Though E.L. James’s erotic books about BDSM and sex continue to captivate the world, meriting a 2015 movie, a musical parody and the Marlon Wayans sarcastic send-up Fifty Shades of Black, we’re still not sure why. The book series itself is filled with awkward metaphors and unconvincing melodrama, and there are movies with more innovative and groundbreaking sex scenes—and real-life dominatrixes, of course. But sexy books can be smart, too, and these 16 deliciously naughty alternatives to Fifty Shades of Grey are both better and riskier. You’ll be inspired to start planning a romantic night out yourself.
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The 16 best erotic books
The intercontinental erotic romp
Beautiful Secret by Christina Lauren (2015)
“Christina Lauren” is the combined pen name of longtime writing partners Christina Hobbs and Lauren Billings, whose best-selling Beautiful series installments each center on an unlikely but kinetic couple—and each features a strong female lead. In this one, bright London-based engineer Ruby Miller is sent on an extended business trip to the Big Apple for work that’s up close and personal with a hunky—and recently divorced—urban planner, Niall Stella. The pair wind up blowing off steam in some intriguing ways.
The "horny" story collection
Inside Madeleine by Paula Bomer (2014)
Horny is just one of the words used to summarize Bomer’s stories—honest, fearless and sweaty also appear in descriptions. From sexual kink to the power of menstruation, the author delves deeply into the human body and all the pleasures and pains it holds.
Women by Chloe Caldwell (2014)
Nothing’s sexier than first love and first intimacies, and Caldwell’s brave autobiographical tale twists the trope into a powerful story about unexpectedly falling in love with a woman and the discoveries, sexual and otherwise, that ensue.
The examination of promiscuity
Little Cat by Tamara Faith Berger (2013)
This book combines two previously out-of-print novellas by Berger. In Lie With Me, a woman embarks on a sexual escapade, picking up random men in bars in a series of escalating encounters in the hopes of understanding the nature of love. In The Way of the Whore, protagonist Mira, a Jean Genet-obsessed introvert, unpredictably joins the sex industry in an effort to unravel her pattern of masochistic relationships.
The modern Lolita
Tampa by Alissa Nutting (2013)
Okay, Nutting’s controversial book is, in fact, about a teacher seducing a young student. But what’s so engaging about Tampa isn’t this scandal: It’s how, with keen details, the author portrays the intensity of obsession from a female perspective, a brilliant twist on Nabokov’s Humbert Humbert.
The sexy story without any sex
The Virgins by Pamela Erens (2013)
As in many budding relationships, the best part of Erens’s recent novel is simply the suggestion of sex. In The Virgins, we join the author’s two college characters for their early explorations of one another and watch them through the voyeuristic perspective of another student.
The steamy anchor of a YA trilogy
Crash by Nicole Williams (2012)
Just as coloring books aimed at adults are now a thing (they’re stress-reducing!), so too is the widespread popularity of young-adult books (and not just among the 12-to-18 set they’re supposedly written for). In Crash, Williams introduces Lucy Larson, a high school senior and aspiring ballerina whose straight-and-narrow path is about to be majorly upset by local bad boy Jude Ryder. As rumors fly, things get complicated—and hot.
The exploration of the pre-Tinder era
The Sluts by Dennis Cooper (2005)
Released way back in 2005, author Dennis Cooper’s dark, disturbing and transgressive pretzel-plot novel brilliantly anticipates our contemporary milieu, where online dating and hookups are widely discussed and everyone’s a critic. Set largely on a message board where clients review their gay male escorts, the darkly comic tale turns thrilling—and ominous—as it explores whether one of the site’s star johns is in fact a serial killer.
The Blue Is the Warmest Color of the 1960s
Thérèse and Isabelle by Violette Leduc (2000)
A provocateur admired by contemporaries including Albert Camus, Leduc has been called France’s greatest unknown writer. Her explicit tale of two boarding school girls in love, originally published in 1954, made waves for its frank depiction of female adolescent sexuality. The work still titillates, crackling with erotic energy.
The mythological novels-in-verse
Autobiography of Red (1998) and Red Doc> (2013) by Anne Carson
Carson, one of the most inventive poets writing today, transforms the Greek myth of Geryon—a red, winged creature slain by Heracles—into two erotically charged books about these notorious characters finding great passion in each other.