Sex books are like cookbooks. The good ones tell you how so clearly and intelligently that before you know it, you're making dinner parties and baking baguettes, your fear of dessert for eight and the terrors of creme caramel behind you. The great cookbooks make you want to cook. They make you feel more than trusting; they make you confident, even cocky.
And so it is with sex books. I think people read them for the facts and for guidance. Almost all of these books—and there are hundreds, for any kind of anybody who has sex—get the facts right. "Do not handle the penis too gently." And "You can get pregnant while nursing." But creating the how-to sex book that avoids the mechanical, the condescending, the clinical, the disgusting and the leering is an art.
I've read a hundred guides to sex so you don't have to. And here's the best of the bunch!
Sex for One and Orgasms for Two by Betty Dodson
Although younger women appreciate her, too—as the godmother of masturbation—an older woman can't do better than Betty Dodson (Sex for One, and her new one, Orgasms for Two). Round, gray, fearless and kindhearted, she will be the encouraging best friend, the straight-shooting neighbor who knows what she's talking about: marriage, monogamy and infidelity, sleeping with women, sleeping with men, sleeping with yourself. Plus she looks like everyone's Aunt Shirley and writes like her, too—if your Aunt Shirley is a wise old tiger.
The Big Bang by the writers at Nerve
"There's nothing worse than a sloppy drool ring around your mouth that starts to cool as it dries. Better to be a tease: Make them wait for the kiss. Get as close to each other's mouths as you can without actually kissing. Brush your lips together. See who crumbles first." — From The Big Bang
The Big Bang: Nerve's Guide to the New Sexual Universe is the hippest, the funniest and the funkiest; lots of frank language and a general air of cool, heterosexual downtown-ness pervades. Ideal for a young adult or your sister who just got a tiny tattoo that no one can see.
The Guide to Getting It On! by Paul Joannides
"Clitoris—Latin for 'darned thing was here just a second ago.' The only organ in either the male or the female body whose sole purpose is pleasure, which from a biological perspective might indicate that the female genitals are more highly evolved than the male's." — From Guide to Getting It On!
If you prefer to call your vagina "down there," without irony and cannot bear to look at yourself naked, this is not the book for you. The Guide to Getting It On is very good at anticipating both the usual and the slightly unusual questions and at providing detailed, supportive answers.
The Good Vibrations Guide to Sex by Cathy Winks and Anne Semans
"Considering how the media loves sex, it's surprising that we haven't seen the headline 'Study Shows Daily Masturbation Reduces Stress, Invigorates Heart, and Prolongs Life.' It's just another example of the taboo shrouding this simple sexual activity, because all of that is true!" — From The Good Vibrations Guide to Sex
The Good Vibrations Guide to Sex (which I have recommended so many times I should get a percentage) is not as funny as Nerve magazine's sex and dating columnists Em and Lo in The Big Bang nor as funky as "the laid-back doctor-is-in" in Getting It On—but it is the best in the sense of being useful for absolutely everyone. Old, young, fit, disabled, gay, straight or working out the details, this book tells you, shows you and reassures you. Mother's Day, Father's Day, graduation day, Christmas and Kwanza—a few days after they stop blushing, people will thank you. Now That We've Talked About Sex...
Yes, it's embarrassing to walk into the bookstore and reveal that you want or need these books. But the truth is that not knowing how your body really works or what makes your partner ecstatically and orgasmically happy (and don't think that because your partner's a man it's so obvious) or how to deal with bodily changes (pregnancy, menopause, disability, impotence) is what should be embarrassing.
Get a sex book so things don't fester or worry you or puzzle you or elude you. Get a book so that you don't have to go through a long, dull, shaming patch in which neither of you can express your desires...or your dislikes.
And if you can't bring yourself to go into your local bookstore and meet a stranger's gaze while buying a sex book, be glad you live in this great country of ours. You can find it online.
Amy Bloom's most recent book is Normal: Transsexual CEOs, Crossdressing Cops, and Hermaphrodites with Attitude (Random House).