From ‘redefining normal’ to low libido: the sex books that got us screaming “YES!” and the ones we were happy to put back on the shelf.
As someone who offers sexuality coaching, it’s important for me to stay up-to-date on sex trends, research and theories (not to mention it's fun given my passion for the topic!) Not only does it help inform my own philosophy and approach, but it also means that I have a library of resources to offer clients if they’re looking to do some reading on their own. Below you’ll find a list of books that were published in 2015. I hope my reviews help you to decide which titles to add to your own reading list.
Come As You Are. When it comes to most sexuality books, there’s typically at least one point in my reading when I think, “I wish they hadn’t said that.” Fortunately, that never happened with Come As You Are. Body positive, inclusive, non-judgemental – this book is an example of what sex education should be. Emily Nagoski covers a range of topics, but the overarching framework is the idea of the “dual control model of sexuality.” Our brains interpret sexual response as either a positive or negative feedback loop which she likens to the accelerator and brake pedals on a car. She goes on to explain that some of us have a more sensitive brake while some of us have a more sensitive accelerator, meaning you can work as hard as you want at increasing your accelerator (aka, adding more stimulation), but if the brake is on (read: you’re stressed out) you’re never going to get anywhere. So the key is to learn how to turn the “offs, off” and the “ons, on.” It’s not news that stress impacts desire, but Nagoski's inclusion of case studies and scientific research provides tangible evidence about why this is the case. And more importantly, she provides concrete examples for how to address it in your own life. Despite Nagoski's academic background, Come As You Are is accessible and easy to read making it a book I would recommend to everyone. Note: Emily does make it clear in the intro that because there has been very little research done on trans and genderqueer sexual functioning her book is mainly about cisgender women.
Woman on Fire. Amy Jo Goddard has an academic background, but her approach is also spiritual, with a focus on rituals, alternative healing modalities, and energy work. Her mission is to “assist people in examining gender roles, personal experience with gender and/or sexism, sexual identity, heterosexism, homophobia and racism and to unlearn the many myths we often carry about sexual minorities and sexuality in general." While not the focus of Woman on Fire, one of the issues Goddard explores is sexual assault. Many of the resources that currently exist for survivors are designed for managing the immediate ramifications. While these are clearly important, Goddard provides support for some of the long-term impacts that are less often addressed. In particular, she looks at the idea that there may come a time when the identity of 'sexual assault victim' can become a barrier to experiencing an empowered sexual life. Some of the other topics that I found helpful include how people-pleasing plays out in sex, how to give yourself permission to be angry, and how to be clear about your sexual needs – whether it’s looking for the physical release of orgasm or the intimacy associated with touch. There’s also a great section where Goddard outlines how to recognize your defense mechanisms - she lists twenty different patterns with examples for each. For instance, projection: “You just don’t want to have sex with me, do you?” (When really, you don’t want to have sex).
The Sex Myth. Amy and I had the chance to see Rachel Hills at Type Bookstore in Toronto and after hearing her talk I had high hopes for her book. Hills’ argues that while the “sex myth” used to be that it was shameful to have sex, the new “sex myth” is that it’s shameful if you don’t have sex (or don’t have as much sex as you “should” be having). In other words, the sexual liberation movement has actually created a new kind of shame. It’s an interesting argument, especially in light of the demand to create a "female Viagra" and the medicalization of low sexual desire. We’re the first to agree that this pressure to conform to a particular standard of what constitutes “normal” desire is deeply problematic. However, there’s something about Hills’ critique of the sex-positive movement that didn’t sit right – it feels like it undermines the advances the movement has enabled for those who experience extreme persecution (advances that still have a long way to go). While I certainly don't think this was her intention, this is how it came across for me. I should note that Hills does include LGBTQIA narratives and she is quick to point out how aspects of the "sex myth" are particularly damaging within those communities. What was refreshing was the attention given to asexuality - an area that is frequently ignored in the field. The Sex Myth is more of a sociological exploration than a "guide" or "self-help" book so I don't foresee it becoming a staple recommendation for clients, however it was an interesting and new contribution to the field of sexual research.
Sex Outside the Lines. I listened to an interview with Chis Donague on Sex Out Loud, a podcast hosted by my favourite sex educator, Tristan Taormino. Donahue was repeatedly described as a “sex-positive” therapist and he shared how he helps clients rid themselves of shame by helping them see that there is no such thing as “normal.” His work sounded like it would be right up our alley! However, when I picked up his book I found the tone quite different than I expected. Instead of presenting options, he makes blanket statements like, “marriage is the worst decision someone can make for relationship success.” I certainly agree that marriage isn’t the right relationship model for everyone and we need to challenge it as the default, but stating that it’s the “worst decision someone can make” is hardly creating an empowering, supportive environment for people to explore. What I found the most frustrating about Sex Outside The Lines is that it has so much promise and the topics he addresses are so deeply in need of exploration by someone who is sex-positive. But despite claiming to have that perspective, his writing comes across as definitive. Rather than inviting conversation and reflection, he perpetuates the authoritative stance he seeks to tear down. If you’re interested in reading about alternative relationships I'd suggest other resources like Sex At Dawn (which explores the evolution of monogamy) or Opening Up (a more practical, how-to guide).
O Wow. Sexuality books often focus on one particular topic which can be great – sometimes they need a whole book to do them justice. But if someone is looking for “a little bit of everything” there aren’t a lot of options that provide any kind of depth. Somehow Jenny Block manages to debunk myths, offer tips for positioning, reframe the “goal” of sex (hint: it should all be about pleasure), recommend sex toys, give an anatomy lesson, and answer FAQ. Oh, and she even talks about how hormonal birth control can affect libido - no wonder we love this book! To top it off, the tone is empowering and fun, but also practical (and it’s clear she’s done her research). I’ll still suggest classics like She Come First and The Elusive Orgasm for folks who are interested in a particular area of sexuality, but given the breadth of topics covered by O Wow I can see this becoming my new go-to recommendation.
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Kim & Amy Sedgwick love to discuss sex, periods, and all the other things we’re not supposed to talk about. The co-founders of Red Tent Sisters and ecosex.ca, they’ve been featured in every major Canadian news outlet and have become a trusted resource for women seeking natural (effective!) birth control, a more joyful sex life, and an empowered journey to motherhood.