The top ten female sexual awakenings in literature

From boarding-school flings to no-boys-allowed, we chart the books that put the come in coming-of-age

How Should A Person Be
How Should A Person Be Sheila Heti

Google "female sexual awakening", and you will not be particularly surprised at the results. Amazon: Sexual Awakening for Women: A Tantric Workbook. "Sexual Awakening: The Truth About What Women Really Want". "On the path to sexual awakening, the woman comes to admit she loves cock".

The sexual awakening could be defined as a desire, known or less so, for "cock" or something else, fulfilled, sure. But to reduce the female sexual development to a single moment or experience, as if it is an equation to be solved – vagina + penis = emotional and physical fulfillment! – is to deny the complexity of women’s lives and reduce half-ish of the world’s population to passive entities waiting for someone (usually a man) to save them from their psychosexual turmoil. No thanks; Beyoncé, it’s clear, disagrees.

As always, literature paints a more nuanced picture, if you know where to read. Judy Blume’s curious, capable protagonists, for instance, grow into multi-faceted women who proudly carry on the torch of Lady Chatterley and Anaïs Nin. Here are ten more picks for female characters who put the come in coming-of-age.

THE VIRGINS BY PAMELA ERENS

Last year’s boarding-school scintillator takes place in 1979, in a setting refreshingly free of technological effects on sexuality. A beautiful mixed-race couple on campus tempts the rumour mill with aggressive and unabashed PDA, but the fact that they haven’t actually, ahem, done it looms over the text, the cause or effect of more than one sexual awakening, relayed in a gossip-y third person.

The Virgins
The Virgins Pamela Erens

THE EDIBLE WOMAN BY MARGARET ATWOOD

Atwood has of late been focusing on issues to do the internet era, but her funny, unexpected first novel is a relatable, protofeminist alternative to the breakable Franny Glass. Marian McAlpin is not without her issues – mostly related to the sense of having lost herself to the man she’s going to marry – but the way she deals with them is nuanced and reflective, rather than hysterically neurotic. Give it to the friend who just posted engagement photos on Facebook – she’ll thank you later.

The Edible Woman
The Edible Woman Margaret Atwood

FEAR OF FLYING BY ERICA JONG

This classic of second-wave feminism was a critical turning point in terms of female characters acting the agents of their sex lives. Dazed’s Zing Tsjeng wrote of its unapologetic protagonist: "She desires what we all want: the full spectrum of human experience, in all its smutty, fleshy contradictions."

The Fear of Flying
The Fear of Flying Erica Jong

ORANGES ARE NOT THE ONLY FRUIT BY JEANETTE WINTERSON

And straight women are not the only people who have developmental sexual urges and experiences in hostile and repressive environments! That Winterson is staunchly opposed to her debut's marketing as a "lesbian novel" universalises the experiences it depicts across gender and sexuality lines, and its success paved the way for more female narratives to make it to the mainstream.

Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit
Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit Jeanette Winterson

HOW SHOULD A WOMAN BE? BY SHEILA HETI

Heti’s much-discussed "novel from life" isn’t so much a sexual awakening as it is an artistic one, but the absolutely infuriated passage about blowjobs that comes somewhere in the middle of protagonist Sheila’s post-divorce, artistically blocked breakdown. We don’t want to give too much away, but let’s just say she’s giving them for the wrong reasons.

How Should A Person Be
How Should A Person Be Sheila Heti

PUSSYCAT FEVER BY KATHY ACKER

Most of Acker’s angry anti-patriarchy grrl narratives would fit this list, but it’s Pussycat Fever, perhaps more accurately described as a psychosexual fury than a book, with explicit illustrations by Hothead Paisan-creator Diane DiMassa, that most empowers its protagonist to become the agent of her (rampant) desire. It’s 76 pages; read it fast and more than once.  

Pussycat Fever
Pussycat Fever Kathy Acker

MARJORIE MORNINGSTAR BY HERMAN HOUK

A struggling young actress attaches herself to an apparently older and wiser man who she stays with for too long despite the fact that he treats her like shit – it’s amazing how familiar this story from 1955 sounds. Although the ending might seem a little conventionally happy (and certainly problematic), Houk doesn’t set a straight or uncomplicated path to get there.

 

Marjorie Morningstar
Marjorie Morningstar Herman Houk

THE COUNTRY GIRLS BY EDNA O'BRIEN

Sex has permanently altered many a wholesome prepubescent best-friendship – the pure, insular world of no-boys-allowed just isn’t sustainable. O’Brien’s debut tackles the simultaneous disillusionment and wonder that comes with growing up, and it’s valuable because her two female leads represent two different ends of the feminine-desire spectrum. 

The Country Girls
The Country Girls Edna O'Brien

KINFLICKS BY LISA ALTHER

Women have been asking "how should a person be?" for decades. Kinflicks protagonist Ginny Babcock’s rampant trying-on of personas as she plows through a wide range of sexual partners challenges the limited roles that were available to women in the 60s and 70s, but leads to a heartbreakingly sad ending. 

Kinflicks
Kinflicks Lisa Alther

WHAT PURPOSE DID I SERVE IN YOUR LIFE BY MARIE COLLOWAY

That women’s sexuality has been the subject of acute controversy is historical detail; that it still is is kind of ridiculous. You’ve probably heard of Marie Calloway’s incendiary and explicit account of her teen and 20-something sexual encounters, and its frank depiction of contemporary feminine sexual relationships – usually not positive – is nothing if not important. 

Marie Calloway
Marie Calloway Esquire
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