Oh yes! The best books about sex
I’m a sex historian. Here are my recommendations on the beauty, ugliness and joy of sexuality
Wetlands: Carla Juri as Helen Memel and Marlen Kruse as Corinna in the film adaption of Charlotte Roche’s novel. Photograph courtesy of Sundance Institute
From sex history and modern erotica to self-help books and the art of penis origami, sex is a topic that spans every generation and culture in the world, so any “best” list can only offer the books that have meant the most to me, personally and professionally, as a historian of sex.
Vénus Noire: Black Women and Colonial Fantasies in Nineteenth-Century France by Robin Mitchell is an impeccably researched history of how ideas of blackness and black women were appropriated by 19th-century white French culture as hypersexual, predatory and “exotic”. It opens with the story of Sarah Baartman, the so-called Hottentot Venus, who was paraded on tour before white paying tourists, and Mitchell’s passionate rejection of the idea that historians should be objective and unemotional about their subject. The book is a triumph not only because it shows how narratives around black women’s bodies have evolved but also because Mitchell unashamedly makes the personal political.
We might think of ourselves as a sexually progressive bunch, but our idea of sex, and who should be having it, is actually quite limited. Although our society is saturated with sexualised images, they tend to be of young, able-bodied, typically beautiful people. This is where the senior-sex coach and activist Joan Price comes in. Her trailblazing Naked at Our Age: Talking Out Loud About Senior Sex grabs stigma and stereotypes by the scruff of the neck and gives them the dressing-down they deserve. Drawing on the voices of health professionals and sex therapists, the book not only confronts prejudice but also offers sound practical advice. Good sex needn’t stop when you retire; in fact, as Price shows, the best is yet to come.
One of the most important books about sex work has to be Revolting Prostitutes: The Fight for Sex Workers’ Rights by Juno Mac and Molly Smith. Challenging the polarising view of sex workers as either “happy hookers” or tragic victims, Mac and Smith compel the reader to see how the fight for sex-worker rights is a fight for human rights. Beautifully written and meticulously researched, this book will change what you think you know about sex work.
The Ethical Slut is a guide for readers who wish to explore multiple relationships. It was dismantling ‘slut shaming’ before the term even entered our vocabulary
The Ethical Slut: A Guide to Infinite Sexual Possibilities by Dossie Easton and Janet Hardy is a classic that helped launch the modern nonmonogamy movement. Easton and Hardy define a “slut” as “a person of any gender who has the courage to lead life according to the radical proposition that sex is nice, and pleasure is good for you”. The book directly challenges ideas about monogamy and sexual shame and offers an ethical guide to readers who wish to explore multiple relationships. It was dismantling “slut shaming” before the term even entered our vocabulary.
In fiction, Wetlands by Charlotte Roche is disturbing but incredible. We have such a sanitised view of sex. Bodies are scrubbed, plucked and perfumed. Little wonder, then, that Roche’s story about 18-year-old Helen Memel, who delights in the sexual putrescence of her own body, has so shocked readers and critics around the world. The novel is vividly and deliberately grotesque and will powerfully challenge how you view the body. Just make sure you have a strong stomach.
Fanny and Stella: The Young Men Who Shocked Victorian England by Neil McKenna tells the true story of the cross-dressing sex workers Ernest Boulton and Frederick Park, who were arrested and charged with conspiring to commit sodomy, outraging public decency and corrupting public morals. This book is an evocative and masterfully crafted picture of the gay subculture of Victorian London with an unforgettable and inspiring story. – Guardian
A Curious History of Sex by Kate Lister is published by Unbound