The French do it again: An irresistible Story of Sex

How much do you know about sex? Probably less than you think. That’s how I felt, anyway, after reading The Story of Sex, a delightful book on sex.

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I first came across The Story of Sex in an article in theguardian.com with a long, formidable title: A graphic history of sex: ‘There is no gene that drives sexuality. All sexuality is learned. As if that isn’t enough, just below the title is a box of fun illustrations that includes nude figures. I read the article and bought the book. Who can resist?

The book has the right pedigree to intrigue me and give me that final nudge to part with my book dollars. Philippe Brenot, French psychiatrist, anthropologist, and Director of Sexology at Paris Descartes University penned the words (translated into English by Will Mcmorran); Laetitia Coryn, an artist with at least one graphic book to her name, did the illustrations. Yes, this story of sex is a book done in comic strips by professionals who excel at what they do. And, the book, only available in print, is actually rather cheap as far as hardcover books go, particularly a fully illustrated one.

Though touted as a graphic novel, strictly speaking, the book is not a novel. Although it has mythical stories from antiquity, Dr. Brenot keeps as closely to facts as he possibly can. But he can only do so much since there are inevitable limits to what we can know before people began making records of events. We can only speculate about what sex was like in the prehistoric period, for instance. Or, like the book, turn to Babylonian, Egyptian, Greek, and Roman mythologies.

The Story of Sex is many things. Pornography is not one of them, although someone prudish who looks at the cover might think so.

History, art, science, mythology, humor, religion — you’ll find all those in the book. It’s erotic, yes. How can it not be? But it’s also chock-full of information; or, when that’s not possible, theorizing based on knowledge.

Having a graduate degree in psychology, I thought I knew a lot about sex. It’s a topic dealt with in several courses I took. I also worked in mental health programs where many problems you see relate to sex (repression, incest, obsessions, sex offenses). But this book’s sweeping, eclectic perspective taught me much more or, at least, gave me a better understanding — of the origins of sex; and how practices, beliefs, and attitudes about sex developed across the ages, starting with man’s simian ancestors, all the way to the author’s chilling but funny visions for the future.

Many unexpected bits of information pepper the book. For instance, you might think apes don’t have our intelligence and morals so they mate with any other available and ready apes, including their sisters and daughters. That, at their level, only hormones matter (Hormones determine when a female animal is in heat and ready for penetration). In fact, apes don’t commit incest; whereas in the US, incest is a big problem among humans, often taking the form of child sexual abuse.

Some information in the book made me better understand some things, such as the repressive effects of religion on sexual mores and practices. It seems we can blame Saint Augustine for many of our hang-ups.

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Depending on where you are on the subject of sex, you’ll find this book more or less enlightening. Either way, I think it’s rather entertaining. Presenting the topic in a comic book form is a truly inspired move.

As far as I can tell googling the topic, this is the only comprehensive book on the history of sex; and it most certainly is the only one that presents that story as a graphic novel. It’s that rare combination of both serious and fun, all wrapped up in tongue-in-cheek dialogue and bold, engaging graphic art. And since it’s all about that eternally fascinating subject, it does occasionally titillate.

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