We all know sex is an essential aspect of human nature, but how well do we really understand it? Sexologist Philippe Brenot and graphic artist Laetitia Coryn explore the topic in detail in The Story of Sex: A Graphic History Through the Ages. (If you’re wondering—the title’s “graphic” refers to the cartoon illustrations, not to graphic sex; in fact, there is little in the way of explicit visuals.) In the eye-opening and epic narrative, Brenot and Coryn examine what we know about sex from the beginning of humankind into the 21st century. (Brenot, a psychiatrist and anthropologist, even takes it a step further, pondering what the future might hold for sex; his predictions include autoerotic holograms, virtual sexualities and android-aided reproduction.)

No topic is left unexamined in the nearly 200-page volume, from debunking the myth of the chastity belt to considering sex with robots. The book attempts to answer questions that other history books don’t dare touch. How was the first vibrator invented? When did condoms come into play? And what was sex like in ancient Greece? Brenot and Coryn’s treatment combines historical insights with witty and downright funny illustrations about humankind’s sexual ancestry.

Originally published in France, the U.S. edition of The Story of Sex is out September 19—see exclusive excerpts below. Illustrator Laetitia Coryn spoke with me about what makes the history of sex so fascinating and what we can discover by exploring taboo subjects.


What captured your attention and made you want to illustrate The Story of Sex?
I enjoyed the fact that there were so many things to learn, so many things to say and so much humor to infuse in this project. I was quite excited. Philippe wanted to work with a woman to instill a different point of view and to legitimize the project. He told me many times that he couldn’t imagine telling a history of sex with another man. And I think he’s right.

What do you find most fascinating about the history of sex?
Everything! Actually, I think what fascinated me the most is how sexuality and male dominance are linked. We talk about it throughout the book at every point in history. And in a more personal way, as I was drawing, I realized how natural it is to talk about sex. It is a topic like any other, and I don’t understand why it is still a taboo subject.

Sex is universal. How important do you think it is for us, as humans, to learn about the history of sex?
I think it is important to learn about sex in order to understand it better. People can be hostile to things they do not understand, like homosexuality for example. I think that learning about sex makes us comprehend the differences between us even if we have different ways of expressing it.

I hope people will realize how precious women’s rights are, how difficult they were to achieve and that we have to continue the fight to keep them.

Circumcision, incest, rape—nothing is off limits in the book. Did you find any subjects difficult to illustrate or capture?
I would say that child sexuality was very difficult to draw. It’s already hard to talk about, so putting images to it was tough. When I read the Freudian theories, I told Philippe it was going to be impossible to draw that. But you always find ways and tricks to face a problem, with a dialogue or a graphic metaphor. Same thing for pederasty in ancient Greece—I did not want to make explicit images of it. Actually, I imposed on myself one limit for this book: not to be vulgar. It would have denatured the project, and coarse jokes about sex are so easy to make. And though people are naked all the time, there is no porn in the book.

How interested were you in being historically accurate in your illustrations?
I was fond of history since I was a little girl. I thought the more historically accurate I was with my illustrations, the more credible the book would be. We wanted to give readers the sense that they were traveling through time. For every chapter and time period of the book, I searched for the most images I could find—mostly online—and watched lots of documentaries. When I could not find any documentation, mostly for the beginning of the book, I asked Philippe and he created a bank of images for me from his books. I also wanted to insert artistic references, such as paintings or drawings by Leonardo da Vinci, Rubens and Fragonard, and statues or frescoes of ancient Greece and Egypt.

What do you hope readers will learn?
I think most people have different ways of approaching sexuality, so people will be impacted by each topic of the book in their own way. But once again, I really hope this book will allow people to understand their own sexuality better and the sexuality of other people too. I also hope, as a feminist, that people will realize how precious women’s rights are, how difficult they were to achieve and that we have to continue the fight to keep them.

Lastly, what was your favorite panel or section to illustrate?
Ancient Egypt! Egyptians were fascinating people with an extraordinary civilization that lasted 3,000 years; I really enjoyed drawing them. Because it was the most graphic part of the book, I studied the way ancient Egyptians drew, which made it fun to copy them. This is also my favorite period of time that the book covers.


The age of enlightenment brought the spread of ideas—and disease…


The pill led to a sexual revolution; Kinsey pioneered sex studies…


Free love and sexual freedoms…


Future sex—a best guess…