November 15, 2015

10 Great Books on Sex, Gender and Sexuality

In this third part of my "must read gender/transgender books" series, I look at books that discuss sex and gender in general.
Illustration by Olyzel

Much of the pain gender variant people go through is caused by the fact that their family, friends and surrounding society do not understand them.

The reason they do not understand them is that they are trapped in a binary narrative that tells them that men and women are two different species with completely different temperaments, abilities and modes of behavior. Anyone who breaks with this binary is therefore mentally ill.

Recent research, in the social sciences as well as in biology, tells us that this strict binary is wrong on many levels. What is considered proper gender expressions varies tremendously between cultures and over time.

Moreover, it turns out nature is nothing like what your school text books told you. Did you for instance know that the bonobos, our closest relative, has a matriarchal society run by females? They solve conflicts by having a lot of sex with each other, regardless of age or gender. The next time someone tells you gay sex is "unnatural", tell them about the bonobos.

Click here for part 1 of this series!

Here are some of the books I recommend:

Those who follow nature programs on TV know the script: Violent and aggressive males stalk weak and passive females in an everlasting tale of evolutionary brutality. This narrative is then used to make fun of "feminine" men.

Roughgarden shows us a natural world that is nothing like the gender stereotypes of traditional evolutionary biology.

Like Roughgarden, Fausto-Sterling is good at seeing through the stereotypes of natural science. Most of the differences between men and women are created by culture and not by nature, Fausto-Sterling argues.

I use this book mainly to debunk myths about female sexuality. Male to female crossdreamers and trans women are constantly accused of expressing a male sexuality simply because they get sexually aroused from time to time. This book tells us that women are as sexually diverse and sexually driven as men. 
This books contains the fascinating tale about how heterosexuality was created by scientists in the 19th century.

There had obviously been same-sex sexual relationships before this time, but no one had thought of it as a biologically given and unchangeable basis for sexual attraction. The term was created as a way of pathologizing homosexuality and gender transgressions, Blank argues.
Laquer's book explores the same landscape as the book above. Laqueur argues that the binary model of two different sexes is a modern idea.

Pre-modern societies had strict rules about how men and women should dress and behave, but these were based on religious and social requirements and laws, not on the idea that men and women were fundamentally biologically different.

There was only one gender, the male one, and women were considered underdeveloped and weak versions of men. If you think this sounds unbelievable you must read this book. He is definitely on to something.
Another fascinating book explains why much of what is presented as objective research is simply gender stereotyping in disguise.
Eliot takes biological research on sex and gender seriously, but her main message is that most of the gender differences we see are caused by upbringing and cultural conditioning.
This book is presented as "an advanced text for courses in evolutionary and human biology, psychology, and sexuality and gender studies." And so it is.

Gender Trouble, by Judith Butler

I have a love/hate relationship to post-structuralist philosophy. I use it to demask the demagoguery of transphobia. Still, this approach's inability to  include possible biological components influencing our personality and gender identity is extremely limiting.

Butler tries to replace biology with some kind of post-Freudian psychoanalysis, which unfortunately leads to a lot of unfounded speculation. And yes, I really, really, wish she was better at communicating. This is a hard read, but an important point of reference.

Besides, the feminist Judith Butler is a strong supporter of trans people.

The History of Sexuality, by Michel Foucault

Foucault is by far the most influential post-modern philosopher and "historian of mentalities", and the three volumes of his History of Sexuality has influenced a lot of the studies that came after.

The main message is that sexuality must always be framed within a historical and cultural context. Unfortunately the books are mostly about European antiquity, which gives them a rather narrow scope.

Please add a comment if there are other books you have found helpful and interesting. I will add them to the permanent list of trans-relevant books.


  1. "The reason they do not understand them is that they are trapped in a binary narrative that tells them that men and women are two different species with completely different temperaments, abilities and modes of behavior."

    I don't agree with this explanation. Modern societies will accept strong women and emotional men. In fact, that makes even more difficult to accept WHY would a gynephilic man want to be a woman, although he can do a lot of what women do without changing sex/gender. If I dream of having breasts and a vulva, it's not to be able to make-up, wear a flowery dress or cook.

  2. Some of us are alienated by male sexuality. I find it threatening, along with the mind set, and apperatus.

  3. @Xero Xero

    Are you speaking as a male to female crossdreamer?

  4. Posting as "mahu" from the Hawai'ian "middle people" who present characteristics of both genders. Happiest somewhere in the middle, between macho male and femme female.

    Past couple weeks I've been reading, linking, posting replies. I have no clue where the replies go. I push a button and never see the the post.

    I email links, authors. I don't expect replies, but I got one from Judith Butler.

    My field is literary critical theory, of late radical fem. gender theory per Butler, Sedgewick, Fausto-Sterling, Foucault, Derrida . . .

    And so, lost in the interface . . . finding my way.

    I have a blog:

    Allison Wunderland's Transcend Dance

  5. @Allison,

    First: The lost messages you are referring to, were they posted on this site? If that is the case I have to contact Blogger, because I have not seen them.

    I would love to learn more about the mahu. Have you written about them, or are there other quality sources you can recommend? Janet Mock mentions the mahu in her book, in the chapters on growing up as transgender on Hawaii.

    You might have seen that I have a love/hate relationship to post-structuralism and gender theory. I love it because it has given us such extremely useful tools for analysing and deconstructing social power relationships. By studying the history of sex and gender in this way, the blatant bigotry is revealed in all its splendour. Ray Blanchard comes to mind.

    My problem is that this philosophy lacks the tools needed to penetrate the veil of biology, stuck as it is in language and symbols. Too many jump from the obvious conclusion "gender is a social construct" to "sex and gender are nothing but social constructs", which is not equally obvious. I guess no one can prove anything in this respect, but I like to keep my mind open.

    I will add your blog to my blogroll, and start reading this afternoon. I look forward to it. Thanks for telling us about it.



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