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Top 15 Books That Gave Me Weird Ideas About Sex and Pregnancy

Pictures of the Autostraddle senior editor team are collaged in colors of cobalt and orange with the words "Happy Birthday Autostraddle" and the number 15 strewed all over for Autostraddle's 15th birthday

Autostraddle just turned 15! To celebrate, we’re publishing chaotic and gay Top 15 Lists.


The following is a list of 15 books that I read before I had firm concepts of what actual adult sex entailed. This time period ranges from a very young, childish not-knowing-how-anything-involving-parts-works to an early middle school knowledge of basic acts, but with many concepts, details, or nuances remaining mysterious or confusing.

For the best emotional accuracy, I’m only sourcing my memory of these books, not re-reading them or reading summaries, so I apologize for any glaring gaps in knowledge or inaccuracies. It’s all part of the trauma!

All in all, this reading material left my brain screaming: “Angels! God! Sleeping bags! Second-hand dresses! Cats! Gays! You’d better watch out!” Listed in order, from least to most concerning and perplexing to my younger self:

15. “The Wild Swans” by Hans Christian Andersen

This book contains no sex. But I was fixated on the image of the heroine staying silent for, what, six years? While weaving sweaters out of stinging nettles? Oof. And the said stinging nettles came from a graveyard where there were also flesh-eating witches? This was… absolutely not the seed of something that I’d be into later. We won’t even get into the part where she gets tied to the stake for witchcraft!

14. Drawing Down the Moon by Margot Adler

The passages about Satanists making altars out of naked women/people had me being like, that’s a thing people can do? Occasionally I would wonder where all the Satanists had gone, and if they were meeting somewhere, engaging in their kinky rituals. I did not find this particularly disturbing, but it did leave me wondering what the heck else adults got up to (which, as it turns out, is all kinds of things).

13. The Song of the Lioness Quartet by Tamora Pierce

How many of us were first introduced to the concept of birth control via the tride and true fantasy method, Birth Control via Amulet? It would be a while before I learned about other kinds of birth control, but I’ll also forever be haunted by the complete and total lack of worry available to fantasy novel heroines versus the rest of us out here in the world in our flesh prisons.

12. Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret by Judy Blume

As a child I had an absolute terror of being constantly observed, down to my thoughts, by the Catholic God. So while talking to God about one’s period is something I can empathize with now at this point in my life, Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret was really not for me at the time. It’s bad enough that this all-seeing Eye of Sauron knew about my period. I didn’t have to talk to him about it. It seemed to be yet another thing he was interested in scrutinizing.

Also confusingly, this is how I learned about menstrual pad belts, which were out of use by the time I read the book and so would never encounter IRL. Where have all the menstrual belts gone?

11. Me Talk Pretty One Day by David Sedaris

How did I get ahold of this David Sedaris book at such a young age? My grandma! Thanks, grandma!

She’d actually be responsible for one-fifth of the books on this list! And this great tome had me convinced that part of being gay was maybe, perhaps, almost certainly also doing speed. I don’t know. You’d have to read it. That’s not accurate, though. You can be gay and not do speed.

10. The Wrinkle in Time Quintet by Madelein L’Engle (specifically Many Waters)

Here, we (young readers) are introduced to the concept of Impregnation By Angel. As I recall, there is a character in this book who is pregnant with an angel — or Nephilim? — baby. Does this count as cross-species romance? Why is this possible? What a concept!

Then, also, somewhere within these five books and very possibly within Many Waters is a Way Too Frank conversation between a mother and daughter where the mother explains that she and the daughter’s father “made love” the night after one of their parents’ funerals as an affirmation of life. This had me pretty sure that the healthier married adult couples in my life routinely fucked after funerals, which, friends, was and is probably not true. Right? This will also not be the last funeral reference in this article.

9. His Dark Materials (aka The Golden Compass books) by Philip Pullman

I’m sorry… the dust… goes away… when children have sex??? I think??? When they lose their “innocence” they lose the touch of this divine dust? What is happening, then, to the children in that laboratory? This whole concept and the implications for the book’s plot left my little mind racing.

8. The Giver by Lois Lowry

This entire book is based around a dystopian society that, to my recollection, engages in a kind of eugenics mainly framed around breeding for color-blindness. They also give people pills to suppress their sexuality, yet still feel the need to pair people off into nuclear family groups in order to raise children who are incubated by a specific class of girls and women. This raised a lot of internal questions about the longterm value of child-rearing as viewed by our current society.

I distinctly remember the “breeders” being sent to do hard labor for the rest of their lives after giving birth twice, and I didn’t see a lot of difference between that and the world around me?

7. D’Aulaires Book of Greek Myths by Ingri D’Aulaire and Edgar Parin D’Aulaire

In second grade, this book left me with a lot of questions about why Pasiphaë, Queen of Crete, would want to have sex with a bull (Poseidon’s curse aside). “Do people have sex with animals?” This is a question a seven-year-old might ask if you give them this beloved, but pleasantly graphic, book.

But at least it didn’t leave me hanging as the myth did provide answers as to just how The Minotaur was made — via cow impersonation. To add to the creepiness, I BELIEVE the D’Aulaires included an illustration of Pasiphaë in her cow costume, made by Daedalus, just to make sure the image was burned into my mind of this stiff-ass cow costume on wheels hanging out in a field with a woman in it just waiting for a bull to come up to her. Wow. And then there’s Zeus turning into a swan, into anything basically. And of course I’m sitting there trying to work out how it… works.

6. The Bible by Various/Unknown

Once again, we’re faced with the idea that angels can impregnate humans. Right off the bat, actually. It happens pretty quickly when it comes to the chronological history of humanity according to the Bible. Human beings don’t make it very far at all — I think just a few generations maybe — before angels decide to fuck them! (And it is the angels who saw that the daughters of man were beautiful or whatever the line is… so totally their idea!) Could this happen again? It depends on how real you think angels are, I guess.

Between that and the Immaculate Conception, the chances of getting pregnant from DOING NOTHING seemed pretty high to young me. Then, we get to the part with Lot and his daughters. Awful. Traumatizing. Blessedly for me (considering how the world is), this was the first time I came across the concept of incest. But I also didn’t need to come across it at all as a kid, you know?

5. “The Lawnmower Man” from The Night Shift by Stephen King

Sure, I probably shouldn’t have been reading Stephen King’s Night Shift with my best friend (who had checked it out from the library) when we were like eleven. For the most part, though, the stories were a good romp.

But “The Lawnmower Man” was by far the exception. The titular character was this Devil/demon that… both emasculated and terrorized a man by eating his lawn and then defecating in it instead of actually mowing it by any normal means, all while naked. It has to be one of the most disturbing images of masculine sexuality that has ever been burned into my brain. I don’t know about weird “ideas” but it definitely deposited a visceral fear of naked demonic figures, which, I guess, was something I had in common with a lot of people now that I think about it.

4. Cat Behavior by Paul Leyhausen

I was in elementary school when, naturally, an interest in my family’s pet cat led me to this book. And it was within the confines of its pages that the concept of how P-in-V sex actually worked really sunk in for me. Why?

Because the book, in far too much detail, explained the mating habits of cats. It also did not shy away from talking, again — with livid, illustrative detail — about the fact that cat penises were spiked and presumed painful for cats on the receiving end. Of all the scientific facts I was collecting, this was one of the worst!

3. Raptor by Gary Jennings

While many of the gruesome rape and battle and torture scenes throughout this book’s epic 900 pages have stuck with me to this day (and are why this ranks so damn high because…um…I will never forget the thing about the intestines), Raptor was also perhaps my introduction to the concept of Lesbian Nun Sex.

Not only did it introduce me to lesbian nuns (and rapey monks, ugh), but the main character is an intersex person, and their identity is core to the plot of the book — problematic or not. This book is actually a pretty well-historically-researched journey through the 5th/6th century Roman Empire. It also gave younger me ideas about switching between gender presentations at will. So, while that was not particularly traumatizing, it had a stickiness in my gay little head to be certain.

However, I also knew, on a deep level, that the contents of this book were Not To Be Discussed with anyone, and that certainly fed into the sense of secrecy that was already growing around what I suspected was a “deviant” sexuality on my part. I read it in secret, under the covers, at my grandma’s house while staying over. (To this day, personally, I love that she owned and read this book. Good for her.)

2. “The White Gown” from Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark by Alvin Schwartz

Thanks to one particular tale, as a small child I began to associate dating and kissing boys with dying from wearing a dress that was soaked in formaldehyde to a school dance. It would be some years before I got to a place where I truly believed that accidental formaldehyde poisoning was not a main concern when making my foray into my future sex and dating life.

1. The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test by Tom Wolfe

There was a line in this book, which I co-read with my best friend at age ten or so, that involved a sleeping bag which apparently all the guys on some hippie bus jerked off into?

Tom Wolfe would go on to say that the sleeping bag could get a virgin pregnant. I took this literally, as a possibility, and would be afraid of errant sperm on surfaces for QUITE SOME TIME.


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Nico

Nico Hall is Autostraddle's A+ and Fundraising Director, and has been fundraising and working in the arts and nonprofit sector for over a decade. They write nonfiction and personal essays and are currently at work on a queer fiction novel and podcasts. They live in Pittsburgh. Nico is also haunted. You can find them on Twitter and Instagram as @nknhall.

Nico has written 222 articles for us.

9 Comments

  1. I also remember being super confused by the menstrual belts in Are You There God it’s Me Margaret. Though I guess I was lucky in that I wasn’t raised religious so I never worried about God surveillance being a real thing.

    I’m a bit stuck on your Wrinkle in Time series memories, though. My parents definitely started reading me Many Waters and then stopped and said I had to wait until I was older (I was maybe 5?) when they reality talked about sex so much. I read t later, though, and I don’t remember the thing about the parents having sex after a funeral in any of the books? Maybe I just never understood that was what was being implied? 🤷

  2. Judy Blume! I think it was in Deenie where they talked about masturbation and “rubbing your special spot.” I was like 10 or 11 when I read that book and I was pretty sure the special spot was the inner elbow. No idea where I came up with that.

  3. Your description of the Giver (a book that I loved) cracked me up so much. This whole article is hilarious.

    If you would like to revisit The Wild Swans, one of my favorite books is Daughter of the Forest, a novelization of it.

  4. I’ve only read a few of these but on the other hand I had to read The Giver for school. To this day, hearing someone refer to someone/something as a “giver” traumatizes me…

    But I definitely had (and have) less of an appetite for very dramatic books. And I had the Internet full of advice on how to be a good partner and please women. 😅

  5. I love this article. My top 3 are:

    1. Forever by Judy Blume – In 4th or 5th grade we found out that this book had sex in it, and therefore we passed it around in the library (none of us were brave enough to try to check it out) to read the “important parts.” What I remember most for some reason is the male character putting after shave on his balls. I guess I thought that was a thing men did? IDK.

    2. Flowers in the Attic by V.C. Andrews (all of her books, really) – These books are so deeply fucked up but also somehow very popular among young teens when I was in middle school/early high school. If you’ve read any of them, you know what I mean.

    3. The book I had as a kid that explained systems of the body as if they were machines. There was a page that explained the reproductive system/reproduction as a “mom machine” and a “dad machine” complete with an illustration of the dad machine shooting sperm (they looked like watermelon seeds) into the mom machine, but without them touching? For years I thought that was how it worked.

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