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The best books on Sex

recommended by Susan Quilliam

Sex is for life, says the relationship psychologist and updater of the 1970s classic, The Joy of Sex. Susan Quilliam chooses her favourite books on sex.

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Susan Quilliam

Susan Quilliam is a relationship psychologist and agony aunt, whose advice on sex and intimate relationships appears in many newspapers and magazines. She receives some 25,000 letters a year from people seeking her advice, has written 21 books on relationships and sexuality, and recently updated Alex Comfort’s 1970s sex classic, The Joy of Sex.

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Let’s start with Cheri by Colette, which is about a young man who is sent off to an older courtesan to be trained before marriage, and ends up falling in love with her. Why did you choose that?

This is a book that gave me, as a young girl, an idea of an older woman’s sexuality. I read it when I was in my teens, it was one of the first erotic books I read and, although it has a very, very sad ending – I literally cried when I read it, interestingly the message that I took away from it was not that at 49 you are too old to have a lover, but that at 49 you are absolutely not too old to have a lover. So, even though he leaves her and goes back to his young and stupid wife, and she is desperate, the message I took away from it is that actually it doesn’t have to be like that. At 49 you can be extremely sexual and extremely desirous and you can be desired. And I think that’s one of the things that, obviously personally but also professionally, gave me quite early on the idea that sex is for life.

And that’s an important point.

I think it’s a really important point, and one we are becoming more and more aware of. There was some very nice research that came out in 2008 from Sweden suggesting that many couples in their 60s, 70s and 80s, are still having extremely active sex lives. And that it was really only the cultural taboos and the link of sexuality with fertility that had suggested we can’t do that. I’m nearly 60 and so my generation was the first Pill generation. The Pill really freed us from the link between fertility and sex and so also from the idea that once you’re past your menopause you’re no longer sexual, that only youth is sexual. And I think it’s a really important message and one that everyone – and especially sexual health professionals like me – is really taking on board right now.

Tell me about Lady Chatterley’s Lover, and why that’s on your list.

I chose this for symbolic reasons, as well as the fact that it’s a very, very passionate book. Symbolically because this was the book that took 32 years [from 1928 to 1960] to be printed in the United Kingdom. And the trial, the Lady Chatterley trial, was a real turning point for freedom of expression around sexuality. There’s a quotation by the poet Philip Larkin: “Sexual intercourse began in 1963, between the end of the Chatterley ban and the Beatles’ first LP.” So it was a reflection of the sexual revolution in which I grew up: it was one of those things, like the Pill, a real turning point.

It was one of the first big books of literature to describe sexuality fully, very arousingly, and also to celebrate sexuality between the classes. Because there was a whole lot of other social change at that time, particularly in Europe. We were moving from a very structural, hierarchical society to a much more equal society, where having sex up and down the classes was very new and very revolutionary. So it’s a beautiful book to read, the love between them is brilliant, but it’s also legally and sociologically a very important book. Psychologically, I think the most important thing is that, for the first time perhaps, we’re seeing people being encouraged to be more whole and more sane and more healthy by acknowledging their sexual side, not just their mind. The whole theme of the book is you don’t just live through the mind, you live through the body, and the whole person. It’s a holistic sex book, if you like.

And there’s this lovely last paragraph where John Thomas says good night to Lady Jane, penis says goodbye to vagina, and a scene where he winds flowers around her pubic hair and around his penis and this was just seen as outrageously open. We would take it as quite quaint nowadays, but it really was a seismic shift in society, that we were describing body parts and we were describing physical acts. We were celebrating them and saying: “You’re not fully human unless you think this way, or feel this way!”

Let’s go on to My Secret Garden by Nancy Friday, which came out in 1973.

It’s the first book about women having sexual fantasies, and it refuted many ideas about women’s sexuality. It put into women’s mouths the claims that Kinsey and Masters and Johnson had made – that had almost been forgotten – which is that women are as sexual as men are. It’s a very, very touching book, because real women are talking about real fantasies. And some of them are outrageous: some of them are sadomasochistic, some of them are lesbian. It came out at the height, not so much of the sexual revolution, but the liberalism of the 70s. And it’s a very moving book, because women are feeling sufficiently confident and sufficiently empowered to talk about their own sexual fantasies. I think it’s a book that probably changed many women’s lives. And also started to help men to understand that women have as voracious a sexual appetite, and as imaginative a sexual appetite.

It was also just a year after The Joy of Sex, so part of a group of books coming out on sex in the early 1970s – really the first era where sex books are up on the shelves, and have almost become brand names. If you say My Secret Garden any adult will go “Oh yes, that’s the women’s fantasy book!” just as when you say The Joy of Sex people go “Oh yes that was that book with the bearded man, wasn’t it?” These are books that even now people, even people who haven’t read them, know what they’re about.

That’s certainly true of The Joy of Sex. I know you would have included it in your top five if you hadn’t rewritten it, so do you want to say a little bit about it?

It was a seminal book, it not only reflected, but created the sexual revolution, in the same way that Kinsey and Masters and Johnson did. It was a real thrill to work on it, and it was a real privilege, it was like “Ooh! Rewrite The Joy of Sex!” But it badly needed updating. And not only because a lot of the science was inaccurate: Comfort mentions the word clitoris only five or six times in the entire book! He’s very pro-women and very liberated as far as sex is concerned, but they just didn’t realize. But it needed updating in values as well.

In what way?

It reflected 1970s values. There’s lots of emphasis on the man as the active person. It was written by a man for men. And it’s quite chauvinistic. There’s one quote: “Impotence in old men (may be) due to … lack of … an attractive partner.” If I’d met Alex Comfort I would have punched him for that. And it’s very liberal. Nowadays we realize the dangers of sex. Comfort was very much into group sex, there’s lots of statements along the lines of “If you have close friends over you will make love in front of them because you can learn from it.” Well no, in 2009 you wouldn’t invite close friends over for dinner and make love in front of them. Well, most people wouldn’t.

Your fourth book is The Hite Report on Female Sexuality.

Now The Hite Report is interesting. There have been questions raised about it. Masters and Johnson and Kinsey, the big researchers in the postwar years, had questions raised about their work, but they were working scientists. Shere Hite has always had questions raised about her methodology – Did she get paid for this? Did she do the research for that? But, that apart, the book is significant not only because it again takes women’s experiences, but the really crucial thing it also does – and it’s a message that still hasn’t filtered through – is that it makes a very, very strong statement about the clitoris being vital in female sexuality. Up to that point, the word sex meant intercourse. As it still often does. If you read sex books even by informed people, and people say “We had sex”, they mean we had intercourse. One of the main arguments of the book, and the groundbreaking bit – and the bit that got her so much attention – is most women do not orgasm through intercourse alone. We need clitoral stimulation. And it’s the basis on which almost all sex books for women afterwards have been written. It’s a big part of accepted sex therapy, it’s a piece of information that many women, sadly, still don’t have and many men still don’t have. It’s a core piece that really went unchallenged before then. Everybody thought a woman should climax through intercourse. Freud wrote that a woman who has an orgasm by stimulation of the clitoris is infantile, is having an infantile orgasm.

He’s the culprit is he?

Well, he’s one of the culprits. And all the other male sex therapists who followed and who said: “Well, if we climax through penetration that’s obviously the way it has to be done.” It’s still a myth that lingers. I still get people writing to me in my role as advice columnist saying: “I can’t climax easily through intercourse, what’s wrong with me?” But Hite was the first person to suggest this and back it up with research.

So she radically changed the way we view sex and in a way that nobody had ever done before. This was the first time that someone made a really strong statement about how important the clitoris is. The next time was a piece of research done in 1998 when an Australian neurologist pointed out that the clitoral tissue, including the clitoral tissue inside the woman’s pelvis, has as many nerve endings as, and is in size as big, if not bigger than, the penile tissue. And that piece of research again changed everything. But no one would have thought to do that if it hadn’t been for The Hite Report.

Your next choice is an unexpected one, Brokeback Mountain.

It’s a book by Annie Proulx; a beautiful, beautiful book, and it’s also an Oscar-winning film. It’s important to me because it’s the first time that I’ve heard ordinary people in the street comment on a story focused on homosexual love without making distinctions between that and heterosexual love. It sort of brought gay sex into the mainstream.

The other thing that is important about it is that it makes a very strong statement about the way sexuality, some sorts of sexuality, are still not accepted in our world, and people can get killed for it. And also, the way the sex described is not feminine sex. Annie Proulx is excellent at not saying: “Well it’s gay sex, but it’s acceptable because it’s gentle and sensitive and soft focus and pink.” No. In the book there is blood. They hit each other. There’s force. Loving force and strong passion. She says that passion can be aggressive and it can be very masculine and I think it’s important because of that as well.

Looking at all your choices, they’re very much about cultural breakthroughs, the acceptance of sexuality as part of the mainstream life, the breaking of taboos. But right now, don’t we have almost the opposite problem: sex is everywhere?

Yes. We’re now living in a society that is arguably the most sexualized ever. This is not quite Sodom and Gomorrah, but given the internet, and increased communication, one can argue that, even though our sexuality is in some ways more sophisticated, this is the most sexualized society ever. And it causes all sorts of problems. We have children to protect, we have our own minds to protect and there are very few filters. You can find – as I found when I was researching The Joy of Sex – that if you have a sexual leaning or a sexual interest, you will be able to find something that caters to that, probably many thousands of websites. And so it’s particularly important to get honest, clear information. And accurate information. The web can be extremely inaccurate and pornography in particular can give us very, very wrong ideas about what sex is and what it should be. Because the other theme that runs through all my choices is that they are, if you like, best practice sex: sex that is honest, caring, not prudish – but at the same time has underlying values. Today we’re talking about books, but we need websites, we need source material that is giving us good sexual role models at a time when there are so many bad ones around.

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Susan Quilliam

Susan Quilliam is a relationship psychologist and agony aunt, whose advice on sex and intimate relationships appears in many newspapers and magazines. She receives some 25,000 letters a year from people seeking her advice, has written 21 books on relationships and sexuality, and recently updated Alex Comfort’s 1970s sex classic, The Joy of Sex.