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Culture

10 Books on the History of Women, Sex, and Pleasure

| 03/08/2021

10 book covers on the history of women and pleasure

It’s March, which means it’s time to celebrate all kinds of accomplishments by women. Including female sexual revolutionaries! In honor of Women’s History Month—and of International Women’s Day—here are 10 books that’ll teach you about female writers, activists, entrepreneurs, and ordinary women who changed the history of sex and pleasure.

Vibrator Nation: How Feminist Sex-Toy Stores Changed the Business of Pleasure
Lynn Comella

Clearly we’re biased here at Dame, but Lynn Comella’s 2017 social history of how a small group of feminist entrepreneurs brought the then-niche vibrator into the mainstream in the 1970s. These women knew that getting women to buy sex toys wasn’t just good business—it was a great opportunity for sex education, too. Check out our Q&A with Lynn Comella here!

book cover for Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments by Saidiya HartmanWayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments: Intimate Histories of Riotous Black Girls, Troublesome Women, and Queer Radicals
Saidiya Hartman

The lower classes and women of color have been largely cut out of the story of sexual revolutions. In what Hartman calls a “speculative history,” she tries to right that wrong. This lyrical history book lovingly tells of the inner lives, pleasures, and conquests of inner-city Black women at the turn of the 20th century—women who pursued pleasure and sexual authenticity no matter the cost.

Virgin: The Untouched History
Hanne Blank

This book is the definitive history of an elusive, mythical, and frankly harmful concept: virginity. Hanne Blank takes us on a journey through science, pop culture, and history to demystify this concept that’s wreaked so much havoc on society.

Re-Making Love: The Feminization of Sex
Barbara Ehrenreich, Elizabeth Hess, and Gloria Jacobs

This social history of America’s sexual revolution argues that, contrary to popular belief, the mid-century sexual revolution was fueled by women’s desires, not men’s. Chock full of contemporaneous anecdotes, Re-Making Love tells the story of how women completely transformed how our culture sees sex, love, and pleasure.

book cover for Odd Girls and Twilight Lovers by Lillian FadermanOdd Girls and Twilight Lovers: A History of Lesbian Life in Twentieth-Century America
Lillian Faderman

In this classic, meticulously researched history, Lillian Faderman takes the reader through six decades of the evolution of lesbian relationships, from 1900 to 1960. In her interviews with normal women (not just famous ones), she gives us a detailed glimpse of what it was like to be a lesbian before the LGBTQ civil rights movements.

Romantic Outlaws: The Extraordinary Lives of Mary Wollstonecraft & Mary Shelley
Charlotte Gordon

Mary Wollstonecraft, a brilliant feminist and Free Love advocate, died shortly after her daughter was born. But that infant grew up to be Mary Shelley, a Romantic visionary who lived a very unconventional love life. This wildly absorbing dual biography follows the pair, who were both sexual trailblazers in very different—yet also uncannily similar ways. 

Transgender History
Susan Stryker

The lives of trans women are an important part of women’s history, too. Susan Stryker covers transgender history and its activist movements from mid-century through today, reminding us that just because trans people didn’t feel comfortable living out in the open, that doesn’t mean they haven’t existed.

book cover for Riotous Flesh by April R. HaynesRiotous Flesh: Women, Physiology, and the Solitary Vice in 19th Century America
April R. Haines

In the 19th century, America raged against the ills of masturbation—and women were at the forefront of these protests. April R. Haynes tells of how and why women from all walks of life united to condemn what was then called “self-abuse.”

The Color of Kink: Black Women, BDSM, and Pornography
Ariane Cruz

Do you think of BDSM as a “white thing”? You won’t after this book. Ariane Cruz’s book explores Black women’s involvement in porn and BDSM that spans nearly a century—and argues that it’s a ripe space for understanding their relationships to violence, pleasure, and pain.

Sex Workers Unite: A History of the Movement from Stonewall to SlutWalk
Melinda Chateauvert

Prostitutes, escorts, strippers, and porn actors are often systematically written out of political history, and instead portrayed as victims. This book rights that wrong, taking the reader through five decades of sex-worker activism, from gay liberation and women’s rights to reproductive justice and union organizing.

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