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Sex: Lessons From History

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Sex, for the entirety of human history, has never been about reproduction. Statistically speaking, only one out of every one thousand sexual acts between a man and a woman will result in a pregnancy. And, as we know, sex does not solely take place just between men and women. So: what is sex for? In this wide-ranging and powerful new history of sex, Dr Fern Riddell will unco Sex, for the entirety of human history, has never been about reproduction. Statistically speaking, only one out of every one thousand sexual acts between a man and a woman will result in a pregnancy. And, as we know, sex does not solely take place just between men and women. So: what is sex for? In this wide-ranging and powerful new history of sex, Dr Fern Riddell will uncover the sexual lives of our ancestors and show that, just like us, they were as preoccupied with sexual identities, masturbation, foreplay, sex and deviance; facing it with the same confusion, joy and accidental hilarity that we do today. By looking at how history has dealt with different parts of our sexual experience, we're taken on an illuminating and entertaining journey about why we have sex - and what that means today.


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Sex, for the entirety of human history, has never been about reproduction. Statistically speaking, only one out of every one thousand sexual acts between a man and a woman will result in a pregnancy. And, as we know, sex does not solely take place just between men and women. So: what is sex for? In this wide-ranging and powerful new history of sex, Dr Fern Riddell will unco Sex, for the entirety of human history, has never been about reproduction. Statistically speaking, only one out of every one thousand sexual acts between a man and a woman will result in a pregnancy. And, as we know, sex does not solely take place just between men and women. So: what is sex for? In this wide-ranging and powerful new history of sex, Dr Fern Riddell will uncover the sexual lives of our ancestors and show that, just like us, they were as preoccupied with sexual identities, masturbation, foreplay, sex and deviance; facing it with the same confusion, joy and accidental hilarity that we do today. By looking at how history has dealt with different parts of our sexual experience, we're taken on an illuminating and entertaining journey about why we have sex - and what that means today.

30 review for Sex: Lessons From History

  1. 4 out of 5

    picoas picoas

    If you're into stuff like this, you can read the full review. Dominatrix, the Gaul: "Sex: Lessons From History" by Fern Riddell Sexuality is learnt? I think sexuality is learnt, in a sense. For example, you hear stories of brothers and sisters growing up apart, meeting as adults and being sexually attracted to each other. Brothers and sisters growing up together generally aren't sexually attracted to each other. (Yes, it does occasionally happen, I know; vide Eça de Queiroz’s “Os Maias” (vide revie If you're into stuff like this, you can read the full review. Dominatrix, the Gaul: "Sex: Lessons From History" by Fern Riddell Sexuality is learnt? I think sexuality is learnt, in a sense. For example, you hear stories of brothers and sisters growing up apart, meeting as adults and being sexually attracted to each other. Brothers and sisters growing up together generally aren't sexually attracted to each other. (Yes, it does occasionally happen, I know; vide Eça de Queiroz’s “Os Maias” (vide review).

  2. 4 out of 5

    Roman Clodia

    This is a cross between a popular history of sex and sexual culture, and polemic - the latter emerging towards the end and from an inclusive, liberal perspective. Anyone who hasn't studied gender and sexualities in terms of history and/or literature may well be pleasantly surprised, and Riddell brings together an excellent assortment of material, both primary and secondary, to illustrate her points. If I have qualms they're that speaking of a single 'sexual culture' either now or in the past see This is a cross between a popular history of sex and sexual culture, and polemic - the latter emerging towards the end and from an inclusive, liberal perspective. Anyone who hasn't studied gender and sexualities in terms of history and/or literature may well be pleasantly surprised, and Riddell brings together an excellent assortment of material, both primary and secondary, to illustrate her points. If I have qualms they're that speaking of a single 'sexual culture' either now or in the past seems limited and simplifying - I would say there are sexual cultures, plural, which co-exist and which may overlap. I also think that it might have been productive to pay some attention to classical Greek and Rome whose literature was already doing all kinds of interesting things in terms of sexuality from the androgynous Hermaphroditus, the sex-changing Tiresias, and myriad masculine rapists (and almost a female one in Salmacis), the beautiful boys like Hyacinthus and Ganymede loved by men, and the powerful ways in which masculine sexuality and power became interchangeable in some of the 'obscene' poetry of Catullus. My final point is that while I understand that the material is organised thematically, it can be problematic to jump from the sixteenth century in one sentence to the nineteenth in the next. The argument tends to be universalised throughout the book and a more nuanced contextualisation and historicisation tends to be flattened. That said, I appreciate this is not a book aimed as a specialised or academic audience. Overall, then, this is a good layman's history and is both entertaining as well as instructive. Thanks to the publisher for an ARC via NetGalley.

  3. 4 out of 5

    books4chess

    "To understand that who we love and how we desire is not biologically determined or binary" I am truly so glad I had the opportunity to read this and broaden my horizons on the sexual landscape of humanity! A lot of sexual health books at the moment focus on the biology and expectations we place on sex so it was extremely interesting to read about it from a historical and linguistic standpoint. Language is powerful and learning how the words we use today came around and developed their existing m "To understand that who we love and how we desire is not biologically determined or binary" I am truly so glad I had the opportunity to read this and broaden my horizons on the sexual landscape of humanity! A lot of sexual health books at the moment focus on the biology and expectations we place on sex so it was extremely interesting to read about it from a historical and linguistic standpoint. Language is powerful and learning how the words we use today came around and developed their existing meaning's helps us to understand where we've gone wrong and censored our own sexuality. The unique emphasis broke down a rather densely informative book into various hilarious lists, of which favourite had to be the varying vagina related names - especially palace of pleasure and nonynony. The book was fascinating, focusing on how we got to where we are today, highlighting where it all went wrong and sex became a 'naughty' subject. It encouraged the reader to question how important knowledge taught and passed on by our ancestors disappeared through censorship. Our bodies became topics discussed only through innuendos and crude expressions, resulting in the genuine interest in the human body becoming a perverse topic of conversation. It's sad, but important to understand. Further, it was refreshing to read the focus on how natural LGBTQ+ is in-spite of the modern-day lens that corrupts human sex into rigid structures. The book reminds us that there existing expectations are arbitrarily man-made rules (lesbian fear anyone!?) and encourages the reader to follow their desires. Ashamedly, I previously knew little of the original sexologists, but learning of their curious natures and willingness to test their own bodies to learn more about topics such as desire and pleasure was deeply interesting. Humans are naturally sexual beings but in our current state and the books predicted trajectory, people will continue to be shamed if we don't address the wrong steps we've taken into unlearning ourselves and others. A single review can not do justice without spoiling / regurgitating every single well-researched and poignantly delivered discussion, but I would rate the book 10/5 if possible for it's content, delivery and approach. Thank you to Netgalley and Hodder & Stoughton for the ARC in return for an honest review.

  4. 5 out of 5

    Colby Bettley

    Thank you to Hodder & Stoughton and Netgalley for my copy of this arc. This book was absolutely fascinating. It provided an in depth and detailed review of our sexual history, highlighting documents and articles throughout the ages that referenced society's desire to find sexual pleasure. Riddell aims to delineate that humans are instinctively sexual. The newer generations have not just discovered their libidos and decided to experiment; in fact, our ancestors paved the way to our awakenings. Wh Thank you to Hodder & Stoughton and Netgalley for my copy of this arc. This book was absolutely fascinating. It provided an in depth and detailed review of our sexual history, highlighting documents and articles throughout the ages that referenced society's desire to find sexual pleasure. Riddell aims to delineate that humans are instinctively sexual. The newer generations have not just discovered their libidos and decided to experiment; in fact, our ancestors paved the way to our awakenings. While it was more frowned upon, and equality was almost non-existent, the people of our history were keen to explore their own desires. I found that to be incredible to read. It had humourous undertones at points and was easy to follow, despite reading more like a textbook. I think it is an important subject that should be openly talked about and Fern Riddell has made a huge step forward to allowing that to happen.

  5. 4 out of 5

    Siâni

    In 2021, you wouldn’t think we’d need a book teaching us the history of sex. I think we’re all guilty of believing we have now reached the pinnacle of sexual freedom and expression, especially in Britain. We have contraception, sex toy shops on the Highstreet, and tv shows like Bridgerton and Outlander. Well, Dr. Fern Riddell has a few things to say. Sex – Lessons from History is an incredibly insightful book. It shows that we have not magically come up with trans and sexual freedoms. Throughout In 2021, you wouldn’t think we’d need a book teaching us the history of sex. I think we’re all guilty of believing we have now reached the pinnacle of sexual freedom and expression, especially in Britain. We have contraception, sex toy shops on the Highstreet, and tv shows like Bridgerton and Outlander. Well, Dr. Fern Riddell has a few things to say. Sex – Lessons from History is an incredibly insightful book. It shows that we have not magically come up with trans and sexual freedoms. Throughout history, trans people existed. Societies and cultures did exist where sexual freedom was the goal. I was quite surprised to not read page after page of doom and gloom. This is usually what I expect as a woman reading this type of book. I wait for the pages of evidence of women being mutilated, abused, and used. That is not the case! Riddell does tackle the difficult and sad issues. You cannot escape the history of how gay men were treated and women having to fight for their right to contraception. What I enjoyed was that Riddell didn’t only talk about the sad. Evidence is out there that highlights that people enjoyed sex in the past. I was surprised to read that Germany was quite progressive in sex education and trans surgery before the Nazis came along. I would never have imagined such a sophisticated building dedicated to trans surgery would have been built in Germany in the early 20th century. It is sad to think how the world may look if that attitude were allowed to continue. I also very much enjoyed reading that, in the 19th century, it was believed that women’s vulvas had the power to scare the devil away. The highlight of the book for me was James Joyce’s letter to his wife, Nora. You will have to read the book to discover it but gosh, I was shocked, and I am annoyed that I didn’t study this letter in my modernist module for my MA. Why are we studying Ulysses when this gem exists?! The book has something for everyone and it’s a great example of how history can still teach us something today. Kitty Marion makes a couple of appearances (I cheered out loud) and if you enjoyed Riddell’s novel about Kitty then you will also enjoy this. Riddell has a way of informing but also making you laugh and enjoy what you read. Yet, the seriousness that is needed when discussing the grave subjects is also felt. I highly recommend this book!

  6. 4 out of 5

    Rosie G

    Coming at this as someone who has an interest in gender and sexuality but has not studied it academically, I found Riddell’s approach to the history of sex and sexuality to be eye opening. Using repeated examples throughout the book Riddle debunked my attitude towards Victorian sensibilities and laid out the fact that we are not as modern in our attitudes as we think we are. Her focus on LGBT+ aspect of history was also a welcome relief when our stories are often a footnote in other books or lef Coming at this as someone who has an interest in gender and sexuality but has not studied it academically, I found Riddell’s approach to the history of sex and sexuality to be eye opening. Using repeated examples throughout the book Riddle debunked my attitude towards Victorian sensibilities and laid out the fact that we are not as modern in our attitudes as we think we are. Her focus on LGBT+ aspect of history was also a welcome relief when our stories are often a footnote in other books or left out all together. The themed chapters worked well – as much as they can when trying to outline a long complicated history – I particularly liked her chapters on Contraception, and Sex Work. Both areas deal with the policing of women’s bodies in one way or another and reading this you can see how our current attitudes developed. Her chapter on Rape was again eye-opening and depressing in how the legitimacy of rape claims are often weighted on ‘respectability’ of the women involved irrespective of the era. I found the final chapter on The Future of Sex somewhat jarring and quite negative to begin with compared to previous chapters but it becomes evident that this is deliberate – perhaps a warning shot that we must learn from our history in order to forge a brighter future. All told I would highly recommend for this an enjoyable and enlightening delve into our past.

  7. 4 out of 5

    David

    Sex, one of the most powerful drivers we have as human beings. Love it or hate it, this book is an easily readable history of sex and attitudes towards it through the ages. Whilst we think modern generations are at the forefront of sexual exploration, Dr Ridell through the use of many sources and above all humour, explains and illustrates that all things we think are sexually advanced are actually things experienced and explored by previous generations. The only difference being we as a society Sex, one of the most powerful drivers we have as human beings. Love it or hate it, this book is an easily readable history of sex and attitudes towards it through the ages. Whilst we think modern generations are at the forefront of sexual exploration, Dr Ridell through the use of many sources and above all humour, explains and illustrates that all things we think are sexually advanced are actually things experienced and explored by previous generations. The only difference being we as a society are more open to talking about sex now. A enjoyable and worthwhile read, that challenges our stereotypes of how precious generations viewed sex e.g the victorians. Thank you to NetGalley and the publishers for this advanced copy of review.

  8. 5 out of 5

    Sarah Faichney

    Fern Riddell's "Sex: Lessons From History" is an extensively researched historical study of sex and all things relating to it. The book places particular emphasis on the Victorian era. It's packed full of anecdotes, true crime case studies and old Court records. I love how women are brought to the forefront in this book and that we get to hear their perspectives in their own words. Fern Riddell's "Sex: Lessons From History" is an extensively researched historical study of sex and all things relating to it. The book places particular emphasis on the Victorian era. It's packed full of anecdotes, true crime case studies and old Court records. I love how women are brought to the forefront in this book and that we get to hear their perspectives in their own words.

  9. 4 out of 5

    Katie

    This book was a fascinating exploration of the history of sex and how society, over time, has engaged with, censored and celebrated the most natural of acts. I found Fern Riddell's writing to be erudite and accessible which was incredibly useful as I become increasingly aware of how little I actually knew. The author documents how societal attitudes have impacted on individuality, freedom and self-expression. Rigidity and repression around sexuality have had catastrophic consequences for people This book was a fascinating exploration of the history of sex and how society, over time, has engaged with, censored and celebrated the most natural of acts. I found Fern Riddell's writing to be erudite and accessible which was incredibly useful as I become increasingly aware of how little I actually knew. The author documents how societal attitudes have impacted on individuality, freedom and self-expression. Rigidity and repression around sexuality have had catastrophic consequences for people and it struck me how the author stressed the need to look at the past and individuals who have paved the way so that we may enjoy our personal freedoms. Each chapter introduces the reader to individuals who have fought the accepted status quo and how we have benefitted from it and stepped further towards inclusivity. The exploration of the Victorians was of particular interest to me. Stereotypical perceptions may consider it to be a time of sexual repression and duplicity however Riddell presents a society that was far from it, a society that contained many individuals willing to challenge authority in order to obtain the future rights of many. A fascinating, informative and educational read that cuts to the very heart of what it is to be human.

  10. 5 out of 5

    Beth Younge

    This was an informative and interesting read. It added to information i already knew with a ton more i didn't. The writing was easily accesible and the layout was clear and easy to follow. This is one academic book that everyone can access. This was an informative and interesting read. It added to information i already knew with a ton more i didn't. The writing was easily accesible and the layout was clear and easy to follow. This is one academic book that everyone can access.

  11. 5 out of 5

    Anke

    Fern Riddell has written a very accessible and interesting history of sexuality that challenges you to rethink your own views and prejudices towards sex and everything it entails. Both people who've never read anything on the history of sexuality and people who have will find new and surprising information in this book. Riddell's writing is a joy to read with precise but engaging descriptions and some humorous notes sprinkled in along the way. The entire book is clearly written and designed to h Fern Riddell has written a very accessible and interesting history of sexuality that challenges you to rethink your own views and prejudices towards sex and everything it entails. Both people who've never read anything on the history of sexuality and people who have will find new and surprising information in this book. Riddell's writing is a joy to read with precise but engaging descriptions and some humorous notes sprinkled in along the way. The entire book is clearly written and designed to highlight female voices, female participation and female stories while still managing to give a broad overview. She also doesn't shy away from controversial but important topics, such as when she addresses the "debate" on transgender issues by TERF's and "gender critical feminists" in her final chapter. The only "negative" remarks I can give is that, especially in the first few chapters of the book, there are quite a few typos and mistakes that were clearly missed in editing. But this is a minor concern. Aside from that, she can also get a little repetitive in her conclusions of every chapter, always alluding to the same "we have lost and misconstrued a lot of sexual freedom from the past" idea but as this is the central tenet of her book, it isn't overly annoying. All in all, a great read that will amaze, shock and lure you into further reflection, even after finishing.

  12. 4 out of 5

    N.Barber

    Brave but frustrating I enjoyed this book and found it thought-provoking, but in trying to straddle academic thoroughness and an accessible text, I felt that there were gaps in the evidence that left me thinking "but what about...?" Each chapter could easily have been a book in its own right and therein lies the author's and publisher's conundrum. The value in this text is that it's sent me off in search of further reading and that's always a good thing. Brave but frustrating I enjoyed this book and found it thought-provoking, but in trying to straddle academic thoroughness and an accessible text, I felt that there were gaps in the evidence that left me thinking "but what about...?" Each chapter could easily have been a book in its own right and therein lies the author's and publisher's conundrum. The value in this text is that it's sent me off in search of further reading and that's always a good thing.

  13. 4 out of 5

    Heidi

    This was extensively researched and sex is a fascinating topic, but I found it impossible to get on with this book. I don't know why I had a hard time with it, which is frustrating. All I know is that it was a struggle to make it to the end of every single page. (I received a copy from the publisher via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.) This was extensively researched and sex is a fascinating topic, but I found it impossible to get on with this book. I don't know why I had a hard time with it, which is frustrating. All I know is that it was a struggle to make it to the end of every single page. (I received a copy from the publisher via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.)

  14. 5 out of 5

    Catherine Paddon

    Fantastic book. Well researched, well expressed and thought provoking on how we have got to this odd prudishness vs shock jockey attitude towards sex and sexual acts. Will be recommending this to friends in perpetuity.

  15. 4 out of 5

    Aiza

    This review has been hidden because it contains spoilers. To view it, click here. GOOD

  16. 4 out of 5

    Annie

    Will make you think about the subject, with the final chapter on the future of sex the most worrying.

  17. 4 out of 5

    Laura

  18. 4 out of 5

    Jo

  19. 5 out of 5

    Megan Jenks

  20. 4 out of 5

    Johanna

  21. 4 out of 5

    Michelle

  22. 5 out of 5

    Jane

  23. 4 out of 5

    Chloe

  24. 4 out of 5

    Christine

  25. 4 out of 5

    Steph Pomfrett

  26. 5 out of 5

    Jack Uttley

  27. 4 out of 5

    James

  28. 4 out of 5

    Christina Kinney

  29. 5 out of 5

    Jojo Dickinson

  30. 5 out of 5

    Kelly

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