Sex

An Illustrated Guide to Why We Fuck the Way We Do

The history of sex becomes a study of power, gender, religion—and sexual positions—when you lay it all out from ancient times to present day.

by Tshepo Mokoena
Nov 13 2016, 4:00pm

This article originally appeared on VICE UK

You're sitting in your room, phone in hand. Or maybe it's your laptop balanced on your thighs, or nestled on the duvet at an angle. Either way, you're on your porn site of choice, tapping in the search terms that you know are guaranteed to lead to the sort of mid-afternoon weekend climax you've come to know with a gentle familiarity. Later, when you think back to the cumshot you'd needed, or POV shot of a woman's bare bum, that orgasm will feel like the most natural thing in the world.

But it's not, according to French sexologist and psychiatrist Philippe Brenot. He's collaborated with illustrator Letitia Coryn on a new graphic novel—in every sense—that charts the entire history of sex and sexuality in the (mostly Western) world, and comes to one simple conclusion: what we consider the "natural" way to understand sexuality isn't something we're innately born with. Really, we're learning all of this from each other.

"There's no such thing as sexual instinct," Philippe says, speaking over the phone in a mixture of French and slightly halting English. "I had to simplify a lot to fit it into the book, but by now we know that sexuality is learned—and that seems to be something women understand more than men."

Philippe's book was recently covered by The Guardian, running under a headline that hinged on this idea of sexuality as something we learn from the society around us. And the legion of commenters were having none of it. "Yes, after a few days I suddenly received dozens of tweets in English—'Philippe says sexuality is learned, Philippe Brenot this, Philippe Brenot that,'" he says, laughing. "Men reacted more to what I'd said because they're the ones who get erections and think, 'a-ha, that must be some sort of involuntary instinct. It then follows that I have to make love every day to use this erection.' But no, that isn't true. There isn't isn't necessarily a universal sexual need that we all have to fulfill. And that doesn't sit well with how men see themselves."

The idea that what gets us off—slow, sensual sex, giving or receiving cunnilingus, aggressive simulated rape—isn't just coded into our DNA clearly messes with a lot of people's minds. When you look back at your own YouPorn search history, there may be things on it that you accept are just a part of you scratching an itch, to release some tension. After spending more than 20 years working as a couples' therapist and academic, 68-year-old Philippe saw the reality as more complex. And now The Story of Sex: From Apes to Robots traces the roots of how and why we fuck, starting with monotheistic creation tales, soaring past "egalitarian Egypt," ancient Greece and Rome, the Middle Ages, and Freud, before arriving at our present (and peering apprehensively into the future).

The book is a tome, its cover awash with the sweeping lines of naked illustrated bodies in various states of joyously going at it. You flick past Philippe's condensed accounts of how 13th-century theologian Saint Thomas Aquinas, Aristotle, and an Etruscan-shunning Roman republic all set back years of sexual liberation by claiming that women were inferior to men, and shouldn't enjoy sexual pleasure of their own—and, obviously, that homosexuality wasn't meant to be a thing. You learn why repressed Victorian Brits considered the word "leg" too salacious for pleasant company.

Mostly, after going through such an exhaustive and dense look back at where sex intersects with power, religion, and gender, you question just about everything you've come to think about why we believe in monogamy, why we accept the idea that men are "hardwired to cheat" and what the purpose and form of the family will be, once straight people marrying for life isn't the only model.

"The lessons the book transmits shows that there's never been equality between men and women in terms of sexual matters," says Will McMorran, a senior lecturer in French and comparative literature at Queen Mary University of London, who translated the text into English. "It shows the social roots of all of that, the way it's built into those societies and compounded by the church." That wasn't necessarily what he was expecting, when the chance to work on the book landed in his lap.

"My initial reaction was skeptical when they told me about this. You know, a French middle-aged guy writing a history of sexuality left alarm bells ringing slightly—it could have been really bad," he says, with a chuckle. "But I was pleasantly surprised that this seemed a feminist text, asking questions about women's place in society. The stuff on Babylon—free love, but just for men—that kind of thing."

A lot of that perspective came from Philippe working closely with 32-year-old Laetitia Coryn, whose illustrations and speech bubble gags lend the book its winking humor. Creating it, she says, "was a responsibility—you have to understand where sex comes from, how it was built, to understand different elements of it. We were so immersed in the book that when we read it again we realized, 'This is about male domination over women.' And Philippe agreed. And we didn't do that on purpose—but it's the story. That wasn't our intention from the start, but was what we ended up with."

The book sometimes expresses an underlying anxiety. Both Laetitia and Philippe express concerns about how porn may be turning into the only form of sex ed for a generation otherwise starved of a healthy and comprehensive sexual syllabus in school. "And that isn't just learning about biology, physical anatomy, and what our sexual organs are," Philippe says. Rather, we've got to grapple with the notion that our sexual habits—and this is regardless of sexual orientation, obviously—are fluid. What turns us on will depend on what we've seen and imitated, something Will mentions in our conversation.

"I remember one of my students saying that, when speaking with friends, they could all tell which of their boyfriends had watched a lot of porn, just by the way they behave in bed. So that's interesting, in terms of the gap between the real and the fantasy—like a modern equivalent of old fears that the novel would make people's morals loose, or the cinema would corrupt its audiences."

The model, and the fantasy it projects, can be manipulated to either help people live sexually healthy lives—with consenting adults doing what makes them happy—or the current system we have, which grips us in a chokehold and tries to set a rigid template. "I'd known all those ideas for so long that I felt compelled to set them down to paper," Philippe says. "In a book like this—a comic, almost, a novel—I had to decide. Whereas in scientific books we don't make decisions. We say: 'here's one hypothesis, here's another and here's a third.' I had to work extremely hard to look at all the angles here, distill them down, and make sure what I researched and found was fair. And it is."

'The Story of Sex: From Apes to Robots' is available now via Penguin Random House imprint Particular Books

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