Six-Pack: Smart Books About the Science and Sociology of Sex

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Birds do it, bees do it, and basically all of us do it too, even if we’re supposed to pretend like we don’t and not talk about it in polite company or, you know, ever. Sex is an important part of our lives, and what’s a person who makes sense of life by reading to do but find books about it? I’ve been reading about sex ever since I looked up “climax” in my parents’ Merriam-Webster Dictionary back in Ye Olde Days Before Google (the answer wasn’t really helpful, in case you’re wondering), and I’m of the opinion that time spent with a well-researched book on sexuality is time well spent, especially now that interweb makes bad information so, unfortunately, easy to find.

Also? Books about sex are fun! Let’s do this.

bonk by mary roachMary Roach is the queen of experiential journalism, hilarious footnotes, and fascinating facts that are just as inappropriate for quoting in polite conversation as they are irresistibe. For Bonk: The Curious Coupling of Science and Sex, she went into the archives of sex research to explore the studies that started it all and into modern sex research labs to find out what scientists are studying and how they get answers to questions like “Can a person think herself to orgasm?” And because she’s the best good sport of all good sports, she even volunteered to participate in one of the studies and had sex with her husband INSIDE AN MRI MACHINE. It’s the best thing ever. This is an awesome read, period, but especially for anyone who is skeptical about nonfiction being funny or interesting.

Kayt Sukel’s This Is Your Brain On Sex is another terrific offering in this vein. Sukel takes apart the ever-expanding body of research about the brain’s role in sex, love, and dating to help readers understand what’s actually true versus what Cosmo says is true because it makes a good headline. And she gets in on the action too, volunteering for a study in which she, shall we say, clicks her own mouse. For science! (Why did no one tell me this was a career option?)

sex is not a natural actIf you’re more interested in the sociology end of things, my very-super-favorite recommendation is Leonore Tiefer’s now-out-of-print (but used copies are available online) Sex is Not a Natural Act & Other Essays. Tiefer provides a fantastic introduction to the concept of sex as a social construct and argues that the sexual desires and behaviors we think of as quote-unquote natural are determined not by nature but by the societies and cultures in which we live. The essays in this book are engaging and thoughtful, and the ideas Tiefer puts forth have formed the foundation of how I approach thinking about sex, evaluating statements and studies about sex, and making (or resisting) judgment about other people’s and cultures’ sexual mores and practices.

Perv: The Sexual Deviant in All of Us by Jesse Bering is another excellent read on this topic. Bering presents the long, occasionally hilarious, and often troubling history of how American culture has defined sexual deviance and dysfunction (spoiler alert: it has a lot to do with exercising social control and legislating values). And he makes a compelling case for reframing deviance, particularly where the law is concerned, around the issue of harm–that is, you can think a sexual behavior is weird or believe it is immoral, but you should not attempt to make that behavior illegal unless it poses the risk of causing actual harm to the beings involved (and not imagined harm to non-beings, like the institution of marriage, for example). No matter who you are or how liberal and accepting your attitudes about sex, you’re going to encounter something in this book that challenges you to stretch a bit further or reconsider or just resisting saying, “Yuck,” and that makes it totally worth the price of admission.

american savageIf you’re of a relatively liberal persuasion (or you’re open to hearing from that side of the fence) and in the mood to think about all kinds of sex-related stuff, you won’t do better than Dan Savage’s latest book American Savage. Building on twenty years of experience as a sex columnist and equal rights activist (he is the creator of the “It Gets Better” movement), Savage takes on compulsory monogamy (to state that sometimes cheating is the *right* thing to do to save a relationship), sex education, issues of religion and sexuality, and politics galore. Savage’s no-bullshit approach and his confident delivery make this a compelling and interesting read even–or especially?–when you don’t agree with him. For more on the question of monogamy–whether it’s necessary for a stable society, how generally terrible humans are at it, etc.–see Sex at Dawn: How We Mate, Why We Stray, and What It Means for Modern Relationships by Christopher Ryan and Cacilda Jetha.

And if science and sociology aren’t enough to satisfy you, there’s always philosophy! Alain de Botton’s How to Think More About Sex is pretty accessible as philosophy books go, and it contains a bunch of excellent ideas for changing not the actual amount of time we spend thinking about sex but HOW we think about sex. It’s a little brain-bending at points (I think that’s what philosophy is supposed to do?) but ultimately a valuable read. We’re good at devoting brain-space to sex and not so good at making that sex-focused brain-space constructive and meaningful, and this read is a step toward changing that for yourself.

And now, because all good relationships are built on reciprocity and good listening skills, I ask: what are your favorite books on the science and sociology of sex?

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