The return of the bonkbuster: how horny heroines are starting a new sexual revolution

I longed for novels about female desire - women empowered by sex and their expressions of lust. So I sat down and wrote my own

The idea for my novel Insatiable emerged from a simple question: where were all the horny women? I knew that we were secretly legion. In fact, I suspected that I was surrounded by women, sitting on buses, standing in queues, staring out of the window and simultaneously entertaining all kinds of filthy daydreams. After all, millions of us had bought and read Fifty Shades of Grey. Even if half the sold copies were bought by people who wanted to mock it, that left millions of genuinely horny women unaccounted for – and buying the sequels.

I was not transported in the way I had hoped; I did not find Christian sexy, I did not relish the BDSM and, most of all, I struggled to connect with the beautiful, blank lead character, Anastasia. She seemed similar to every other sort-of-horny woman I had seen on screen, a sexual object before she was a sexual subject, a person who had to be perfect and prove herself desirable before she was allowed to pursue desires of her own.

Phoebe Dynevor, left, and Rege-Jean Page in Bridgerton.
Phoebe Dynevor, left, and Rege-Jean Page in Bridgerton. Photograph: Liam Daniel/AP

In the years that followed, I often thought of Fifty Shades of Greyand whether there were other women, like me, who felt underserved. As I dreamed of writing my own novel, I revisited Look at Me by Anita Brookner. I had adored this book as a teenager – it is a dry, darkly funny story of a young woman’s friendship with a glamorous and manipulative couple who pull her into their world, only to eject her. I remembered, at 16, being certain that this was a stealthily sexy story. There is an undercurrent of tension, a hinting of a dark and problematic past. What if this were made explicit? Brookner’s novel is about a woman who tries to suppress all of her desires and cravings to seek social success. But what if a young woman found those cravings overwhelming, uncontainable – and that her desire made her desirable?

While my mind was racing with these possibilities, the sky turned dark and the news was full of stories of sexual violence. Numerous women, including a number of high-profile actors, courageously shared their experience of abuse and exploitation. There was a feeling of change in the air, a public reckoning, a long overdue call for justice.

But I was starting to understand why horny women were hiding. What chance did we have? When sex is weaponised and stories of sex are so often accompanied by stories of violence, it felt as if there was nowhere for us to express desire freely or safely.

As reported by newspapers in this period, sex acts were something “done to” professionally beautiful women, usually against their will, by powerful, wealthy men; assaults rather than expressions of mutual desire.

Dealing with this was, of course, a matter of urgency. But I was saddened that there didn’t seem to be any good stories about desire; no women empowered by sex, no happy endings. So I hid away and wrote my own, mostly for my own amusement. I didn’t want to live in the world I saw in the news, so I invented one, starring a girl who never felt beautiful or perfect, but gave herself permission to lose herself to desire – and find herself in it.

When Insatiable was submitted to publishers, many found the explicit sex off-putting (and that was after my agent made me take out the threesome I originally introduced on the second page). Yet, over the course of its journey, it has found itself in exciting company. Raven Leilani’s bestselling Luster begins with its heroine, Edie, inviting us to join her in an experience that is explicit and intimate: “The first time we have sex we are both fully clothed, at our desks during working hours, bathed in blue computer light.” Luster won the prestigious Kirkus prize and was chosen by Barack Obama as one of his books of 2020 – remarkable when the title is an elegant, monolexical shorthand for “the story of a horny woman”.

Melissa Broder’s acclaimed Milk Fed juxtaposes sexual desire with hunger and appetite, exploring what happens when a woman embraces every urge she has been frightened to explore and instead seeks satiety. Melanie Blake’s recent novel Ruthless Women focuses on the erotic adventures of women over 50, who have multiple partners and search for hedonism in all its forms.

Raven Leilani, whose book Luster won the Kirkus prize in 2020
Raven Leilani, whose book Luster won the Kirkus prize in 2020. Photograph: -

These books feature women who don’t just experience desire; they are motivated by it. That seems radical. Even more radical is the fact that these heroines and protagonists don’t necessarily fit the mould when it comes to what – or who – is usually permitted to be “sexy” in modern culture.

The bliss of a book is that each reader can tailor their vision to their specifications. Reading is an intimate experience – it is much harder to exclude someone from a story when it is their own imagination that brings it to life. When we see sex on screen, we are much more likely to be seeing a limited interpretation of sexiness, where so many bodies and experiences go unrepresented. But things are changing.

The Shondaland smash hit series Bridgerton has been praised for inclusive casting, and the way it centres on women’s desire and presents sex from a female perspective. This isn’t just a smart way to pick up liberal brownie points, but a brilliant way to meet the unmet needs of an audience of horny women; it broke Netflix viewing records and was watched in 82m households, the platform’s largest audience to date. The series is based on Julia Quinn’s steamy Bridgerton novels – which are some of the bestselling titles of 2021 so far, despite being published more than 20 years ago.

The Bridgerton universe is written for readers to escape to, rather than relate to. Jackie Collins’ heroines bust balls, Quinn’s attend balls. But the success of the series, with its clever referencing, indicates that we are keen on a little reality with our fantasy. When I interviewed Raven Leilani for my podcast, You’re Booked, she revealed that she got hooked on sexy books by accident, after reading Anne Rice’s Interview With the Vampire and discovering that there was plenty of erotic literature out there, packaged and sold as part of the fantasy genre.

I still remember a single, thrilling “horny woman” sighting when I was a teenager. In the TV classic Friends, Rachel Green (long established as conventionally desirable, before she expressed desire) is caught reading a dirty book – and when she is teased about a vicar, we are led to believe that the story is a historical romance. For a long time, many of the sexy stories written for women, or by women, have been labelled genre fiction. If vicars or vampires get you hot under the collar, all power to your elbow.

But I am curious about whether this is because female desire has been ghettoised or marginalised – or whether it’s such a powerful force that it needs a vast, imaginary, expansive realm in order to fully exist.

When they read historical fiction, horny women can hide in plain sight. But I hope we don’t need to hide any more, unless we want to. The contemporary literature that we are reaching for has sex at its centre. The content is not implied coyly by a heaving bodice on the cover. The message is made as explicit as the story itself, and it is this: women don’t need to be shinily and effortfully sexy in order to pursue sexually fulfilling lives.

However, there would certainly be no Insatiable without Jilly Cooper. The bonkbusters of the 80s were responsible for my sentimental sex education. Like millions of readers, I fell in love with every aspect of the universe Cooper created. The glamour was wholly intoxicating, yet the cosiness she conjured up was even more seductive. I was desperate to read about how Rupert Campbell-Black might rip someone’s backless ballgown off her body – and just as desperate to read about him putting his tattered cashmere sweater back on.

In other seminal works of the era, the heroines are able to express desire because they know, primarily, that they are desirable, but Cooper’s best-loved characters were made to be adored by horny, insecure teenage girls. They worry about their weight, get spots before important occasions, go to parties and feel underdressed and outclassed. Yet they still get the guy – and their orgasms. More often than not, their sexual confidence is based on their own enthusiasm, and they find more happiness in the bedroom than anywhere else.

Antonio Banderas in the 1994 film Interview With the Vampire
Antonio Banderas in the 1994 film Interview With the Vampire. Photograph: Warner Bros./Allstar

Of course, horny women have existed in literature for thousands of years. The Wife of Bath was brought into being in the 14th century and might be the most famous example of a troubling literary motif – the Loathly Lady, an unattractive woman rendered desirable by male attention. Chaucer set the tone. A glad glance from an errant knight and specs, bets and knickers are off, and the curse of ugliness is lifted. (See Pygmalion, My Fair Lady, She’s All That.)

But maybe it is time to lift a different literary curse and challenge the male gaze for good. It is time to understand that horny heroines are quiet radicals. If they can inspire readers to seek pleasure in our bedrooms, they can start a revolution. I want to live in a world where everyone can lust out loud and where any person can voice their longing without being laughed at or ignored, or made to feel vulnerable. We are still far from an era of sexual safety, but maybe, eventually, life will imitate art. For now, horny women can see themselves in print, and embrace and celebrate their urges in a place of safety.

Insatiable: A Love Story For Greedy Girls by Daisy Buchanan (Sphere, £12.99) is out now. To order a copy, go to guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply.

Contributor

Daisy Buchanan

The GuardianTramp

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