The Scarlet Letter, written in 1850, by American author Nathaniel Hawthorne is one of those books that I have mixed feelings about.
On the one hand, it was progressive for its time. Hester Prynne, a young woman who lives in the 17th century Puritan colony in Boston, is vilified for the sin of adultery by her community when she gives birth to a female baby through an affair. The book redefines notions of sin and morality by questioning the line between the two.
In many ways though, The Scarlet Letter is also very much a product of its era, and of a distinctly male view of female empowerment and sexuality. Hester’s redemption for her transgression, as depicted by Hawthorne, lies in living a life of humility and repentance – never mind that the adultery she committed was under the mistaken belief that her husband had died at sea.
The Scarlet Letter remains essential reading today, if only for the fact that we largely have not left behind outmoded ideas of female morality. Women are still disproportionately judged for their choices when it comes to sex. More horrifyingly, even today in many parts of the world, the treatment of Hester wouldn’t seem out of the ordinary.
The book, however, did get me thinking about other authors who present alternate views of female sexuality, views that go beyond that of morality. And so here, I’d like to give you a list of books, written by female authors, that each complicate, redefine, celebrate and illuminate various ideas of female sexuality.
Americanah (2013) by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
Sexuality, both male and female, is an essential part of this novel on identity, migration, and gender dynamics, where a young teenaged couple in Nigeria face separation and reunion over the course of growing up. (Read our review)
Delta Of Venus (1977) by Anais Nin
A pioneering work of female sex-positivity, this collection of erotic short stories are elevated by Nin’s lush prose and underlying ideas that go far beyond just titillation.
Fledgling (2005) by Octavia Butler
Butler excels at using speculative fiction to engage with modern politics. In her final novel, she uses the story of Shori, a 53-year-old vampire who looks like a 10-year-old girl, to explore race relations, marginalised communities, and sexuality.
Gone Girl (2014) by Gillian Flynn
Gone Girl has been controversial for its portrayal of women – some find the psychopathic lead female to be a misogynistic portrayal, while others hail Flynn’s creation as a nuanced examination of modern female sexuality. (Read our review)
The Bell Jar (1963) by Sylvia Plath
Plath’s examination of sexuality in 1950s America is uncomfortable and unflinching. As the lines between sex and violence get increasingly blurred, the novel exposes the darker sides of the double standard that exists for men and women.
The Complete Claudine (1900-1903) by Colette
Written as a diary, these stories of a 15-year-old French girl as she matures into womanhood are a fun, frisky, and ultimately honest look at the many facets of being a young woman.
The Hate U Give (2017) by Angie Thomas
This young adult novel centres on an African-American teenaged girl who witnesses the shooting of her best friend by a police officer. In telling the story of a teenaged girl, the book takes a frank and positive approach to female sexual desire. (Read our review)
The One Hundred Nights Of Hero (2016) by Isabel Greenberg
Set in a fantastical world where female expression and sexuality are suppressed, this graphic novel suggests that gaining control of their own stories may be one way for women to find freedom. (Read our review)
The Thousand Faces Of Night (1992) by Githa Hariharan
This novel re-frames traditional ideas of female identity and sexuality by connecting the lives of three generations of women in Chennai, India, to the myths of the ancient epics Ramayana and Mahabharata.
Who Fears Death (2010) by Nnedi Okorafor
Set in a post-apocalyptic version of Sudan, this fantasy novel grapples with heavy themes like rape and oppression. Magical power is used as an allegory for female sexuality – such as one particularly disturbing scene where the lead character is subjected to female genital mutilation, which robs her of her magic.