The best books that show why sex matters to US history

Who am I?

I never set out to be a historian of sexuality, but the more I read, the more convinced I became of the centrality of sex to politics, culture, religion, and social change. I am fascinated by histories of sexuality in the making and shaping of individual identities and behaviors, and I’m also drawn to histories of other topics—politics, religion, enslavement, leisure—that also teach us something about the history of sex and sexuality. These interests drew me to the podcast Sexing History, where I edit the stories and help produce the episodes. I love to read widely to find histories of sex in unexpected places.


I wrote...

Public Confessions: The Religious Conversions That Changed American Politics

By Rebecca L. Davis,

Book cover of Public Confessions: The Religious Conversions That Changed American Politics

What is my book about?

Personal reinvention is a core part of the human condition. Yet in the mid-twentieth century, certain private religious choices became lightning rods for public outrage and debate. Public Confessions reveals the controversial religious conversions that shaped modern America.

Rebecca L. Davis explains why the new faiths of notable figures including Clare Boothe Luce, Whittaker Chambers, Sammy Davis Jr., Marilyn Monroe, Muhammad Ali, Chuck Colson, and others riveted the American public. Unconventional religious choices charted new ways of declaring an “authentic” identity amid escalating Cold War fears of brainwashing and coercion. Facing pressure to celebrate a specific vision of Americanism, these converts variously attracted and repelled members of the American public. Whether the act of changing religions was viewed as selfish, reckless, or even unpatriotic, it provoked controversies that ultimately transformed American politics.

The books I picked & why

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Polygamy: An Early American History

By Sarah M. S. Pearsall,

Book cover of Polygamy: An Early American History

Why this book?

Pearsall’s book is the sort that leaves a reader entertained, deeply informed, and unable to see the past the same way again. Polygamy, she shows, was at the center of the social and political systems of many Indigenous nations. As European soldiers and settlers attempted to trade with—or dominate—the people of these nations, they provoked violent reprisals. Opposition to monogamy drove Indigenous resistance movements. Europeans increasingly argued that their monogamous practices made them racially and religiously superior to the people they subordinated. The centrality of metaphors about monogamy and polygamy to American revolutionary political ideas is one of the book’s most enlightening—and entertaining—contributions in a book rich with surprises.

Polygamy: An Early American History

By Sarah M. S. Pearsall,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

A groundbreaking examination of polygamy showing that monogamy was not the only form marriage took in early America

"A richly sourced, elegantly written, and strikingly original interdisciplinary study of the diverse practices of polygamy in American from ca.1500 to 1900."-John Witte Jr., Journal of Law and Religion

Today we tend to think of polygamy as an unnatural marital arrangement characteristic of fringe sects or uncivilized peoples. Historian Sarah Pearsall shows us that polygamy's surprising history encompasses numerous colonies, indigenous communities, and segments of the American nation. Polygamy-as well as the fight against it-illuminates many touchstones of American history: the Pueblo…


Finding Charity's Folk: Enslaved and Free Black Women in Maryland

By Jessica Millward,

Book cover of Finding Charity's Folk: Enslaved and Free Black Women in Maryland

Why this book?

What does it mean to be free—and how can you prove that you are? Millward’s utterly engrossing book demonstrates how significant Black women’s reproductive sexuality was to their pursuit of freedom. Following the formal end of US participation in the international slave trade in 1808, white enslavers placed unprecedented demands on enslaved Black women to bear more children. Because the laws defined the child according to the mother’s free or unfree status, enslaved women literally birthed the property of white enslavers. But what if a currently enslaved person proved that the womb from which they entered the world belonged to a free person? Millward shows how Black women and their descendants paved their own pathways to freedom.

Finding Charity's Folk: Enslaved and Free Black Women in Maryland

By Jessica Millward,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Finding Charity's Folk as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Finding Charity's Folk highlights the experiences of enslaved Maryland women who negotiated for their own freedom, many of whom have been largely lost to historical records. Based on more than fifteen hundred manumission records and numerous manuscript documents from a diversity of archives, Jessica Millward skillfully brings together African American social and gender history to provide a new means of using biography as a historical genre.

Millward opens with a striking discussion about how researching the life of a single enslaved woman, Charity Folks, transforms our understanding of slavery and freedom in Revolutionary America. For African American women such as…


The Straight State: Sexuality and Citizenship in Twentieth-Century America

By Margot Canaday,

Book cover of The Straight State: Sexuality and Citizenship in Twentieth-Century America

Why this book?

This brilliant book lays to rest any doubt that might exist about whether sex and sexuality factor in US policymaking. With extraordinary originality, Margot Canaday shows how sexual ideas and fears shaped policies concerning welfare, immigration, and the military. By the 1940s and 1950s, the federal government both privileged heterosexuals and overtly marginalized and excluded queer people. Whether an individual sought public assistance, access to legal immigration, or the ability to serve in the military, sex shaped the very meaning of US citizenship.

The Straight State: Sexuality and Citizenship in Twentieth-Century America

By Margot Canaday,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked The Straight State as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

The Straight State is the most expansive study of the federal regulation of homosexuality yet written. Unearthing startling new evidence from the National Archives, Margot Canaday shows how the state systematically came to penalize homosexuality, giving rise to a regime of second-class citizenship that sexual minorities still live under today. Canaday looks at three key arenas of government control--immigration, the military, and welfare--and demonstrates how federal enforcement of sexual norms emerged with the rise of the modern bureaucratic state. She begins at the turn of the twentieth century when the state first stumbled upon evidence of sex and gender nonconformity,…


Discriminating Sex: White Leisure and the Making of the American Oriental

By Amy Sueyoshi,

Book cover of Discriminating Sex: White Leisure and the Making of the American Oriental

Why this book?

You will never look at (or wear) a kimono the same way after reading Amy Sueyoshi’s ingenious investigation into the making of an American leisure culture awash in stereotypes of Japanese and Chinese sexuality. With a focus on San Francisco, Sueyoshi’s book reveals how Anglo-European Americans appropriated “Oriental” dress and design aesthetics, even as the white press and legal system displayed overt hostility toward people of Asian descent. This book is one of my very favorites among a growing body of work that centers on the making of racial identities within histories of sexuality. Sueyoshi is a superb writer, and in this book, she excels at honoring the humanity of Asian-descended people within a white leisure culture that insisted on their inferiority.

Discriminating Sex: White Leisure and the Making of the American Oriental

By Amy Sueyoshi,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

Freewheeling sexuality and gender experimentation defined the social and moral landscape of 1890s San Francisco. Middle class whites crafting titillating narratives on topics such as high divorce rates, mannish women, and extramarital sex centered Chinese and Japanese immigrants in particular.

Amy Sueyoshi draws on everything from newspapers to felony case files to oral histories in order to examine how whites' pursuit of gender and sexual fulfillment gave rise to racial caricatures. As she reveals, white reporters, writers, artists, and others conflated Chinese and Japanese, previously seen as two races, into one. There emerged the Oriental-a single pan-Asian American stereotype weighted…


Aimee Semple McPherson and the Resurrection of Christian America

By Matthew Avery Sutton,

Book cover of Aimee Semple McPherson and the Resurrection of Christian America

Why this book?

Aimee Semple McPherson lived a trailblazing life as the founder of the Four-Square Gospel Pentecostal church in Los Angeles, the first woman to own a US radio station, and a captivating, theatrical preacher. The beauty of Sutton’s book is the way he shows how McPherson’s sexual charisma—as well as her nearly career-ending sexual scandals—enabled her to define herself as the embodiment of Christian virtue. Wearing white and preaching with props and scenery worthy of a Hollywood set, McPherson used a show business savvy to portray conservative Christianity as the bedrock of Americanism.

Aimee Semple McPherson and the Resurrection of Christian America

By Matthew Avery Sutton,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Aimee Semple McPherson and the Resurrection of Christian America as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

From the Pilgrims who settled at Plymouth Rock to Christian Coalition canvassers working for George W. Bush, Americans have long sought to integrate faith with politics. Few have been as successful as Hollywood evangelist Aimee Semple McPherson.

During the years between the two world wars, McPherson was the most flamboyant and controversial minister in the United States. She built an enormously successful and innovative megachurch, established a mass media empire, and produced spellbinding theatrical sermons that rivaled Tinseltown's spectacular shows. As McPherson's power grew, she moved beyond religion into the realm of politics, launching a national crusade to fight the…


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