next to her.”
Molly Fischer: “I have extremely warm feelings for the Song of the Lioness quartet, a young-adult fantasy series that I read circa fifth grade. The heroine, Alanna, disguises herself as a boy so that she can train as a knight (classic), and in the course of becoming a powerful knight-sorceress (her magic is purple, like her eyes, I think?), she also becomes sexually entangled with Jon, the extremely handsome prince who is her best friend, and George, the rakish, much older tavern keeper–slash–‘king of thieves’ in the city beyond the castle. She winds up with George, which I found disappointing at the time, but in retrospect I think may actually be hotter.
“I guess none of it was super-explicit, but it implied enough to be deeply provocative for an 11-year-old. I’m pretty sure that one of the books included the sentence ‘At night, Jon taught her about loving.’ If we’re just talking about sheer explicit-erotica firepower, though, Clan of the Cave Bear, no contest.”
Emily Shornick: “I would skip to any chapters on puberty or sex in biology and medical books we had around the house. Does that count?”