I was 22 when I discovered sex-positive feminism. Nerve.com was getting into its groove. The sex shop Grand Opening! had just opened its doors in Brookline. Writers like Susie Bright and Tristan Taormino were pumping out erotica collections and Crunch Gym was promoting its cardio striptease classes. Meanwhile, I had just fallen into a college internship writing for an adult personals site and suddenly I was drowning in sex-positive books.
This internship was life-changing for me. I had just gotten out of an unhealthy relationship with a man who coerced me out of my virginity, and I was struggling to find a sense of sexual autonomy. At my internship, I was tasked with reviewing vibrators and porn and other sexy products, and I approached this task as a way to fix myself.
When I moved back home to New Jersey, I explored the sex-positive scene in NYC. I interned at the Feminist Press, learning more about the uneasy overlap between sexuality and the various waves of feminism. I went to sexy soirees hosted by Abby Ehmann, where she had sex therapist Jamye Waxman teaching Sword Swallowing 101 workshops. Jamye later connected me with an editor at Playgirl, where I landed my first print magazine clip. I took a Safer Sex for Sluts workshop with Audacia Ray and later volunteered for a brief period of time at $pread, the magazine she launched that was by and for sex workers. I eventually ended up interning at Nerve, which almost felt like coming full circle.
But in the 13 years since then, things have shifted even further. I gave birth to my daughter in 2014. I spent time working with sexuality professionals at AASECT and the Center for Sex Education. I edged further into journalism. And in that time, my writing has become less about fixing myself and more about fixing the world for my daughter. About normalizing conversations around sexuality, and about spreading the message that everyone deserves a sex life that is healthy, pleasurable, and consensual.
In 2018, my reported memoir, A Dirty Word, came out, about the ways in which our culture treats female sexuality like a dirty word. And this year, I launched Guerrilla Sex Ed, an online resource for those seeking out alternative sources of sex education. I’m super excited about this latest project because nothing makes me squee more than getting to share resources with those who didn’t previously have access to it or knowledge of it.
To that end, I want to share with you a list of the best sex positive books for readers of all ages—from kids and preteens to teens, young adults, and full-fledged oldsters like myself. I hope you’ll find something here that gives you the answers you’ve been looking for or, at the very least, makes you feel seen.
Sex Positive Books for Adults
Come As You Are by Emily Nagoski
I have to start this list with Come As You Are, a book that led me to the epiphany that I was not something to be fixed. That I was not, in fact, broken. In this research-driven book about female sexual desire, Nagoski gives the lowdown on various sexual response models, shares allll of the things that can have an impact on libido and pleasure, and provides a bit of a roadmap for readers so that they and their partners—working together—can find their way to a more sex-positive sex life. And while this description makes Nagoski’s book sound like your average sexy how-to book, it’s so much more than that. So much of the sex content out there leaves us feeling as if we are alone in our experiences and that there’s something wrong…something to be fixed. Come As You Are, by contrast, is empowering as hell, delivering the message that you are normal and, more than that, you are enough. Keep an eye out for the revised, updated edition that’s coming out in the spring!
We Have Always Been Here by Samra Habib
A lot of the sex-positive content out there is written by and for white, cisgender, heterosexual readers. This is partially due to the ways in which sex-positivity, as a concept, has sometimes been misrepresented to mean that sex is always empowering. This misrepresentation ignores a history in which women of color have been treated as “vessels for sexual desire,” racialized and sexualized in a way that makes the possibility of liberation through sex feel impossible. So Habib’s memoir about growing up as a queer, Muslim woman in Pakistan fills a gap, giving readers a glimpse of how one’s sexual identity can be dangerous. Still, by the end of We Have Always Been Here, Habib has been able to find a way to live her truest self.
Sex for One by Betty Dodson
When I learned that Betty Dodson—a pioneer in the realm of female masturbation—had died, I literally gasped out loud. Dodson’s name was everywhere when I first learned about sex-positivity, and she continued to do the work of combating genital shame and embracing pleasure and desire until her death. Sex for One is a classic, an ode to self-pleasure and self-exploration without shame.
Girl Sex 101 by Allison Moon and kd diamond
This colorfully illustrated queer pleasure guide is for women who love women—meaning that if you identify as a woman (who loves women), you need to get yourself a copy. The book covers everything from anatomy to sexual communication to various sexual techniques to discovering what makes your partner feel good. And woven in throughout Moon’s words and diamond’s illustrations are words of wisdom from some top-notch sexuality educators, including Carol Queen, Ducky Doolittle, Jiz Lee, Ignacio Rivera, and many others.
Pleasure Activism Edited by adrienne maree brown
In brown’s book, she shares essays, interviews, profiles, poems, and more to illuminate the importance of what she refers to as pleasure activism. “Pleasure activism is the work we do to reclaim our whole, happy, and satisfiable selves from the impacts, delusions, and limitations of oppression and/or supremacy,” she writes in their introduction. To that end, she shares how women—particularly Black women—might embrace pleasure without shame.
Longing to Tell by Tricia Rose
As mentioned above, Black women often shy away from embracing their sexuality—out loud, at least—because they hesitate to play into society’s assumptions about them as hypersexualized, exotic playthings. In order to break this silence, Rose gathered the testimonies of Black women across various ages, levels of education, and socioeconomic backgrounds. Throughout Longing to Tell, they share their stories of sex, love, family, relationships, and intimacy.
Naked at Our Age by Joan Price
Full disclosure: I met Joan eons ago when she asked me to be on a sex writing panel at a writing conference. I came to know her as the top voice in the elder sex space, and she’s the person I turn to every time I end up writing about sexuality as we age. Joan has a ton of books (and webinars and speaking engagements), but Naked at Our Age is her classic, about everything we can expect from later-in-life sexuality. As we age, we tend to be desexualized and forgotten by the culture around us. But, according to Joan, “the best is yet to come.”
A Quick & Easy Guide to Consent by Isabella Rotman and Luke B. Howard
I’m such a fan of Rotman’s work. I first found her through the work she did for Scarleteen. I ordered her self-published comic book on responsible bystandership. I sported her Consent Cavalry pin whenever I attended the National Sex Ed Conference. So I was thrilled when I received the egalley for this graphic guide to consent, which came out this past October. Following along with Sergeant Yes Means Yes of the Consent Cavalry, readers will learn the ins and outs of affirmative consent, and have fun doing it. This book is such a delight.
The Body Is Not an Apology by Sonya Renee Taylor
This quick read acknowledges the fact that it’s difficult to experience healthy intimacy with others if we cannot first love ourselves. So many of the sexual struggles I’ve observed over the past 18 years of writing about sex (including time as a sex advice columnist, during which I fielded emails from people who were just aching for some reassurance that they were normal) came back to a sense of shame: with the way people saw their bodies, their abilities, their experience (or their lack thereof). This shame we carry around our sexuality makes Taylor’s book an essential read. Read her book in order to learn how to engage in radical self-love.
A Quick & Easy Guide to Sex & Disability by A. Andrews
From the same series as Rotman’s book, this graphic guide to sex and disability is a bright and shining spot in a field whose classic materials often promote ableism. Andrews covers the basics of disability sexuality, communication tips, and more. If you’d like to check out some older books in the series, you can also find A Quick & Easy Guide to They/Them Pronouns and A Quick & Easy Guide to Queer & Trans Identities.
Sex Positive Books for (Aspiring) Sex-Positive Parents
Sex Positive Talks to Have with Kids by Melissa Pintor Carnagey
Carnagey’s new book on being a sex-positive parent is independently published, but it came on my radar thanks to the work she does with Sex Positive Families. Carnagey is a sexuality educator and licensed social worker and she founded Sex Positive Families in order to provide education and resources that help families raise sexually healthy children. The work she does is phenomenal and their book is an extension of this. Pick this one up if you’re grappling with how to start conversations with your kids about bodies, consent, pleasure, and more.
Sex & Sensibility by Deborah M. Roffman
I picked up this book by Roffman when I learned I was pregnant, and it has thus far served me well. Being a big believer that sexuality education should start at birth—but not knowing quite how to proceed, despite my years as a sex writer—I turned to this wise sexuality educator for advice. This book ably shows readers how to interrogate the values they carry around sexuality (and pinpoint where they come from), lays out what our kids need from conversations about sexuality, and provides tips for starting, managing, and continuing these conversations throughout their childhood.
For Goodness Sex by Al Vernacchio
When Al Vernacchio walked into the room my first year at the National Sex Ed Conference, he was wearing a full-on superhero costume. He proceeded to talk to session attendees about how he teaches adolescents about puberty, likening the changes they’re going through to superpowers. I instantly decided that I would die for this man. Or at least take whatever parenting advice he happened to give me. I have his book about how we talk to teens about sexuality, values, and health set aside on a shelf in my bedroom for when my 6-year-old daughter comes of age.
Got Teens? by Logan Levkoff and Jennifer Wider
This is another one I have set aside for when the time comes. I’ve worked with Logan in the past on a number of projects and I love her voice as an author: warm, open, and in-the-know. This book advises readers on how to address the difficult questions their kids bring to them and how to navigate those sometimes-awkward conversations with confidence and compassion.
Sex Positive Books for Teens and Young Adults
Gender Queer by Maia Kobabe
I loved this coming-of-age graphic memoir about Kobabe’s journey toward clarifying eir self-identity. E started this book as a way to explain to eir family what it means to be both nonbinary and asexual (a sexuality often forgotten in the context of sex-positivity). But the book ended up becoming a truly touching guide on gender identity for all readers. From readers who are struggling with their own gender identity to those unsure about how to support their loved one, this book is a must-read.
S.E.X. by Heather Corinna
I mentioned Scarleteen—perhaps one of the first sex education sites by and for teens—in an earlier entry. Corinna is its founder. So it makes sense that they would put together a sex educational guide for teens and young adults. This book covers everything from puberty, anatomy, and body image to safe sex, reproductive health, and rape culture. The second edition was released in 2016.
An Intro-Guide to a Sex Positive You by Yael Rosenstock
Yael and I both write about sex for Pure Romance, which is how I first learned about her work within the sex ed space. And I recently interviewed her for Guerrilla Sex Ed. Which is how I know that she wrote this book for her younger self, a self who was struggling with her sexuality and who didn’t see herself reflected in the lessons she was receiving. This book covers sexual identity and preference, communication and consent, and everything else you need to know in order to live a sex-positive life.
Trans+ by Kathryn Gonzales and Karen Rayne
Apologies for all of the disclosure notes throughout this piece! I’ve been so embedded within the sex ed space—in the past seven years especially—that I’ve worked with or around many of these authors. Which just makes me feel super lucky. In this case, I reported to Karen when I was doing volunteer work for the Center for Sex Education. These two published this book just last year, and it gained a lot of positive recognition for being an inclusive guide for teens who are transgender, nonbinary, gender-nonconforming, or gender-fluid. Topics covered include mental health, physical health, reproductive health, transitioning, and more. The book also contains real-life stories from other teens.
This Book Is Gay by Juno Dawson
There’s been a huge push in recent years to make sex education curricula more LGBTQ-inclusive, and I think that some of the books mentioned above are a huge step in the right direction. This book is another great entry in that vein, with light-hearted advice on gay stereotypes, dating conundrums, gay sex, and more. Dawson describes the book as an essential instruction manual for everyone, regardless of gender or sexuality. But what she doesn’t mention is that it’s also a ton of laugh-out-loud fun.
Queer by Kathy Belge and Marke Bieschke
Pairing nicely with the abovementioned book, Queer also uses a humorous and engaging tone to impart lessons about embracing your queerness, coming out, finding your people, navigating queerphobia, dating and relationships, and, finally, the sexy-sex.
Let’s Talk About It by Erika Moen and Matthew Nolan
I’ve always associated Moen’s name with sex-positivity thanks to her and her husband Nolan’s work on the long-running sex education webcomic Oh Joy, Sex Toy (which has since yielded a series of physical comic books and even a coloring book). So I was excited to learn that in March 2021, they’ll be releasing a brand new graphic book for teens that covers everything from relationships, body image, and sexting to gender, sexuality, anatomy, safe sex, and more. Moen and Nolan have a friendly, open, and straightforward style I’ve come to love.
Sex Positive Books for Preteens
The Every Body Book by Rachel E. Simon and Noah Grigni
Aside from maybe a quick one-off class on periods and wet dreams, most of us didn’t receive even the smallest bit of sex ed until high school. But lord almighty, considering the changes that occur as we move into puberty, we could’ve used a bit more info in order to stave off the attendant embarrassment and complete confusion. This LGBTQ+-inclusive guide covers sex and gender, the physical and emotional changes that go hand-in-hand with puberty, love and attraction, sexual intercourse, and beyond.
Celebrate Your Body by Sonya Renee Taylor
Yup. Taylor makes our list twice. First with her book on radical self-love for adults and now with what she bills as “the ultimate puberty book for girls.” In addition to preparing girls for what happens to your body and mind during puberty, Taylor also tackles peer pressure, social media safety, self-care, and more.
Sex Positive Books for Kids
These Are My Eyes, This Is My Nose, This Is My Vulva, These Are My Toes by Lexx Brown-James
Not even puberty is soon enough to begin educating our kids. That shit has to happen from birth on, with lessons on body parts, boundaries, and respect. This cute little book by Lexx Brown-James normalizes the names of all the body parts and includes colorful images featuring representations of kids from a variety of lifestyles and backgrounds, and with a variety of body types and abilities.
My Body Belongs to Me by Jill Starishevsky and Angela Padron
Body ownership, boundaries, and the concept of “privacy” are so difficult to teach to young kids (how old was your kid when they stopped watching you pee?), but also so, so important. Research shows that kids who learn these concepts early on are more likely to disclose if anything inappropriate occurs. This is one of the (many) books I have that talks about body safety.
I Said No! by Jack King, Kimberly King, and Sue Rama
And let me mention one more that focuses on consent (though I could go on…). This one teaches kids about to set healthy boundaries for their private parts, how to deal with inappropriate behavior, where to go for help, and how to deal with unwarranted feelings of guilt or shame. We got this one several years ago and my daughter still knows how to label “red-flag behavior.”
It’s Not the Stork! by Robie H. Harris and Michael Emberley
Meanwhile, I could recommend just about every book from Robie Harris because we have most of them, including more basic titles like It’s Perfectly Normal and Who Has What? This particular title goes into even more depth than these other ones, delving into bodies and families, yes, but also tackling that most dreaded of questions: “Where do babies come from?”
The Gender Wheel by Maya Christina Gonzalez
And finally (though not really finally because I could go on forever), this book that grew out of a teaching tool teaches kids about the longstanding gender binary system and how we can re-envision the system to be more inclusive of all bodies and genders.
Again, I could go on. Forever. But I’ll leave this here. Hopefully, these sex positive books are only the start of your journey toward a more sex-positive self-education.