For Philyaw, it was important to position sex in the realm of pleasure. “I wanted to challenge the idea that sex and sexuality is always fraught, that we should operate as sexual beings from a place of fear, or shame, or guilt,” she says. “What if instead the first things we’d been taught about our bodies was that they are good, that they belong to us, and that we should prioritise our own pleasure? What if we’d been taught to prioritise our own satisfaction over serving and pleasing others?” Her characters are not raised that way, but they are striving to break free and follow their desires. “The results are messy and complicated,” says Philyaw.
The Secret Lives of Church Ladies tells of experiences that are very different to those in Fishman’s Acts of Service, Forrest’s Busy Being Free or other recent books exploring female sexuality. And yet while these books all detail singular experiences, there is a common thread – women trying to figure out what they actually want, disentangling their true desire from what’s expected of them.
This comes at a time when the subject feels increasingly fraught. Over the past few years, Trump, #MeToo, the rise of revenge porn and the collapse of Roe v Wade have all contributed to a sense of anxiety around sex. Several recent non-fiction books – including Bad Sex by Nona Willis Aronowitz, Christine Emba’s Rethinking Sex: A Provocation and Want Me by Tracy Clark-Flory – look at what sexual liberation really means for women living in a misogynistic, patriarchal society. Desire – expressing it, following it – feels more complicated than ever.
“What makes it even harder is that you let the side down no matter what you do,” says Fishman. “On the one hand, if you’re remotely a feminist, you want to believe in and express and manifest a real type of sexual freedom. And then at the same time, there is also this deep belief in love and the family and that these are the fulfillments of life that casual sex won’t ever satisfy. It’s absolutely a trap in any sense. And I think we’re all cognisant of that.”
But now, as always, the page remains a place for women to explore the complications of desire freely – as it was for Anaïs Nin, Erica Jong, Anne Rice, Catherine Millet, Mary Gaitskill and more. For Fishman, sex in literature is a form of communication – “an extension of the conversations between the characters, that expresses something that they can’t express verbally or are too afraid to”. She says Sally Rooney is the “master” of this. “It’s such a satisfying thing that a novel can do, and I think she does it wonderfully.” But she also thinks that contemporary authors are often more coy about sex than 20th-Century writers. “There are some writers from the mid-Century that were really formative for me in terms of how much explicit sex writing you can get away with, like Mary McCarthy. There’s like an amazing few passages 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 big 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 on sex is that she sees it as an art form; that great sex is art. It has an almost religious fervour for her.”
For Philyaw, the best sex writing “features women who are unapologetic about embracing their desires and seeking pleasure, even at other people’s expense. Toni Morrison’s Sula will always be the gold standard for me in that regard.”
On why sex continues to enrapture writers, she refers to the writer Garth Greenwell – hailed as one of the best contemporary writers on sex, and who edited a collection of erotic stories, Kink, last year. Greenwell wrote in The Guardian: “sex is a kind of crucible of humanness, and so the question isn’t so much why one would write about sex, as why one would write about anything else.”
If sex is a way of exploring the big questions about humanity and interrogating our culture, it can also be pretty joyful for writers, too. “The more free and subversive and unapologetic [my characters] were, the more fun I had writing them,” says Philyaw. So, can we expect literature to keep its libido? She certainly hopes so. “There is so much more to explore.”
Love books? Join BBC Culture Book Club on Facebook, a community for literature fanatics all over the world.
And if you liked this story, sign up for the weekly bbc.com features newsletter, called The Essential List. A handpicked selection of stories from BBC Future, Culture, Worklife and Travel, delivered to your inbox every Friday.