The best books on the history of sexuality in modernity

Why am I passionate about this?

I have long been drawn to how people of the past think about their sexual identities, attractions, and behaviors. I conducted my PhD research at the Kinsey Institute at Indiana University, where I spent many happy hours reading letters and books voicing people’s unfiltered desires for sexual arousal, connection, and expression. I found the punched-card machines that Alfred Kinsey used to organize data from his personal interviews oddly compelling, and that interest developed into a long-term engagement with the intersection of gender and sexuality with science and technology. I share my fascination with readers through my books on Kinsey, machines used in sex research, contraception, and fertility technology.


I wrote...

Fertility Technology

By Donna J. Drucker,

Book cover of Fertility Technology

What is my book about?

Fertility Technology offers a look at state-of-the-art fertility technology in various social and political contexts around the world and surveys that history in all its medical, practical, and ethical complexity. It introduces the five principal types of fertility technologies used in human reproduction—artificial insemination; ovulation timing; sperm, egg, and embryo freezing; in vitro fertilization; and IVF in uterine transplants—discussing the development, manufacture, dispersion, and use of each. Geographically, it focuses on countries where innovations have emerged and countries where these technologies most profoundly affect individuals and population policies.

These technologies, often used for birth control as well as conception, have been critical in shaping the moral, practical, and political meaning of human life, kinship, and family in different nations and cultures since the mid-nineteenth century.

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The books I picked & why

Book cover of Indian Sex Life: Sexuality and the Colonial Origins of Modern Social Thought

Donna J. Drucker Why did I love this book?

Mitra’s book centers on the colonial period in India, when European scholars, British officials, and Indian intellectuals, focused on sexuality, specifically the figure of the prostitute, in order to study and to understand the place of women in modern Indian society.

The specter of deviant female sexuality structured fiction and intellectual thought on topics ranging from caste domination to trafficking, to widowhood and inheritance, to abortion and infanticide.

Indian Sex Life compellingly illustrates the importance of female deviance in the imagination of scholars and writers, and how they used their ideas about women’s sexuality to solidify rigid gender ideals—and to blame women for the failures of modern society. Mitra’s accounting of this history is richly drawn and hard to put down.

By Durba Mitra,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

How British authorities and Indian intellectuals developed ideas about deviant female sexuality to control and organize modern society in India

During the colonial period in India, European scholars, British officials, and elite Indian intellectuals-philologists, administrators, doctors, ethnologists, sociologists, and social critics-deployed ideas about sexuality to understand modern Indian society. In Indian Sex Life, Durba Mitra shows how deviant female sexuality, particularly the concept of the prostitute, became foundational to this knowledge project and became the primary way to think and write about Indian society.

Bringing together vast archival materials from diverse disciplines, Mitra reveals that deviant female sexuality was critical…


Book cover of A Marsh Island

Donna J. Drucker Why did I love this book?

A Marsh Island was nineteenth-century New England writer Sarah Orne Jewett’s favorite novel among her many books, but it has had less acclaim than The Country of Pointed Firs.

A Marsh Island is the story of Dick Dale, who is on vacation from New York City in the Sussex, Massachusetts area (in real life, Essex County). When Dale stays with the rural Owen family following an injury, he develops an interest in the family’s daughter Doris and feels a kinship to her brother Israel Jr., who died in the Civil War.

Don James McLaughlin introduces Jewett as one half of the best-known “Boston marriage” with Annie Adams Fields and reflects on this novel’s themes of queer hiddenness and visibility in post–Civil War New England.

By Sarah Orne Jewett, Don James McLaughlin (editor),

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

A Marsh Island has not fared well among Jewett's works. Critics have given it almost no attention at all. Except for Margaret Roman in Sarah Orne Jewett: Reconstructing Gender, most of the few people who have reported reading it have seen it as one of Jewett's lesser works. Below are two typical evaluations of the novel. As I have prepared this work for the Sarah Orne Jewett Text Project, I have found much to like about it. I have wondered whether previous readers have made too much of the love story and too little of the story of the artist…


Book cover of Sexual Progressives: Reimagining Intimacy in Scotland, 1880-1914

Donna J. Drucker Why did I love this book?

A small number of Scots at the end of the Victorian era and throughout the Edwardian era were eager to live in a world ungoverned by Protestant Christianity and unrestricted by its strict sexual morality.

Cheadle introduces readers to socialists, freethinkers, and writers in Glasgow and Edinburgh who advocated for sexual freedoms grounded in new forms of political, religious, and cultural thought. One example is Jane Hume Clapperton, who was deeply involved in the suffrage movement, described birth control methods in her 1888 novel Margaret Dunmore, and demanded full sexual freedom for women. 

Sexual Progressives brings them to life, showing how they questioned dominant morality and envisioned a way of life in which people could prioritize sexual freedom and pleasure. You won’t forget them.

By Tanya Cheadle,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

Sexual Progressives is a major new study of the feminists and socialists who campaigned against the moral conservatism of the Victorian period. Drawing on a range of sources, from letters and diaries to radical newspapers and utopian novels, it provides the first group portrait of Scotland's hitherto neglected sexual rebels. They include Bella and Charles Pearce, prominent Glasgow socialists and disciples of an American-based mystic who taught that religion needed 're-sexed'; Jane Hume Clapperton, a feminist freethinker with advanced views on birth-control and women's right to sexual pleasure; and Patrick Geddes, founder of an avant-garde Edinburgh subculture and co-author of…


Book cover of Racism and the Making of Gay Rights: A Sexologist, His Student, and the Empire of Queer Love

Donna J. Drucker Why did I love this book?

Interest in the German sexologist Magnus Hirschfeld and his Institute for Sexual Science (active 1919–1933 in Berlin) has grown since the television program Transparent included him in its second season in 2015.

Laurie Marhoefer’s new book challenges his status as a queer history hero, highlighting how his views on sexual emancipation, cross-dressing (as drag was then known), and transgenderism were embedded in racism and colonialism. Marhoefer also tells the lesser-known history of Hirschfeld’s companion in later life, Li Shiu Tong, who after Hirschfeld’s death in May 1935 continued his own research on human sexuality. 

Li’s previously unknown manuscript and notes—rescued serendipitously from a waste bin soon after his death in Vancouver in 1993—is a stark reminder of how many histories of sexuality are at risk of being (almost) similarly lost.

By Laurie Marhoefer,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Racism and the Making of Gay Rights as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

In 1931, a sexologist arrived in colonial Shanghai to give a public lecture about homosexuality. In the audience was a medical student. The sexologist, Magnus Hirschfeld, fell in love with the medical student, Li Shiu Tong. Li became Hirschfeld's assistant on a lecture tour around the world.

Racism and the Making of Gay Rights shows how Hirschfeld laid the groundwork for modern gay rights, and how he did so by borrowing from a disturbing set of racist, imperial, and eugenic ideas.

Following Hirschfeld and Li in their travels through the American, Dutch, and British empires, from Manila to Tel Aviv…


Book cover of The Queerness of Home: Gender, Sexuality, and the Politics of Domesticity after World War II

Donna J. Drucker Why did I love this book?

While many books on LGBTQ+ history focus on public activism, Vider turns attention to how queer people in the post-World War II era formed homes, partnerships, and community.

For example, groups like the AIDS Action Committee in Boston in the 1980s formed buddy programs for people living with AIDS and volunteer caregivers. Caregivers could live with their buddies or visit them, providing practical assistance as well as companionship, connectedness, and a sense of belonging. 

The Queerness of Home looks at the quieter but no less political and impactful side of queer life from the late 1940s through the 1980s, showing how a sense of place and connection helped queer people feel grounded and safe in a culture in which it was not always possible to live their full truth in public.

By Stephen Vider,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

Vider uncovers how LGBTQ people reshaped domestic life in the postwar United States.

From the Stonewall riots to the protests of ACT UP, histories of queer and trans politics have almost exclusively centered on public activism. In The Queerness of Home, Stephen Vider turns the focus inward, showing that the intimacy of domestic space has been equally crucial to the history of postwar LGBTQ life.

Beginning in the 1940s, LGBTQ activists looked increasingly to the home as a site of connection, care, and cultural inclusion. They struggled against the conventions of marriage, challenged the gendered codes of everyday labor, reimagined…


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Kanazawa

By David Joiner,

Book cover of Kanazawa

David Joiner Author Of Kanazawa

New book alert!

Why am I passionate about this?

My book recommendations reflect an abiding passion for Japanese literature, which has unquestionably influenced my own writing. My latest literary interest involves Japanese poetry—I’ve recently started a project that combines haiku and prose narration to describe my experiences as a part-time resident in a 1300-year-old Japanese hot spring town that Bashō helped make famous in The Narrow Road to the Deep North. But as a writer, my main focus remains novels. In late 2023 the second in a planned series of novels set in Ishikawa prefecture will be published. I currently live in Kanazawa, but have also been lucky to call Sapporo, Akita, Tokyo, and Fukui home at different times.

David's book list on Japanese settings not named Tokyo or Kyoto

What is my book about?

Emmitt’s plans collapse when his wife, Mirai, suddenly backs out of purchasing their dream home. Disappointed, he’s surprised to discover her subtle pursuit of a life and career in Tokyo.

In his search for a meaningful life in Japan, and after quitting his job, he finds himself helping his mother-in-law translate Kanazawa’s most famous author, Izumi Kyoka, into English. He becomes drawn into the mysterious death of a friend of Mirai’s parents, leading him and his father-in-law to climb the mountain where the man died. There, he learns the somber truth and discovers what the future holds for him and his wife.

Packed with subtle literary allusion and closely observed nuance, Kanazawa reflects the mood of Japanese fiction in a fresh, modern incarnation.

Kanazawa

By David Joiner,

What is this book about?

In Kanazawa, the first literary novel in English to be set in this storied Japanese city, Emmitt's future plans collapse when his wife, Mirai, suddenly backs out of negotiations to purchase their dream home. Disappointed, he's surprised to discover Mirai's subtle pursuit of a life and career in Tokyo, a city he dislikes.

Harmony is further disrupted when Emmitt's search for a more meaningful life in Japan leads him to quit an unsatisfying job at a local university. In the fallout, he finds himself helping his mother-in-law translate Kanazawa's most famous author, Izumi Kyoka, into English.

While continually resisting Mirai's…


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