40 Books About Sexuality That You Have to Read
Stay up to date with the latest headlines via email.
As the new school year heats up, so does the public debate about sex education. What do we teach teenagers about sex, and what do we leave them to figure out on their own? If we can agree that few teens learn about sexuality in an accurate, age-appropriate, and comprehensive way, then where does that leave adults who came through the same school systems they did? Many of us are still full of questions that we aren’t quite sure how to articulate. Few can claim that they’ve figured sex -- and its social influence -- out.
If you want to graduate to the next level of sexual health, pleasure, and social awareness, now’s your chance. Get yourself schooled with a crash course in sex ed for adults. From orgasms to organs, from contraceptives to court decisions, look to the reading list below for the can’t-miss books and articles about sex.
Take your time, because there will be a test. Probably many tests, actually. And you want to be ready.
- Woman: An Intimate Geography, by Natalie Angier
An exuberant and detailed celebration of the female body, Woman won a Pulitzer Prize and was a National Book Award finalist. It is a vibrant and inclusive study of hormones, chromosomes, muscles, menstruation, hysterectomy, breastfeeding, orgasm, aggression, and Angier’s trademark charm.
- The Male Body: A New Look at Men in Public and in Private, by Susan Bordo
Bordo brings both personal and cultural analysis to the changing expectations put upon the male body. Hollywood, Ken dolls, literature, male beauty standards, Michael Jordon, sexual harassment, and the uneasy cultural obsession with the penis all given attention.
- Whipping Girl: A Transsexual Woman on Sexism and the Scapegoating of Femininity, by Julia Serano
Serano brings her insight as a biologist and transsexual woman to bear in a thoughtful book on gender diversity. Whipping Girl critiques media depictions of trans people, dismantles science’s longtime characterization of transsexuality as pathology, and offers a whip-smart vision of a world that celebrates sexual difference.
- “Menstruation, Work, and Class,” by Emily Martin. Published in The Woman in the Body: A Cultural History of Reproduction.
Martin’s essay traces shaming public conceptions of menstruation, and particularly looks at how non-domestic realms -- like workplaces and schools -- don’t make it easy for women to get through a day of menstruating while feeling they must keep their activities a secret.
- Our Bodies, Ourselves: A New Edition for a New Era
It’s long been the go-to guide for all things practical about living in a female body. More than an inclusive manual for how to respond to the body’s natural processes, OBOS is also a testament to how the body intersects with culture and politics.
- In a Queer Time and Place: Transgender Bodies, Subcultural Lives, by Judith Halberstam.
In this essay collection by the author of Female Masculinity, Halberstam explores the significance of masculinity in all its forms. Particular focus is given to the life and death of Brandon Teena, a transgender man who was the victim of a hate crime, as well as the constructions of trans bodies in cinema, literature, and music.
- Nobody Passes: Rejecting the Rules of Gender and Conformity, by Mattilda, a.k.a Matt Bernstein Sycamore
Sycamore’s collection of essays challenges the rules for “belonging” in a particular gender identity, and articulates how the notion of “passing” as the ultimate goal suffocates sexual diversity.
- The Joy of Sex: The Ultimate Revised Edition, by Alex Comfort AND/OR The Joy of Gay Sex: Fully Revised and Expanded Third Edition, by Charles Silverstein & Felice Picano
Newsflash: People have sex and masturbate because it feels good. It’s a simple idea, but still a controversial one -- which is why taking the time to think more deeply about what does and doesn’t feel good to you isn’t just fun to do; it’s a radical act.
- “Doing It: A New Edition of ‘The Joy of Sex’,” by Ariel Levy. Published in The New Yorker
Levy’s article looks at the evolution of one of the world’s most popular sex books. From the original version’s discomfiting attitudes towards, say, homosexuality, to the new edition’s special consideration for disabled persons, “Doing It” is a fascinating take on how cultural attitudes about sex for pleasure have changed over time.
- Virgin: The Untouched History, by Hanne Blank.
Insight and deep research are the trademarks of Blank’s investigation into the strange history of virginity, from the notion of intact hymens as the ultimate virgin decoder, to the fetishizing of virgins in pornography, to the massive momentum behind today’s abstinence-only policies.
- Woman of Valor: Margaret Sanger and the Birth Control Movement in America, by Ellen Chesler
Chesler’s animated biography reveals how sexual wellness has long been politicized in the U.S. The revised edition boasts a new afterward that relates Sanger’s legacy to recent Supreme Court decisions about the right to privacy.
- “Racism, Birth Control, and Reproductive Rights,” by Angela Y. Davis. Published in Women Race & Class and excerpted in The Reproductive Rights Reader
Davis offers sharp critique of the birth control and abortion rights movements, challenging their pattern of not being attentive to the needs of women of color and working class women.
- And the Band Played On: Politics, People, and the AIDS Epidemic, by Randy Shilts
A classic of investigative reporting and an international bestseller, And the Band Played On exposes the unchecked spread of AIDS in the 1980s and calls out the institutions that ignored it. As we reach a new age of complacency about AIDS, this groundbreaking book still has truth to tell.
- The Girl Who Went Away: Hidden History of Women Who Surrendered Children for Adoption in the Decades Before Roe v. Wade, by Ann Fessler
More than 1.5 million young women were pressured to give up their children for adoption in the years between World War II and the legalization of abortion. Fessler -- herself surrendered for adoption -- speaks with more than 100 people who were pushed into the ‘choice’ and shamed for it afterwards.
- “The Color of Choice: White Supremacy and Reproductive Justice,” by Loretta Ross (PDF). Published in Color of Violence: The INCITE! Anthology.
“Why are some women glorified as mothers while others have their motherhood rights contested?” asks Lorretta Ross. In this essay, she turns back to the history of population control policies as she looks for answers.
- “Feminism, Race, and Adoption Policy,” by Dorothy Roberts (PDF). Published in Color of Violence: The INCITE! Anthology.
Roberts questions why most children in the U.S. foster care system are African-American.
- “Abortion As A Moral Choice,” by Rev. Anne Fowler. Published in RH Reality Check
Fowler is an Episcopalian priest who has both chosen to give birth and chosen an abortion. In this piece she contends that both were morally grounded, spiritually true choices.
- “Why Men Should Be Included In the Abortion Discussion,” by Courtney E. Martin. Published in AlterNet.
Martin writes a persuasive piece on the role of men in abortion, and calls for more attention to their emotions and experience of it.
- “The Lie We Love,” by E.J. Graff. Published in Foreign Policy
In a stunning investigative expose, Graff reveals the abuse of the international adoption market -- including kidnapping and the exploitation of mothers in the developing world -- is used to meet the Western world’s desire to adopt infants.
- “The Cost of Being Born at Home,” by Miriam Pérez. Published in RH Reality Check
Pérez celebrates the increasing awareness of home birth and midwifery options, while challenging the economic barriers that exclude working class women.
- Opting In: Having a Child Without Losing Yourself, by Amy Richards
Richards writes about how women can find the intersection of their mothering and their feminist identities.
- The Daddy Shift: How Stay-at-Home Dads, Breadwinning Moms, and Shared Parenting are Transforming the American Family, by Jeremy Adam Smith
Smith’s book about looks at the new possibilities for fathers in the changing American family.
- Against Our Will: Men, Women, and Rape, by Susan Brownmiller
Brownmiller’s investigative classic takes a long look at a subject that, despite its prevalence, remains secretive and silenced. Against Our Will traces the history of rape in war, colonization, slavery, and as a tool of racist oppression -- as well as in our own present-day neighborhoods.
- Yes Means Yes: Visions of Female Sexual Power And A World Without Rape, edited by Jaclyn Friedman and Jessica Valenti
Bringing together varied voices, this anthology challenges rape culture and sexual shame, while offering a vision of a different world, one of healthy pleasure and of “enthusiastic consent.” Highlights include essays by Kate Harding (“How Do You Fuck a Fat Woman?”) and Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha (“What It Feels Like When It Finally Comes: Surviving Incest In Real Life”).
- “Myths and Facts About Male Victims of Rape,” by Men Against Sexual Violence
In a straightforward manner, Men Against Sexual Violence uses the truth to challenge the most common misconceptions about men who are victims of rape.
- Griswold v. Connecticut (1965).
In this case, the Supreme Court found for the first time that the U.S. Constitution includes the right to privacy in its decision that legalized the sale of contraceptives to married couples.
- Roe v. Wade (1973).
You’ve referred to it repeatedly, but when was the last time you read the Supreme Court case that decided that the right to privacy included the right to an abortion?
- Webster v. Reproductive Health Services (1989).
In this Supreme Court case that created an unsettling precedent, the Court upheld a Missouri law that prohibited the use of public hospitals or facilities for abortions except when necessary to save a woman’s life.
- Planned Parenthood of S.E. Pennsylvania v. Casey (1992).
The Supreme Court found that states could restrict abortion in all trimesters so long as the restrictions don’t impose an “undue burden” on the woman’s health, safety, and right to choose.
- Bowers v. Hardwick (1986).
The Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of laws prohibiting oral and anal sex between consenting adults acting in private.
- Lawrence v. Texas (2003).
In a shocking move, the Supreme Court directly overturned Bowers v. Hardwick (1986), calling it a “wrong” decision.
- Gonzales v. Carhart (2007).
The Supreme Court upheld the Partial-Birth Abortion Ban Act of 2003.
- Killing the Black Body: Race, Reproduction, and the Meaning of Liberty, by Dorothy Roberts
Roberts examines how control of reproduction and control of people of color intersect, both in the past and in the present-day. Her sharp eye looks at slaves who were bred to create more “property” for slave-owners, eugenics, sterilization, and experimental birth control.
- The Red Record, by Ida B. Wells
In her investigation into the root causes of lynching in America, Wells presents evidence for how the language of rape and sexual violence was used as a deceitful precursor to attack black men
- Before Night Falls: A Memoir, by Reinaldo Arenas
This memoir tells the story of Arenas’ imprisonment as a gay man and dissident writer in Castro’s Cuba, and his exile in the United States along with other gay people via the 1980 Mariel boatlift. Arenas, who suffered from AIDS, died in New York City in 1990.
- The War on Choice: The Right Wing Attack on Women’s Rights and How To Fight Back, by Gloria Feldt
Feldt has put together a troubling examination of the right-wing movement to overturn reproductive justice gains of the last half-century. Paying particular attention to how this strategy has shaped the highest levels of federal government, Feldt also offers ideas for how to turn the trajectory.
- Undivided Rights: Women of Color Organizing for Reproductive Justice, by Loretta Ross
Undivided Rights tells the stories of grassroots movements for the right to make decisions about our bodies, while centering the under-heard voices of communities of color and pushing for more expansive definitions of “reproductive justice” and “choice.”
- “Translating ‘Our Bodies, Ourselves,’” by Linda Gordon. Published in The Nation
Bringing the classic Our Bodies, Ourselves to other nations wasn’t just a matter of translating it word for word; it required local communities to adapt the book for their own cultures and own needs. How OBOS is differently conceived in different nations offers fascinating perspective on sexual health around the world.
- “Preventing maternal deaths,” by Swapna Majumdar. Published in The New Nation
Majumdar wonders if litigation is the tool that will provide accountability to the poor health facilities that are killing a frightening percentage of mothers in India.
- The Means of Reproduction: Sex, Power, and the Future of the World, by Michelle Goldberg
Goldberg’s investigation of the meeting of the war on reproductive freedom and the global war of power spans four continents. From the HIV/AIDS epidemic to female circumcision to infant mortality to overpopulation, Goldberg analyzes how the means of reproduction influences the health of whole societies -- and is the key human rights struggle of the new century. And she does it all in a concise, readable, 236 pages.