The best books on sex, love, and gender

Why am I passionate about this?

I am a professor in philosophy, political science, and gender and women’s studies at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (USA), where I live with my wife. I have a PhD in philosophy from the University of Toronto (Canada), an MA in philosophy from the University of Tromsø (Norway), a MSc in Industrial Relations and Personnel Management from the London School of Economics and Political Science (UK), and a BA(Hons) in Business Management from the University of Newcastle Upon Tyne (UK). One of the most important lessons from my first two degrees was that I love theory (about theories) and, so, those two degrees enabled me to find my way to philosophy, which I have been in love with since. 


I wrote...

Sex, Love, and Gender: A Kantian Theory

By Helga Varden,

Book cover of Sex, Love, and Gender: A Kantian Theory

What is my book about?

Sex, Love, and Gender explores how Kant’s claims about sex, love, and gender draw upon his views of human nature, aesthetics, and freedom before presenting a reconsidered, Kantian account that overcomes the problems with Kant’s own account.

The first part lays out the Kant-based moral, psychological, and ethical theory of sexuality, while the second part treats core legal and political aspects of sexuality. In providing a comprehensive theory of sexuality that engages with Kant’s many relevant philosophical tools to provide a critique of emotionally healthy and morally responsible sexual being, Sex, Love, and Gender speaks to such issues as abortion, the evil of sexual violence, sexual identities and sexual orientations, selling and buying sexual services and images, and the legal institution of marriage.

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The books I picked & why

Book cover of The Second Sex

Helga Varden Why did I love this book?

I fell in love with The Second Sex almost 30 years ago after an inspiring philosophy teacher introduced me to it. I learn something every time I read it, and of all the books I have students read, it is the one that most thank me for assigning.

It revolutionized philosophy by presenting a deeply compelling feminist theory that engaged with many questions in the philosophy of sex and love. It also helped me tremendously as I was finding my own way as a member of the LGBTQIA+ community. And though I now believe that The Second Sex is limited in some ways—it cannot, for instance, capture what it means to be trans or gay or even straight—it remains insightful and full of philosophical puzzles that I want to solve in my own work.

By Simone de Beauvoir, Constance Borde (translator), Sheila Malovany-Chevallier (translator)

Why should I read it?

3 authors picked The Second Sex as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

The essential masterwork that has provoked and inspired generations of men and women. “From Eve’s apple to Virginia Woolf’s room of her own, Beauvoir’s treatise remains an essential rallying point, urging self-sufficiency and offering the fruit of knowledge.” —Vogue

This unabridged edition reinstates significant portions of the original French text that were cut in the first English translation. Vital and groundbreaking, Beauvoir’s pioneering and impressive text remains as pertinent today as when it was first published, and will continue to provoke and inspire generations of men and women to come.


Book cover of Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity

Helga Varden Why did I love this book?

In her groundbreaking Gender Trouble, Judith Butler develops the idea that we today call gender fluidity. Butler knows queer life intimately, and Gender Trouble speaks to much of the difficulty queer people, myself included, face in the world. It is thus not only brilliant but also generous and caring.

Butler set the stage for a philosophical problem I address in my book, namely that her type of position cannot fully explain (philosophically) why some people identify as gay, straight, lesbian, or bisexual – just as they cannot explain why it’s existentially important for some trans people to transition.

By Judith Butler,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Gender Trouble as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.


Book cover of Kant: The Metaphysics of Morals

Helga Varden Why did I love this book?

The “Doctrine of Right” in The Metaphysics of Morals, Kant’s main philosophical writing on legal and political philosophy, offers a spectacular ideal theory of freedom. Despite serious heterosexism and sexism, it offers a systematic, ideal theory of freedom that I love working on to address its shortcomings to make it a stronger and better theory.

For example, I bring his theory into conversation with Simone de Beauvoir, Judith Butler, Hannah Arendt, and Anna J. Cooper to develop it in the ways that Kant encourages us to do, to arrive at a more complete theory of human freedom that is suitable for actual societies with their complex and complicated histories (non-ideal theory). Sex, Love, and Gender is my first book-length attempt to do this.

By Immanuel Kant, Mary Gregor (translator), Lara Denis (editor)

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Kant as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

The Metaphysics of Morals is Kant's final major work in moral philosophy. In it, he presents the basic concepts and principles of right and virtue and the system of duties of human beings as such. The work comprises two parts: the Doctrine of Right concerns outer freedom and the rights of human beings against one another; the Doctrine of Virtue concerns inner freedom and the ethical duties of human beings to themselves and others. Mary Gregor's translation, lightly revised for this edition, is the only complete translation of the entire text, and includes extensive annotation on Kant's difficult and sometimes…


Book cover of The Human Condition

Helga Varden Why did I love this book?

I am very much in (philosophical) love with Hannah Arendt, in whose texts I find a safe home to think about the modern world, alienation, breaking boundaries, and owning what you are all about.

One of my favorite Arendt books is The Human Condition. Like all her works, it is a tremendous theoretical resource for thinking about how to write about difficult topics and how to engage with the work of others generously, even if also (sometimes) critically. Her writing radiates a love for humanity despite the fact that, in so many regards, we are not a very likable species. Arendt is a fantastic role model with regard to tackling issues we care about head on but with humility so that you do your very best with them. I am grateful that she walked the planet before me.

By Hannah Arendt,

Why should I read it?

4 authors picked The Human Condition as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

The past year has seen a resurgence of interest in the political thinker Hannah Arendt, "the theorist of beginnings," whose work probes the logics underlying unexpected transformations-from totalitarianism to revolution.

A work of striking originality, The Human Condition is in many respects more relevant now than when it first appeared in 1958. In her study of the state of modern humanity, Hannah Arendt considers humankind from the perspective of the actions of which it is capable. The problems Arendt identified then-diminishing human agency and political freedom, the paradox that as human powers increase through technological and humanistic inquiry, we are…


Book cover of A Voice From the South

Helga Varden Why did I love this book?

I only recently discovered the work of Anna J. Cooper, but I find myself reading and thinking about and with her a lot. She’s not an obvious philosophical love for me in that she never writes about LGBTQIA life and does write about men and women from a relatively conservative, Christian, cis, and straight point of view. However, Cooper gives voice to and insight into the struggles of Black women, and her work helps me, as someone who is both racialized as white and an immigrant to the US, perceive and feel important dimensions of the reality in which I now live.

Thus, in her writings about the things she knows about, I find a friend and a colleague as I’m trying to think about intersectional issues that go beyond the life I know first-personally.

By Anna J. Cooper,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked A Voice From the South as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

The first book by Anna J. Cooper, A Voice From the South, presents strong ideals supporting racial and gender equality as well as economic progress. It's a forward-thinking narrative that highlights many disparities hindering the African American community.

Anna J. Cooper was an accomplished educator who used her influence to encourage and elevate African Americans. With A Voice From the South, she delivers a poignant analysis of the country's affairs as they relate to Black people, specifically Black women. She stresses the importance of education, which she sees as a great equalizer. Cooper considers it a necessary investment in not…


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Joylynn M Ross

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