The best books on the history of sex to understand where we are now

Who am I?

Like most people, I find the history of sex and everything associated with it fascinating! It’s often been difficult to document and interpret the complexities about heterosexuality, gender identity, and same-sex desire as well as women’s reproductive health which is intimately (although not exclusively of course) linked to sex. We are in a golden age of fantastic work on so many aspects of the history of sex. Apart from the intrinsic interest of these books, I think they provide such an important context for our very lively and often very intense contemporary legal, political, and cultural debates over sex in all its forms.

I wrote...

Sex in an Old Regime City: Young Workers and Intimacy in France, 1660-1789

By Julie Hardwick,

Book cover of Sex in an Old Regime City: Young Workers and Intimacy in France, 1660-1789

What is my book about?

Our ideas about the long histories of young couples' relationships and women's efforts to manage their reproductive health are often premised on the notion of a powerful sexual double standard. Yet in seventeenth and eighteenth-century France, young workers had the freedom to experiment with intimacy as part of courtships, they routinely had sex before marriage, and their communities were quick to support young women whose beaus refused to marry them when they became pregnant. Young couples were sometimes not ready to get married when they became pregnant. They tried a wide variety of ways to interrupt reproduction, or in our terms to get an abortion, or to move the baby off the scene after its birth.

The voices, pleasures, perils, and reproductive challenges of young couples are vividly captured. Local courts, Catholic clergy, and neighbors, kin, and co-workers all pragmatically supported young couples in these relationship and reproductive struggles.

The books I picked & why

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The Shape of Sex: Nonbinary Gender from Genesis to the Renaissance

By Leah Devun,

Book cover of The Shape of Sex: Nonbinary Gender from Genesis to the Renaissance

Why this book?

We might think that ideas about nonbinary gender identifications are a recent phenomenon, but Lead Devun does an amazing job of exploring the deep history of this kind of sexuality between the fifth and fifteenth centuries in Europe. Just as our society now finds embracing non-binary gender identification challenging at times, Devun shows how attitudes towards and practices of nonbinary sexuality changed dramatically over the course of the medieval millennium.

Abortion in Early Modern Italy

By John Christopoulos,

Book cover of Abortion in Early Modern Italy

Why this book?

Who would have thought Catholic Italy in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries would have tolerated widespread abortion? John Christopoulos brilliantly shows that, despite the moral proscription and legal prohibition of abortion from church and state leadership, women across the social spectrum from elites to peasants practiced abortion with the tacit or explicit support of key people in their communities. Compelling mini-narratives about individual women’s abortion stories are interwoven with an expert analysis of the legal, religious, and scientific knowledge and attitudes.

True Sex: The Lives of Trans Men at the Turn of the Twentieth Century

By Emily Skidmore,

Book cover of True Sex: The Lives of Trans Men at the Turn of the Twentieth Century

Why this book?

True Sex is one of the most timely history books I have ever read. Driving across rural America today, I wonder about the lives of trans men (and women) that Emily Skidmore so brilliantly recovered. In her emphasis on how unexceptional they were, she provides such a vital context for understanding the emerging visibility and claims of trans men and women today.

Welcome to Fairyland: Queer Miami Before 1940

By Julio Capó,

Book cover of Welcome to Fairyland: Queer Miami Before 1940

Why this book?

Move over New York and Providence, Julio Capó illuminates in this dazzling book about queer life in Miami before World War II how an important early twentieth-century gay community emerged at the intersection of tourism, migration, and trade around the Caribbean. He not only provides a fascinating account of gay Miami but uses that community to tell a wider story about the history of the region.

Her Neighbor's Wife: A History of Lesbian Desire Within Marriage

By Lauren Jae Gutterman,

Book cover of Her Neighbor's Wife: A History of Lesbian Desire Within Marriage

Why this book?

In contrast to stereotypes about lesbians that framed them as bra-burning, men-hating, hairy-legged feminists, Lauren Gutterman evocatively shows how the emergence of post-World War II lesbian desire took place at the center of American life, in the suburbs, often in marriages to men and heterosexual families with children. Married women rejected divorce or labelling themselves as lesbians even while they had affairs with their female neighbors. Her Neighbor’s Wife offers an extraordinary new interpretation of how post-World War II American marriages could accommodate women’s relationships with other women.

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