With the long-anticipated movie of 50 Shades of Grey due for release early next year, erotica is having something of a cultural revival. Everywhere you look there seem to be rip-offs of E. L. James’s erotic trilogy — it seems as if everyone is trying to get involved in the field of eroticism.
Erotic literature, of course, has a long and venerable history. Indeed, it has been so widespread throughout history and all over the world — from the Kama Sutra in India to D. H. Lawrence’s scandalous books first published in England to the popular Harlequin novels of the modern age — that it seems clear there’s some form of erotic media to appeal to everyone. Light entertainment or heavy literature, book or film, period or modern setting, erotica is widely relatable. Despite the fact that many criticise the genre as two dimensional and bland, the real success of erotica is dependent on relatable, charismatic and attractive characters. And so, erotica has in fact been responsible for creating some of the most memorable characters in literary and film history. And so, who are the very best of the most famous and best-loved heroes and heroines in erotica over the years? If you’re hoping to dip your toe into the hot water of erotic fiction, the tales starring the following fifteen heroes and heroines are a good place to start.
15. Oliver Mellors
One of the most contentious erotic novels in history is D. H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover, first published in 1928. The book was considered so shocking that it was banned in various places, and is often still seen as taboo today.
The story focuses on a bored bohemian wife, Connie, and her affair with her poor and bitter gamekeeper Oliver Mellors. The sex scenes are all the more shocking considering the era when the book was written, and Mellors still holds up as one of the pioneering heroes of erotica today.
14. Frank Chambers
Another oldie but goodie is James M. Cain’s first novel published in 1934, The Postman Always Rings Twice. While technically a crime novel, the passionate affair between drifter Frank Chambers and an unhappy wife Cora is unarguably erotic: the two fall deeply in love, and their forbidden sex life is as rambunctious as you’d expect.
Both Frank and Cora could easily be the erotic hero or heroine of the text, but Frank just edges it for being the initial instigator of the romance. There were film adaptations of the novel in 1946 and 1981, and are famed for their portrayals of the steamy affair.
13. Bill Harford
Stanley Kubrick’s infamous film Eyes Wide Shut is a disturbing mix of erotic and thriller. The 1999 film stars then-couple Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman as Bill Harford and his wife Alice, who crushes her husband when she admits that she would have given up her life with him had she had the chance to sleep with a particular man.
Harford’s response is to attempt to even the playing field, and the whole film is accordingly a dreamlike unsettling erotic landscape, involving copious amounts of nudity and an orgy.
12. Daryl Van Horne
A strange but valid character to include is Jack Nicholson‘s portrayal of the devil in the 1987 film The Witches of Eastwick, based on a novel by John Updike. Going by the guise of Daryl Van Horne, the devil moves to the small town of Eastwick, where he meets three unwitting witches who are also best friends.
Van Horne seduces all three of them, at first individually, then together, building a sort of magical harem in his mansion. Van Horne is not a conventionally attractive man in this film, but his sexual allure still comes across strongly, making the film’s vibe all the more erotic and unsettling.
11. John Gray
The protagonist of the 1986 film Nine 1/2 Weeks, John Gray, is the age-old figure of the wealthy businessman who seduces a younger, beautiful woman named Liz to introduce her to his off-the-wall sex life.
It should hardly be surprising that this film, along with Twilight, provided the inspiration for 50 Shades, right down to E. L. James stealing John’s surname. The film is entirely centered on various forms of sex, turning Liz’s life upside down and providing the world with one of the biggest erotic heroes of film ever seen.
10. Christian Grey
No list of erotic characters would be complete without the protagonist of 2011 smash hit novel Fifty Shades of Grey, by E. L. James. Its problematic hero, Christian Grey, has proved hugely popular with readers around the globe thanks to his glamorous seduction of shy college student Anastasia Steele. Grey is rich, powerful and older, and is responsible for Steele’s sexual awakening in introducing her to the world of BDSM, sometimes in dubious fashion.
9. Brandon Sullivan
Not to be confused with the 2006 film of the same name, the 2011 Shame features sex addict Brandon Sullivan and his escapades in New York city. Sullivan is an erotic anti hero with an unhappy twist, but the film certainly doesn’t disappoint in terms of erotica — Sullivan is, unsurprisingly, involved in various explicit sexual activities throughout the movie.
8. Mrs. Robinson
The archetypal figure of light erotica is the eponymous Mrs. Robinson of the 1967 film The Graduate. She makes the cut for erotica heroine due to her seduction of the hapless recent college graduate Benjamin Braddock, symbolizing both his sexual awakening and his move into adulthood.
Although not a typical erotic heroine in terms of the amount of sex shown onscreen or described, she is nonetheless a seductively sexual older woman who is a cornerstone of erotic characters, and her behaviour leaves us in no doubt how she performs behind closed doors.
7. Leila and David
The 2005 film Lie With Me shows not one but two erotic heroes/heroines, dysfunctional couple Leila and David. Each one has their own sexual problems; Leila’s being that she cannot commit and has an incessant string of male partners, David’s that he has an unstable family life and is possessive, demanding commitment.
Their sex life is just as aggressive and passionate as you might imagine, and the two are on a fairly even keel as the erotic figure of the film.
6. Paul Martel
More a film of disillusionment and unhappiness than erotica, 2002ès Unfaithful still wins points for its highly charged atmosphere throughout, and the extremes to which each character prove they will go. Paul Martel is the handsome stranger to the once again figure of bored wife, Connie, who has been married for eleven years.
The portrayal of their taboo affair is sexy and sensual, an example of which is the infamous bathroom sex scene between Connie and Paul.
5. Anaïs Nin
While author Anaïs Nin is perhaps best-known for her collection of erotic short stories Delta of Venus, she is an erotic heroine in and of herself. Hailed by many critics as one of the pioneers of erotica by a female author, she was unsurprisingly a sexually voracious woman, as is showcased in her published journals. These give an intimate insight into her life, including work, relationships and, of course, sex.
The journals are contentious in that they discuss what Nin claims was an incestuous relationship with her father, but this hasn’t stopped her from being seen by most as the ultimate female writer when it comes to erotica.
O, the titular character of the 1950s novel Story of O, is undoubtedly an erotic heroine. Written as an homage to the shy, bookish author’s secret lover, Story of O sees the mysterious femme fatale O go through a series of sexual exploits involving bondage and, unsettlingly, demonic desire.
The French novel was long presumed to have been written by a man, as it was published under a pseudonym, but it was in fact the work of one Dominique Aury that brought erotic heroine O into the public’s consciousness.
3. Henry Miller
Another author to use his own sexual exploits as material for an erotic novel is Henry Miller. His book Tropic of Cancer is a frank and detailed account of Miller’s attempt to discover himself as a writer over the course of a year, mainly based in Paris.
While the sexual elements of the text do focus on women he had relationships with, it also vividly recounts voracious and plentiful experiences with sex workers and “faceless” women.
The human depiction of the titular character of erotic text Venus in Furs is one of the most famous erotic heroines. The text has proven so popular that it has been made into plays and films, and presents one of the quintessential female dominatrix depictions in literature.
Wanda is a physical manifestation of the fantasy of Venus, who sexually manipulates, controls and tortures the protagonist Severin.
1. Catherine Tramell
The classic 1992 film Basic Instinct shows one of the most famous erotic heroines of all time, Catherine Tramell. A true femme fatale, under suspicion for murder, Tramell embodies the sensual and sexual predatory female. She’s self-made, wealthy, powerful and manipulative, making her the classic figure of the erotic heroine.