Love and sex may come naturally to us, but our attitudes towards them have been shaped by centuries of erotic cultural outpouring. The result, argues Boyd Tonkin, is a curious ambivalence

I'm standing half-crushed against a wall in a Mayfair old-school gentleman's club on a chill November night. Florid-faced men in spiny-looking jackets block each door and staircase. A few moonlighting juniors from publishing firms sashay around the joint in fishnets and basques: a spume of burlesque on the sea of tweed. A couple of them (this is before the public smoking ban) even hand round chunky boxes of fat Havanas. As far as decadence goes, this crowd could probably air before the watershed.

So, why have I come to the Bad Sex in Literature party: that uniquely English shindig at which the braying tendency in bookish London gathers to poke fun at authors who have disgraced themselves by getting all slippery and viscous in their prose when they should have slammed the bedroom door like decent chaps? In keeping with the minor public-school ambience, the winners – ie, the losers – have to take their ragging like proper gents and make a jolly speech. Bad sports will get booed.

I have come because I want to have the chance to attend the mirror-image of this party. I need to explain that someone should set up a rival competition that would aim to celebrate the most sensual and shame-free erotic writing of the year, without this giggly fug of embarrassment. We should restore a millennia-long tradition to its rightful place in the sunshine rather than the shadows of critical debate.

Then, out of the throng, emerges a writer I know: not only an author with a nimbly paradoxical grasp of our tangled inner lives, but an eminent psychoanalyst as well. He will understand. Why not cheer the ancient verbal arts of desire, I suggest, rather than sneer at those brave spirits who know that when characters shed their clothes, discretion and evasion is sometimes not enough? In print, as in life, Good Sex should surely vanquish Bad Sex. "Ah," he answers with a gnomic smile. "But it would be exactly the same."

At this point, Woody Allen fans may remember the joke about the prison psychiatrist in Take the Money and Run. "Do you think sex is dirty?" this shrink asks the original version of Woody's hapless nebbish. "I said, 'It is if you're doing it right.'" In Western culture, at least, we cannot disinvent St Paul, St Augustine and the long accretion of guilt, shame and secrecy that has overlain the description of desire with a patina of panic. "Alas, alas, that ever love was sin," laments Chaucer's Wife of Bath, who had trotted around the block a bit in her late-14th-century day. But sin, beyond and even within the marriage bed, it became in the Christian West. And sin became fun: both in reality and in the ever-growing sphere of creative imagination.

Not that sex in the Classical world ever offered a trouble-free utopia on the couch or in the baths. Naked (in every sense) power took the place of religious prohibition. Adult male citizens could possess women, slaves and boys at will. The women whose acrobatic couplings adorn the walls of brothels in Pompeii were seldom free to walk out of their jobs. All the same, sexual depiction in itself – via words or images – carried no particular transgressive charge.

Beyond Europe – in Indian temple sculpture or Japanese "floating world" art, to take two much-admired traditions – that state endured more or less into modern times. In his book Japan Through the Looking Glass, anthropologist Alan Macfarlane reports that the Japanese view of Western attitudes to sex and its description still finds them "deeply hypocritical, guilt-ridden, lascivious and puzzlingly mystical". Wow: that sounds like a hot night in to me.

To Western minds and imaginations, the attempt to usher erotic art into a sunlit and hygienic playground cuts against a 2,000-year-long grain. Like it or not, Good Sex carries Bad Sex on its back around these parts. In one of Harry Enfield's comedy shows, a suburban English couple meet a pair of "liberated" Swedes on holiday. The guilt-free Scandinavians bang on drearily and healthily about group sex, wife-swapping, bondage and so forth before finally taking their leave. The Brits sigh with relief: "They were so boring!"

Alas, Enfield's inhibited tea-sippers have most of European culture on their side. As WB Yeats wrote in one of his wild old bard's "Crazy Jane" poems, "Fair and foul are near of kin/And fair needs foul". More specifically, as Crazy Jane tells the Bishop, "Love has pitched his mansion in/The place of excrement/For nothing can be sole or whole/That has not been rent." Note the back-to-front sequence here, which the William Blake who wrote Songs of Innocence and Experience would have approved. Sexually, and spiritually, integration follows breakage, damage and rupture rather than preceding it.

In art and literature, the West's dualistic efforts to divorce "nice" from "nasty" sex, or romance from lust, always collapse in the face of this deep-seated kinship of desire and transgression. The French scholar-writer Georges Bataille spent much of a creative lifetime showing that the sacred and its abiding terrors haunt sexual lives, words and pictures in the modern West, however secular we claim or yearn to be. He also put his talent where his theory was, with such widely influential fictions of dark desire as Story of the Eye and The Blue of Noon. Are they art or porn? Scrub out that line. Absurd rhetorical knots will form whenever some well-meaning sexual progressive struggles to distinguish "erotica" (good) from "pornography" bad.

"Pornography" as a concept has some value as a category in the history of publishing and bookselling (and its audio-visual offshoots). As a business, it displays a remarkable continuity in its practices over the 500 years from the early days of Renaissance printing, when underground bestsellers such as Aretino's Positions (exactly what you think, with illustrations by Giulio Romano) enraged and thrilled Popes and princes, to the age of the computer download. Evidently, "pornography" also retains plenty of repressive muscle as a factor in the courtroom records of law-suits against erotic books and images. As a curse-word, it helps to make a prosecution's case or else permits a defence brief to polish up a client's work by contrast. As a pejorative label for any kind of sexual writing that the critic happens to dislike, it feels worse than useless.

In particular, the idea that degrees of explicitness in sexual depiction correspond to genuine canons of taste and morality is absurd. Some of the most tender, loving and joyful of all erotic art is the most graphic, from the Japanese shunga masters to the glorious clandestine poetry of Paul Verlaine in his late volume Women/Men. At the other extreme, every day we endure dozens of mainstream advertising images that brutally reduce women – and sometimes men – to hunks of meat with a price-tag attached and yet never betray a centimetre of forbidden flesh or the whisper of an unrespectable urge. There is some merit to the old libertarian argument that the silences and euphemisms of an old-style Mills & Boon romance are more likely to deprave than a dozen volumes of de Sade. (In fairness to Mills & Boon, the imprint has sensibly and shrewdly adapted to slightly franker times.)

In any case, readers and viewers as much as writers and artists determine the import of erotic stories and scenes. Pace Dooley Wilson, a kiss – and whatever follows – is never just a kiss. In The Sadeian Woman, the great feminist novelist and critic Angela Carter turned the monotonous old Marquis on his head (in a way that might have shocked even him) to make him an unwitting pioneer of sexual emancipation. In sex, as in law, context as much as content fixes the meaning of an act or an account.

Yet even at its most rapturous and least sadistic (or Sade-ian), the West's erotic imagination gorges on forbidden fruit. In Britain, all discussion of erotic literature over the past half-century has hinged on the trial of Penguin Books in 1960. The jury in this test-case, sought by both the publisher and Crown in order to clarify the law, cleared Penguin of obscenity in issuing an unexpurgated paperback edition of Lady Chatterley's Lover. Famously, defence witness after defence witness, from Richard Hoggart to EM Forster, took the stand to champion the air-clearing therapeutic effects of DH Lawrence's cross-class trysts of chatelaine with gamekeeper. At the time, and later, a few mischief-makers pointed out that the frantic final episode in the novel's array of woodland encounters involves a veiled description of heterosexual anal intercourse – a practice whose emotional force-field for Lawrence clearly depends wholly on the presence of a taboo.

"She would have thought a woman would have died of shame," thinks Lawrence's Connie. "Instead of which, the shame died." Except that it didn't – for, if it had, so would his novel's rhapsodic and taboo-trouncing bliss. No pain, no gain, as Lawrence never quite wrote. In the West's garden of earthly delights, the forbidden fruit may migrate from tree to tree as times and customs change. But the thrill of prohibition still supplies the juice.

So, I suspect, does the spectre of the sacred. This autumn, the hugely popular neo-Gothic novelist Anne Rice will publish a memoir she calls her "spiritual confession": Called Out Of Darkness. To the consternation of her Vampire Chronicles fans, Rice has in recent years returned to the Catholicism of her New Orleans youth, and written a series of utterly orthodox novels about Christ's life.

Her autobiography will no doubt recount how she lost her faith, and recovered it again. I do hope that it also explores the 1980s period when, under two separate pseudonyms, Rice published some of the most accomplished erotic novels in postwar US literature. Exit to Eden and Belinda by "Anne Rampling" have contemporary settings: the latter, set in California and centred on an illegal (in that state) affair between a 44-year-old artist and a 16-year-old girl, consciously invades Lolita territory to make it her own. As "AN Roquelaure", meanwhile, she fused the Sado-Gothic chains-in-the-chateau style of The Story of O by Anne Declos (who wrote as "Pauline Réage") with the fairy-tale glamour of Perrault. This flamboyantly ingenious trilogy sends Sleeping Beauty on the sort of adventures that would have shaken Walt Disney to the depths of his wholesome soul.

And there's the rub. Rice's rebellious princess, straddles the divide between damsel and drab to unite Good Sex erotic heroine and Bad Sex filthy slut. However perverse, it's still a fairy-tale, and so empowered to cross borders and switch identities in ways that real life may thwart. But then most erotic stories, even the roughly realistic, have fairy-tale genes somewhere in their ancestry. And fairy-tales show us how to embrace monsters and gods alike.

Did Rice catch a glimpse of the divine in her imaginary dungeons? If so, she would not have been the first or last artist to recapture the spirit through the flesh. For as long as that split persists in the West, we will continue to cheer (or jeer) at bad sex even as we dream of a better sort – and to create and consume art that fixes this ambivalence. Heirs of a divided culture, we will – however guiltily – enjoy the kind of stories that both regret and perpetuate this schism.

"Love's mysteries in souls do grow," as the rakish lad-about-town John Donne wrote in The Ecstasy, and before the devout Rev Dr Donne became Dean of St Paul's, "But yet the body is his book." Happy reading.