For Philyaw, it was important to position sex in the realm of pleasure. “I wanted to challenge the idea that sex and sexuality are always difficult, that we should operate as sexual beings from a place of fear or shame or guilt,” she says. “What if instead the first thing we were taught about our body was that it is good, that it belongs to us and that we should prioritize our own pleasure? What if we had been taught to prioritize our own satisfaction rather than serving and pleasing others?” His characters aren’t brought up that way, but they strive to break free and follow their desires. “The results are messy and complicated,” says Philyaw.
The Secret Lives of Church Ladies tells very different experiences than Fishman’s Acts of Service, Forrest’s Busy Being Free, or other recent books exploring female sexuality. And yet, although these books all detail singular experiences, there is a common thread: women trying to figure out what they really want, disentangling their true desire from what is expected of them.
This comes at a time when the subject feels increasingly tense. Over the past few years, Trump, #MeToo, the rise of revenge porn and the collapse of Roe v Wade have all contributed to feelings of anxiety around sex. Several recent non-fiction books — including Bad Sex by Nona Willis Aronowitz, Rethinking Sex: A Provocation by Christine Emba, and Want Me by Tracy Clark-Flory — examine what sexual liberation really means for women living in a misogynistic and patriarchal society. Desire – expressing it, following it – seems more complicated than ever.
“What makes it even more difficult is that you drop the side no matter what you do,” says Fishman. “On the one hand, if you’re a feminist from a distance, you want to believe and express and manifest a real kind of sexual freedom. And then at the same time, there’s also this deep belief in love and family and that this are the accomplishments of life that casual sex will never satisfy. It’s absolutely a trap in every way. And I think we’re all aware of that.
But now, as always, the page remains a place where women freely explore the complications of desire – as it did for Anaïs Nin, Erica Jong, Anne Rice, Catherine Millet, Mary Gaitskill and many others. For Fishman, sex in literature is a form of communication – “an extension of the conversations between the characters, which expresses something they cannot express verbally or are too afraid of”. She says Sally Rooney is the “master” of this. “It’s such a satisfying thing a novel can do, and I think it does it wonderfully.” But she also thinks contemporary writers are often more shy about sex than 20th-century writers. “There are mid-century writers who were very formative for me in terms of how much sexually explicit writing you can get away with, like Mary McCarthy. There are like a few amazing bits in The Group about sex.”
Eve Babitz – who died late last year – is another inspiration, even lending her name to Fishman’s narrator in Acts of Service. Emma Forrest is also a huge fan of the cult LA writer, best known for her writing about life in 60s and 70s Los Angeles. “What I love about Eve Babitz about sex is that she sees it as an art form; that great sex is art. It has an almost religious fervor for her.”
For Philyaw, the best sex writing “features unapologetic women embracing their desires and seeking pleasure, even at the expense of others. Toni Morrison’s Sula will always be the gold standard for me at this regard.”
On why sex continues to enchant writers, she references writer Garth Greenwell – hailed as one of the best contemporary sex writers, and who edited a collection of erotic stories, Kink, Last year. Greenwell wrote in The Guardian: “Sex is a kind of crucible of humanity, and so the question is not so much why one would write about sex, but why one would write about anything else.”
If sex is a way to explore big questions about humanity and interrogate our culture, it can also be very joyful for writers. “The most free and subversive and shameless [my characters]were, the more fun I had writing them,” says Philyaw. So can we expect literature to retain its libido? She certainly hopes so. “There is so much more to explore.
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