The best books to blow your mind about sex in the past

Lisa Lindquist Dorr Author Of White Women, Rape, and the Power of Race in Virginia, 1900-1960
By Lisa Lindquist Dorr

Who am I?

Over my twenty years as a historian, the common thread in my work is the gap between how people are supposed to behave and how they actually do behave. From interracial sexual relationships in the segregated South, to rum smuggling from Cuba during Prohibition, to abortion on college campuses before Roe, I'm interested in how people work around rules they don’t like. And rules about sex are some of the most ignored rules of all. Reading about strange beliefs and common desires connect us to our ancestors. Being a professor of history at the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa, Alabama allows me to research bad behavior in the past to my heart’s content.

I wrote...

White Women, Rape, and the Power of Race in Virginia, 1900-1960

By Lisa Lindquist Dorr,

Book cover of White Women, Rape, and the Power of Race in Virginia, 1900-1960

What is my book about?

Many Americans know about America’s history of lynching, in which African Americans were brutally murdered by white mobs and whites who justified lynching often claimed that Black men were lynched for attacking white women. My book looks at what happened when white women accused Black men of sexual assault. The short answer is that most of the accused men were not lynched. They still faced injustice, but in less predictable ways, making white supremacy more flexible and therefore more durable. At the same time, it showed fractures among whites, distrust of white women, and the complicated relationships that could occur across racial lines.

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The books I picked & why

Book cover of Making Sex: Body and Gender from the Greeks to Freud

Why did I love this book?

We assume people have always recognized two sexes, male and female. But did they? In the past, people believed men and women were the same sex; women were just incomplete, unfinished men. Men and women had the same sexual organs, with women’s located internally. Surprisingly, if conditions were right, women could even turn into men. They also thought women needed to achieve orgasm to conceive.  That’s right. For over a thousand years of western history, women’s sexual pleasure was as important as men’s. 

By Thomas Laqueur,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

This is a book about the making and unmaking of sex over the centuries. It tells the astonishing story of sex in the West from the ancients to the moderns in a precise account of developments in reproductive anatomy and physiology. We cannot fail to recognize the players in Thomas Laqueur's story-the human sexual organs and pleasures, food, blood, semen, egg, sperm-but we will be amazed at the plots into which they have been woven by scientists, political activists, literary figures, and theorists of every stripe.

Laqueur begins with the question of why, in the late eighteenth century, woman's orgasm…

Book cover of Devices and Desires: A History of Contraceptives in America

Why did I love this book?

We now take effective birth control for granted. But it used to be illegal, even for married couples. It wasn’t legal for unmarried couples until 1972! But that didn’t stop Americans of every kind from making and using a wide variety of substances and contraptions to try and limit births. From mom-and-pop condom shops to the Pill, this book traces birth control’s transformation from an illicit trade associated with the obscene and pornographic to a legitimate business.

By Andrea Tone,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

From the 1873 Comstock Act to the groundbreaking inventions of today, a history of contraceptives reveals how they evolved from an illicit trade located in secret places and pornography outlets to one of the most legitimate businesses in America.

Book cover of Gay New York: Gender, Urban Culture, and the Making of the Gay Male World, 1890-1940

Why did I love this book?

Americans might think gays appeared with the Stonewall Rebellion. But there was a thriving queer culture in New York City long before. This book describes how a growing urban life created opportunities for same-sex communities to develop. Punk and queer and trade and fairy, all varieties of same sex interaction, illuminate a world hidden in plain sight; where drag balls are the talk of the town. And maybe most surprising, having sex with men did not make one gay; it depended on the role one took during sex.

By George Chauncey,

Why should I read it?

4 authors picked Gay New York as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

The award-winning, field-defining history of gay life in New York City in the early to mid-20th century

Gay New York brilliantly shatters the myth that before the 1960s gay life existed only in the closet, where gay men were isolated, invisible, and self-hating. Drawing on a rich trove of diaries, legal records, and other unpublished documents, George Chauncey constructs a fascinating portrait of a vibrant, cohesive gay world that is not supposed to have existed. Called "monumental" (Washington Post), "unassailable" (Boston Globe), "brilliant" (The Nation), and "a first-rate book of history" (The New York Times), Gay New Yorkforever changed how…

Book cover of The Abortionist: A Woman Against the Law

Why did I love this book?

Most Americans know Roe v. Wade legalized abortion in 1973, but many don’t know how common and tolerated abortion was before it was legal. This is the story of Ruth Barnet in Portland, Oregon who provided safe abortions from the 1910s into the 1960s. And she did so openly, from a doctor’s office in a downtown Portland office building, with the full knowledge of law enforcement. Solinger shows without a doubt that Roe v. Wade did not start women having abortions; it stopped most women from dying from them. And learning about abortion in the past might provide new ways to think about it today.

By Rickie Solinger,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

Prior to Roe v. Wade, hundreds of thousands of illegal abortions occurred in the United States every year. Rickie Solinger uses the story of Ruth Barnett, an abortionist in Portland, Oregon, between 1918 and 1968 to demonstrate that it was the law, not so-called back-alley practitioners, that most endangered women's lives in the years before abortion was legal. Women from all walks of life came to Ruth Barnett to seek abortions. For most of her career she worked in a proper suite of offices, undisturbed by legal authorities. In her years of practice she performed forty thousand abortions and never…

Sex in the Heartland

By Beth Bailey,

Book cover of Sex in the Heartland

Why did I love this book?

It is all very well and good to talk about the sexual revolution in places like New York City or San Francisco. But what did it look like in places like Kansas? This book tells you. It might surprise you that for college students the sexual revolution started with dorm rules in the 1950s. Or that concerns about overpopulation fueled distribution of the Pill. And that women’s liberation was a big deal even in fly-over country. Ultimately, this book makes clear that the changes that we connect with the Sexual Revolution happened in every corner of the United States.

By Beth Bailey,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

This is the story of the sexual revolution in a small university town in the quintessential heartland state of Kansas. Bypassing the oft-told tales of radicals and revolutionaries on either coast, Beth Bailey argues that the revolution was forged in towns and cities alike, as "ordinary" people struggled over the boundaries of public and private sexual behaviour in postwar America. The author challenges contemporary perceptions of the revolution as simply a triumph of free love and gay lib. Rather, she explores the long-term and mainstream changes in American society, beginning in the economic and social dislocations of World War II…

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