Carnal Knowledge Is the Sex Guide You Wish You Had In High School

Zoë Ligon is a charismatic force. The self-proclaimed “Dildo Duchess” is a writer, sex educator and owner of the Detroit-based, online sex toy store Spectrum Boutique. Sometimes even the most comprehensive sex education can feel a little dry, so Ligon revives sexual discourse by putting her own pleasure (and personality) on display. On YouTube, Ligon lets the famed bondage artist Midori tie her up, fills her vagina with “alien eggs” using an ovipositor and somehow manages to narrate her experience riding a Cowgirl Sex Machine.

While sex is often branded as a shocking and mysterious subject, Ligon is whimsical and goofy. Scrolling through her Instagram, you’ll note that she’s just as likely to wear a ruffled, calico dress as she is a leather harness. She brings lightness and curiosity to taboo topics, and her infectious charm is now claiming a spot on bookshelves.

Ligon’s first book, Carnal Knowledge: Sex Education You Didn’t Get In School, reads less like a manual and more like a collection of critical facts. These are the truths you wish you’d learned from your hip older sister if your hip older sister happened to read a lot of feminist literature. Ligon reminds us that “sex is more than penetration,” “pubic hair is not unhygenic” and “sex work is real work,” all while using gender-neutral language and her classic conversational tone. This is not a book that one reads cover to cover, although you certainly can. Carnal Knowledge is best employed on a coffee table or at your bedside, available any time you need a nugget of sexual wisdom. The colorful photos throughout the book by Elizabeth Rentstrom bring Ligon’s boisterous nature to the page and place Carnal Knowledge somewhere between a “sex 101” and an art book.

The information Ligon shares is helpful for anyone looking for a sexual primer. Carnal Knowledge is a solid stepping stone for beginners, but experienced sex nerds might not get much out of its pages. This books functions as an overview of anatomy, sex toys, relationships and sexual health, but it’s not a “how-to.” Ligon encourages readers to experiment with whatever feels good, but if you’re looking for detailed instructions on specific sex acts, you’ll have to look elsewhere.

This book will strike a particularly strong chord with adults who didn’t have have adequate sex ed in their younger years and teens who are stumbling into their first relationships. Dating advice isn’t usually included in “sex 101” books, and its addition in Carnal Knowledge is welcome. Ligon encourages readers to “make your own relationship rules” and reminds us that “relationships don’t need to level up,” two gems I wish I’d known in my early dating years.

Ligon’s book is intended to be an overview, but I wish deeper attention had been paid to certain topics. The importance of lube can be summed up in one page, but the history of racism and ableism in sexual healthcare cannot, although Ligon tried. These topics are certainly critical in sexual discourse, but this book’s single-page, “quick n’ dirty” anecdote style might make those affected by these issues feel disrespected. The format also runs the risk of letting readers unaffected by racism and ableism feel like they “get” a huge topic without further research. Fortunately, Ligon fills in some of these gaps in the “Resources” section in the final pages.

What I appreciate most about Carnal Knowledge is its candid spirit. In Ligon’s view, sexual pleasure isn’t something to whisper about. Sex education should be accurate, nurturing and unabashed, and Carnal Knowledge pulls that off. You can purchase Carnal Knowledge online or at your local bookstore.

Malic White is a Chicago-based writer, comedian and actor. Follow Malic on Twitter and find upcoming shows on Malic's website.

Malic has written 35 articles for us.

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