What to Read When You Want Strong Women Who Refuse to Shut Up About Sexuality

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Writing about sex for a living was never the plan. Rather, it was a gig I face-planted my way into when I was twenty-two. “Are you comfortable with adult content?” I was asked during an interview for an editorial internship in the new media department of an alternative weekly. I didn’t know what that meant, but I wasn’t about to admit it.

Several years later, my mom was making photocopies of my first print magazine clip, a piece about sex parties around the world that ran in Playgirl. She was excited to share my success with all of her friends and coworkers. She also assumed this whole sex writing thing was just a phase.

Now, sixteen after that, I’m publishing a book about female sexuality. “Is your daughter going to be embarrassed by this someday?” my mom asks during a phone call, whispering as if we were revealing our deepest, darkest secrets to each other or planning a murder spree.

Can you understand why I might appreciate the works of outspoken, brilliant women who don’t shy away from writing about sex?

We treat sex like a dirty word, and women in particular are often silenced when it comes to their sexual experiences and desires. If you, too, are hungry to hear more from women—to shatter this silence—allow me to recommend the following reads.

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Men Explain Things to Me by Rebecca Solnit
I often describe this essay collection to others as a call to action against rape culture. “The Longest War” and “#YesAllWomen” in particular make me want to howl at the sky while tearing my hair out. In these pieces, Solnit shoves the realities of domestic and sexual violence in our faces, but also points to how the conversations around rape culture are changing, with women’s voices growing louder, and their experiences more visible.

 

Hunger: A Memoir of (My) Body by Roxane Gay
Gay recently released an anthology of essays called Not That Bad, a title that is absolute perfection in the way it nods at the mindset women often carry around their own experiences. But I have to give a shout-out here to Hunger, a lyrical memoir that ripped my heart to shreds. In it, Gay writes about the complicated relationship she has with her body, and the ways in which sexual violence has shaped this relationship.

 

Mean by Myriam Gurba
Another lyrical memoir that circles around a sexual assault, Gurba is open and unapologetic and generous in her writing about both the ugliness of her experiences and the complicated terrain of her interior world. This book is a necessary exploration of sexual violence, guilt, culpability, race, misogyny, and homophobia. It is an accounting of what we owe to the world, and what we owe to ourselves.

 

Her Body and Other Parties by Carmen Maria Machado
One of only two works of fiction on this list, Machado’s collection of speculative fiction picks apart what it means to be a woman, and who is allowed to claim ownership of women’s bodies. Her protagonists are shameless when it comes to their own sexual appetites, which is a welcome change at a time in which women are simultaneously sexualized against their will, and then shamed for that sexuality.

 

Come as You Are: The Surprising New Science That Will Transform Your Sex Life by Emily Nagoski
This book about female sexual response transformed the way I looked at my own supposed shortcomings in the bedroom. I feel unending gratitude for the ways in which Nagoski systematically shatters the myth of female sexual dysfunction, using her background as both an educator and a researcher to show women what’s really happening in their minds and bodies, and proving that there’s no such thing as normal.

 

Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson
I was blindsided by this YA novel about a young woman’s rape at the hands of a high school senior, and the depression she becomes immersed in over the course of the year that followed. Anderson’s protagonist wraps herself in a protective layer of silence, curling deeper into herself as she is ostracized by her fellow students. When she finally breaks that silence, you’ll want to pump your fists in victory.

 

This Will Be My Undoing: Living at the Intersection of Black, Female, and Feminist in (White) America by Morgan Jerkins
It might seem weird to include this collection of autobiographical essays, as the majority of them don’t touch upon sexuality at all. Rather, they focus on race and gender. But when I read Jerkins’s piece on her own sexual awakening—one colored by her struggles with the inherent power imbalances that exist when it comes to sex—I felt so seen.

 

Love and Trouble: A Midlife Reckoning by Claire Dederer
In Dederer’s memoir, she struggles to reconcile the young woman she used to be with the woman she has become in midlife. But what was most fascinating for me—and what made me do a double take of self-recognition—were the things she wrote about sexuality and power, and about the deep desire she had to be wanted by others.

 

The Chronology of Water by Lidia Yuknavitch
Another lyrical memoir (do you see a trend here?), Yuknavitch’s breakout book gives the reader an intimate glimpse at her troubled childhood, eventually bringing the reader all way the way through to what is oftentimes an equally troubled adulthood. Along the way, she touches upon themes of gender, sexuality, violence, and self-destruction. This description doesn’t do the book justice, FYI. It is a stunner.

 

And to close out this awesome list, we just had to include Steph’s forthcoming memoir, A Dirty Word, out October 9 from Cleis Press!  – Ed.

A Dirty Word: How a Sex Writer Reclaimed Her Sexuality by Steph Auteri
In her fifteen years as a sex writer, Steph has attended sex parties, porn parties, and cuddle parties. She’s been present at erotic art gallery openings and launches for porn films, sex ed books, and sex toy lines. But her one big, bad secret? Her sex drive is in the gutter. A Dirty Word is a collection of essays about Steph’s assumed sexual dysfunction and the sex writing life she embraced as a form of shock therapy. In it, she explores the history of female sexual dysfunction and the ways in which the pharmaceutical industry, the medical community, and our culture at large have conspired to co-opt and pathologize women’s sexuality. Through it all, she also recounts her own experiences, from her early fears about sex to her doubts about her libido to what she plans—and hopes—to teach her daughter about body image and sexuality. In the end, she finally accepts that she is not broken, and shows readers how she learned to demand sex that feels good.


Steph Auteri has written about women's health and sexuality for Undark, Narratively, the Atlantic, The Establishment, and other publications. She is also a regular contributor to Book Riot and the blog for the Center for Sex Education. Her book, A Dirty Word, is forthcoming from Cleis Press in fall 2018. You can learn more at stephauteri.com. Follow her on Twitter at @stephauteri. More from this author →