Gay sex in literature didn’t just make me a reader – it humanised my desire

Growing up, I feared my sexual desire, but raunchy queer literature helped me feel seen – and paved the way for a new, liberated generation of readers and writers.

Jamie Valentino
Victoria Ford / Penguin

As American teenagers, my friends and I hung out at the mall on weekends doing what older teens with driving licenses called 'loser laps' – walking around aimlessly until we’d meandered around most of the shops, then walking around them again. One day, my mom was late to pick me up, so I lingered in a bookshop. I browsed books to pass the time, and when some of the novels’ titles started sounding odd I panicked; I had wandered into the upstairs gay corner of the store.

For a young man not yet out of the closet – I was too afraid to search for gay erotica, thinking my computer might somehow alert the FBI or get tainted beyond the repair of clearing my browser history – the desire I felt, opening and reading those pages, seemed dangerous. I couldn't help but look over my shoulder; I needed to make sure the coast was clear for my thoughts.

I peered at book covers of ideas and themes I assumed were forbidden. But I was wrong – they were sold here as commercial reading material. Gayness existed as a profitable entity and community, void of insult or sin (unless ironic). My phone rang and I rushed out of the store, so nervous that my mom accused me of being on drugs. I didn’t forget the literature I saw; it existed as proof of a distant civilization.

Entering the world of explicit queer literature

Years later, I moved to New York and bought a novel titled Faggots by Larry Kramer. I picked it because of the torsos on the cover; the title assured me of the context. The cashier didn’t appear to believe my plan to prank my brother, but I was allowed to buy the book.

Much of Kramer’s novel went over my head. I wasn’t informed about the nuances of gayness, including the particulars of two male bodies getting it on. I didn’t have a foundation to compare with his satire and hyperbolized characters. I figured this must be why gayness was feared. It’s unhinged. Yet, I couldn’t stop reading.

I returned to the bookstore. I started buying books by authors like Edmund White, an Officier de l'Ordre des Arts et des Lettres in France, and Alan Hollinghurst, the 2004 Booker Prize winner, for guidance on the intricacies of gay desire.

Through their stories, I was able to experience gay sex through the lens of an anthropologist; though often, my reading felt way more exhilarating than research. Their rich, literary novels explicitly depicting the sex lives of gay men didn’t just turn me into a reader – they served as a master class in queerness. I could see queer people who were not broken by their desires and lived with just as many questions and suppressed emotions as I did – until they didn’t.

The power of sex scenes between men

I reached out to Edmund White recently to ask about these novels, about why he wrote his sex scenes. He considers Hollinghurst “one of the best English gay writers openly discussing sex. And who likes sex.” Kramer, it turns out, wrote a front-page newspaper article denouncing White’s work: “[He said] that I would be responsible for the lives of many gay people because I was sex-positive.”

Queer visibility encouraged more people to put their existences to paper, broadening the scope of the stories being told

But Kramer misunderstood; White didn’t want to write sex scenes that turned people on, he told me; he wanted his novels to echo the realities of being both gay and full of desire. Yet this relatability seemed to turn his audience on the most.

His mainstream success helped convince literary giants to open the doors for aspiring gay authors. Queer visibility encouraged more people to put their existences to paper, broadening the scope of the stories being told.

“In the old days, you would try to explain how the person came to be gay, the aetiology, and now no one would do that,” White says, “And you know, it [gayness] was classified by the American Psychiatric Association as a mental disorder until 1974.”

He’s not wrong. Early openly gay authors provided a foundation for other identities to lay their words and inspired other genres like gay erotica to thrive. Interestingly enough, raunchy gay sex was a literary niche first embraced by cis-straight female authors making the leap from their regular programming. (They also remain a substantial fan base.)

Straight and gay erotica author HelenKay Dimon has been inspired by writers like White. But as a woman pulling the strings on interactions between male characters, the author of The Experiment says she didn’t want to tackle problems with identity because coming out stories weren’t hers to tell. She created gay men emboldened by their sexuality and, in doing so, she could focus her expertise on building the fantasy – like what happens in the sheets between gay, muscled secret agents finding themselves on opposing sides, as in Mr. and Mr. Smith, her queer subversion of the 2005 Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie film.

“Whether it’s the growth in the sexual relationship, or a piece of character development, or some other emotion, the scene needs to feel authentic and grow out of who the characters are and what they want at that moment,” she says.

White says the depth of context differentiates literature from porn, so in novels, readers encounter unencumbered gay sexuality riddled with history and detail – humanising aspects that give gay literature richness and depth. It’s not that sex is crucial to any novel, but if two male characters are enamoured with each other, their interactions don’t need to be filtered. That’s the beauty of words; the sky’s the limit on the realities you can reflect in order to entertain, shock, inform, or stoke desire – all of them, if you’re good.

The rise of #SmutTok

I didn't have a hashtag to show me that my desires, which felt so unique to me, were ordinary – even worthy of celebration – but because of the books I grew up reading, young queer people are now able to find the same liberation online that I first felt reading raunchy sex from that bookstore.

Young queer people are now able to find the same liberation online that I first felt reading raunchy sex from that bookstore

On TikTok, where #BookTok has been exploding for years, #SmutTok is now thriving in the UK too, celebrating all ages, genders, sexualities, and bodies – though a large part of the movement has been pioneered by queer women. Aptly symbolized by the “spicy” chili pepper emoji, the feed carries the desire of millions of users and has billions of views – #SpicyBookTok now has 3.4 billion, and #SmutTok 4.7 billion.

The strong presence of young adults there, meanwhile, suggests that there’s less shame than ever about owning one’s sexuality and, accordingly, one’s identity. White, Hollinghurst, Dimon, and the thousands of other authors of their generation who wrote subversive, smutty literature helped pave the way.

For my part, gay smut showed me queer characters that lived fascinating lives outside the bedroom, making me believe my story could be honest, interesting, and publishable.

I no longer need to hide or justify my raunchy gay novels, nor surreptitiously devour them in the corner of a bookstore; I'm free to enjoy their fantasies and, as White intended, to relate and feel realised.

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