Images via Crown Publishing Group, Shutterstock. Illustration by Bobby Finger.

Tough as it may be for the modern teen to believe, once upon a time—back in the technological dark ages—we did not have easy access to Google and anatomically detailed fan fiction and high-speed internet porn and slow-motion Tumblr GIFs to satisfy our consuming curiosity about the human body. Instead, we were forced to piece together our best guesses from whatever illicit pieces of pop culture we could scrounge together.

That is how I wound up getting my practical sex education from Jean M. Auel’s The Valley of Horses, a book about a couple of Cro-Magnons in love and screwing madly at the dawn of human history. And I’m not the only one, either. Though I was a high school freshman when I discovered Auel, I could relate to writer Lizz Huerta’s San Diego City Beat piece, in which she recalled hitting the book’s first sex scene as a preteen growing up in a house long on warnings and short on details: “I was 12 and it blew my fucking mind.”

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The Valley of Horses is actually the second book in Jean M. Auel’s sweeping prehistoric series, Earth’s Children. It’s a sequel to Clan of the Cave Bear, a weird but compelling book about a Cro-Magnon girl raised among Neanderthals. Based on years of deep research and a painstaking thought experiment in what such a life might have been like, it is nevertheless hundreds of pages of pure conjecture.

Auel’s Neanderthals are warm and social creatures who communicate largely via hand signals and operate according to incredibly rigid gender roles, such that it’s a social crisis when our heroine, Ayla, takes it upon herself to figure out hunting. They also have no concept of sexual consent; women of the clan automatically kneel down and present upon receiving “the signal.” In Clan of the Cave Bear, Ayla is raped repeatedly by another young clan member, becomes pregnant, and is ultimately cast out when he becomes leader, forcing her to leave her baby—whom she never sees again—and set out to find her people, whom she’s always known as “the Others.” Which brings us to The Valley of Horses, where the good stuff starts.

At first, there is barely any sex between the main two characters; Jondalar, our hero and Ayla’s eventual love interest, spends most of the book slowly winding his way eastward among the scattered communities of proto European Cro-Magnons who worship a Venus of Willendorf-like mother goddess. Jondalar is described to sound like a sexy surfer—a tall, rangy, handsome blonde man with piercing blue eyes. (As I was writing I googled some reconstructions of what Cro-Magnons actually looked like, and I regret to report that I found not a single sexy surfer among the bunch.)

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Jondalar has many fine qualities, but most importantly for our purposes here, he has a huge dick and is very, very, very good at sex. He is so good at sex that he is a popular pick for “First Rites,” his culture’s ceremonial deflowering for young women. Again, while Auel is an enthusiastic student of anthropology, there’s only so much one can know about prehistoric peoples of Ice Age Europe and therefore this world is ultimately a creation of her imagination. Like all historical fiction, we can safely assume it’s as much about what was happening in 1977—when she got the original idea as a 40-year-old mother who’d married at 18 and had five kids by the time she was 25—as it is about the actual past.

Meanwhile, Ayla finds her way to a relatively sheltered valley with a convenient cave and holes up for a year or two, doing things like inventing the domestication of horses and discovering that you can start a fire by smacking flint against steel. Although there is a brief moment where she is turned on by horse sex:

But for all the screaming and squealing, Whinney was not trying to reject her stallion, and, as she watched, Ayla felt strange stirrings within herself, sensations she could not explain. She could not tear her eyes away from the bay stallion, his front legs up on Whinney’s back, pumping, and straining, and screaming. She felt a warm wetness between her legs, a rhythmic pulsation in time to the stallion’s pounding, and an incomprehensible yearning.

They finally meet after Jondalar is maimed by a cave lion that Ayla raised from a cub when she wasn’t busy inventing the rest of human engineering. And finally, they fuck to sobbing, ecstatic climax, which is described in graphic detail.

His manhood was throbbing eagerly, impatiently, as he shifted position to slide down between her legs. Then he spread open her folds and took a long, loving taste. She could not hear her own sounds as she lost herself to the flood of exquisite sensations coursing through her as his tongue explored every fold, every ridge.

He concentrated on her to keep his own demanding need in check, found the nodule that was her small but erect center of delight, and moved it firmly and rapidly.

In a magnificent touch, the sex with Ayla is good partly because she has a deep enough vagina that he can cram his whole, enormous manhood in there. No, really, I am not making this up: “Only few women had depth enough to take in all of him; he had learned to control his penetration to suit and did it with sensitivity and skill. It would never be quite the same again—but to enjoy the excitement of First Rites, and the rare and glorious release of full penetration at the same time, was unbelievable.”

Literally, her roomy vagina is a plus.

They ultimately declare their love for one another and embark on a journey back to Jondalar’s home somewhere in the vicinity of modern-day Austria, doing a lot more fucking in the third book, the last one I read. Both of these books lived in my nightstand drawer for several years in high school; they were, unquestionably, the jackpot. The good shit. The deep end of the swimming pool enveloping your body on a very hot day. I’m sure some part of me recognized that it was incredibly nerdy and perhaps, to outside observers, a tad weird to have well-thumbed copies of books about sexy cave people. (Here it is worth noting that Clan of the Cave Bear recently made an appearance in Netflix’s GLOW, as the preferred reading material of the somewhat antisocial woman who lives as a wolf.) But blessedly, nobody who might have teased me about it knew what they were looking at, and so it remained a safely secret erotic world of my own.

In a 2014 piece at Slate, Tammy Oler argued persuasively:

At its core, Cave Bear is speculative fiction about a young girl’s survival and resilience in an elaborately imagined authoritarian society. Sound familiar? It’s the same narrative engine that powers The Hunger Games, Divergent and the myriad novels of the young-adult dystopia explosion of the last half-decade. Auel may not have known she was writing about a precursor to Katniss Everdeen—but that’s how a whole generation of teens received Ayla.

Oler’s very good piece is an attempt to reclaim Clan of the Cave Bear from its longstanding reputation as the bonkers cave-people sex book. And large stretches of these books, even the sequels, are basically Hatchet—Gary Paulsen’s iconic YA novel about a boy stranded in the wilderness with just a hatchet to help him survive—for girls. I’ve always remembered Ayla’s long sojourns in the wilderness and self-sufficiency and hunting and gathering every bit as vividly as Jondalar’s comically oversized penis and magic sex skills. When I grew up and got pregnant and cried my way through attempting to breastfeed, my dim memories of Earth’s Children were far better at making me feel connected to some vast and profound chain of human experience than any “trust your body, mama!!!!” natural childbirth book I cracked open. The books’ appeal—they were bestsellers and have sold millions of copies—goes deeper than all the lovingly depicted sexual encounters.

But I owe Auel a personal debt of gratitude for all that bonkers cave-people sex, nevertheless.

I was lucky enough to have pretty good sex education both at home and at school for somebody from the Bible Belt; nobody subjected me to that horrible lecture about how premarital sex turns your body into a piece of used-up scotch tape. The adult figures in my life pretty much trusted me to use my own judgement about my body. But I wasn’t exactly handed a copy of Our Bodies, Ourselves when I hit puberty, either.

That left me on a perpetual hunt for information. After exhausting obvious sources like the dictionary and my mother’s anatomy book from nursing school, I tried raiding the romance novels in the attic, but Kathleen Woodiwiss and Janet Dailey were fairly light on actual physical specifics, and I couldn’t drive yet, which meant I had to purchase something in the presence of a parent, so it had to be fairly sub rosa. Because I was a nerd with nerdy tastes, I didn’t opt for one of the Judy Blume classics or Go Ask Alice. I can’t even remember how I stumbled across the fact that the sequels to Clan of the Cave Bear had the goods, but it was in fact probably on a relatively gentle corner of the early internet, somewhere.

Even in their original context, all the sex scenes are fairly jaw-dropping. (Again: horse sex.) But to pop them out of the book, like I’ve done, makes it read a little like exploitative erotic One Million Years B.C. fan fiction, a pornographic world dreamed up in a peep show booth draped in gross furs. But all the Earth Mother Goddess worship and enthusiastic licking really does give the whole book a very different vibe from many explicit texts. The breathless descriptions, with their heavy emphasis on saltiness, are centered in the subjective experience of the female body in a way that it was really hard to find before the internet made it easier for women to share their most overheated fantasies with no more effort than creating a Tumblr.

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It is very easy to laugh at Earth’s Children; I break into hot-faced giggles every time I try to explain the plot to anyone who has never had the pleasure of reading the series. The near-religious dedication to the female orgasm, the pages and pages of cunnilingus. But it was perhaps one of the most truly sex positive texts available to me at the Barnes and Noble in Macon, Georgia, in the early 2000s. (Please enjoy the Facebook comments from just this week, when the local paper picked up a story about vibrators.) The sex between Ayla and Jondalar in The Valley of Horses isn’t wrapped in any sort of force to make it “okay” that Ayla enjoys it. He offers and she enthusiastically consents. There is no societal suggestion whatsoever that it’s wrong for two people to engage in mutually respectful and pleasurable sex. Maybe it all sounds cheesy now, but it actually had a lot of power as a utopian vision for a teenage girl in evangelical country.

It’s hard to imagine that Auel planned her epic to play this particular role in the sexual development of, apparently, several of us. The target audience was adults. But then, women generally and teenaged girls particularly are often presumed to be passive consumers of popular literature. Think of the furor over something like Twilight, or Beverly Hills 90210, or 16 and Pregnant, or Skins. Teens are assumed to thoughtlessly imbibe whatever is proffered to them by popular culture. But personally I went looking for this book, with my own agenda, and it was an unexpectedly delightful way to obtain the answers I sought. Even if it was also bonkers.

I would be curious to know what a 14-year-old girl encountering these books for the first time today would make of them. Would she find them just soft-core cheesiness? My generation had to go hunting for scraps of information, but we were the last ones. Many kids around the country today are just a URL away from unbelievably hardcore pornography—and yet, there is an increasing emphasis on abstinence-only education. Maybe there’s still a role for books like The Valley of Horses—the underground canon of raunch for girls—but rather than to provide a window into the world of sex, to help them thread the needle between two paradigms.

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Also, for the record, “nodule” is actually a great way to describe a clit for somebody trying to piece together how it all fits together down there. For recreational purposes. Theoretically.