The Joy of Sex

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The Joy of Sex

Published in 1972, during a period when the English-speaking world was experiencing a rapid relaxation of many of its Victorian-era taboos about the open discussion of sexuality, Dr. Alex Comfort's "lovemaking manual," The Joy of Sex, caused an immense stir for its frankly nonpuritanical and lighthearted approach to a subject previously shrouded in religious stricture and clinical seriousness. For readers eager to "swing" with the "sexual revolution," or just to perk up a drab marital bed, this volume, and its sequels and spinoffs over the next two decades, were the first mass-market books that offered graphic text and illustrations designed to help people guiltlessly expand their sexual horizons by experimenting with new techniques and positions. Although it was welcomed in many progressive circles, The Joy of Sex was roundly criticized for its gender and cultural bias that singularly described female organs with vulgar language; that relied on expressions like "exotic" and "oriental" to describe some unfamiliar techniques; and that dismissed same-sex relations as trivial and unfulfilling. Still, the book was considered a breakthrough for the way in which it brought sexuality to the arena of everyday conversation, paving the way for the more relaxed approach taken by later sexologists like Dr. Ruth Westheimer and Dr. Judy Kurlansky.

As published by Crown, The Joy of Sex; A Gourmet Guide to Lovemaking (also known in some editions as The Joy of Sex: A Cordon Bleu Guide to Lovemaking) was described in the jacket copy as "the first really happy and outstanding new lovemaking manual, a contemporary Western equal to the great Eastern classics of the Kama Sutra and the Pillow Books of China." Based on the "experience of happily married people and edited by Dr. Alex Comfort with the advice of doctors and professional counselors," the book offered more than one hundred line drawings and several pages of paintings in full color by Charles Raymond and Christopher Foss. Also included were sixteen pages of "oriental exotic art from Japan, India, and China." Although Comfort, a British gerontologist, social activist, and poet-novelist, was listed as the book's "editor," in reality he researched and wrote the entire manuscript, explaining later that he could not be identified as its author because of restrictions that then prohibited British physicians from writing "popular" books. Although the book claimed to be based "on the work of one couple," Comfort later confessed that he employed other "consultants" as source material. It was Comfort's original intention to illustrate The Joy of Sex with actual photographs of couples, but the photos never "caught the proper zest," as he later told Hugh Kenner. "There was always an expression that asked, 'Am I doing it right?' So two artists [Raymond and Foss] worked from the photographs to produce the illustrations you see…. But if the pictures help people turn on, that's part of what the book is for," he explained.

In his introduction, Comfort wrote that "one aim of this book is to cure the notion, born of non-discussion, that common sex needs are odd or weird." He added, "There are, after all, only two 'rules' in good sex, apart from the obvious one of not doing things which are silly, antisocial, or dangerous. One is 'don't do anything you don't really enjoy,' and the other is 'find out your partner's needs and don't balk them if you can help it."' Comfort wanted couples to be willing to acknowledge a wide "range of human needs" that might include practices and fantasies—aggression and role-playing, for example—that "the last half-century's social mythology pretended weren't there."

Based on his premise that fine sex was analogous to a cook's finesse in blending ingredients and techniques to create a meal of both "culinary fantasies as well as staple diets" ("just as you can't cook without heat, you can't make love without feedback," he wrote), Comfort organized his menu-like table of contents into four sections: Starters, Main Courses, Sauces and Pickles, and Problems. Among the "sauces and pickles" were several dozen "dishes" that in a more puritanical age would have been called naughty or even perverse; the hodgepodge bill-of-fare included items both familiar and obscure: anal intercourse, bondage, "foursomes and moresomes," grope suits, harness, ice, motor cars, pompoir, railroads, rubber, vibrators, and viennese oyster. (Comfort later confessed to curious readers that the "grope suit," a purportedly Scandinavian gadget designed "to induce continuous female orgasm," was really a "joke" he invented.) Some of the items listed incurred the wrath of critics who objected to Comfort's cultural insensitivity in describing certain sexual techniques using Western-centric terms such as "chinese style," "indian style," "japanese style," and "south slav style." Other items, perhaps evocative of an earlier, Anglocentric bias when French postcards were considered the ultimate in naughtiness, were cast in terminology such as "feuille de rose," "pattes d'araigné" and "postillionage."

Besides the expected condemnations by conservative religious critics, The Joy of Sex came under fire from feminists who complained that Dr. Comfort used street-slang terms for women's body parts while describing male organs in clinical fashion, and from nonmainstream couples who found their lifestyles were demeaned or ignored in the book. In the 1972 edition, same-sex behaviors were relegated to the "problems" section, under the misleading heading of "bisexuality." Though Comfort generously admitted "all people are bisexual: that is to say they are able to respond sexually to some extent towards people of either sex," he made few friends in the gay and lesbian community when he declared that "Being homosexual isn't a matter of having this kind of response, but usually of having some kind of turn-off towards the opposite sex which makes our same-sex response more evident or predominant." Comfort concluded the section on "bisexuality" by declaring "Straight man-woman sex is the real thing for most people—others need something different but their scope is usually reduced, not widened, by such needs."

This heterosexist attitude inspired the publication, in 1977, of the gay-positive The Joy of Gay Sex, by Dr. Charles Silverstein and Edmund White, with illustrations by Michael Leonard, Ian Beck, and Julian Graddon. It was Dr. Silverstein who, in 1973, had successfully persuaded the American Psychiatric Association to remove homosexuality from its list of mental disorders. In his introduction, Silverstein wrote that The Joy of Gay Sex was "by gays, for gays, about the gay subculture that comes equipped with its own rituals, its own agonies and ecstasies, its own argot."

With the emergence of the AIDS crisis in the 1980s, both The Joy of Sex and The Joy of Gay Sex underwent revisions and new editions that promoted safer sex, a topic that had been thought relatively unimportant in the 1970s when, for example, Comfort could write that, between lovers, "Sex must be physically the safest of all human activities (leaving out social repercussions)" or when Silverstein could write "Gonorrhea (clap) is the most serious disease facing gay men." Safer-sex instruction, together with illustrations of models using condoms, were included in some of the sequels and spinoffs to both series, including Comfort's The New Joy of Sex (1992) and The New Joy of Gay Sex (1991), in which Silverstein collaborated with Felice Picano, with illustrations by Deni Ponty and Ron Fowler.

—Edward Moran

Further Reading:

Comfort, Alex. The Joy of Sex: A Cordon Bleu Guide to Lovemaking (also known as The Joy of Sex: A Gourmet Guide to Lovemaking). New York, Crown, 1972.

Comfort, Alex. More Joy of Sex. New York, Crown, 1987.

——. The New Joy of Sex, edited by Julie Rubenstein. New York, Crown, 1992.

Comfort, Alex, and John Raynes (illustrator). Sexual Foreplay. New York, Crown, 1997.

Kenner, Hugh. "The Comfort behind the Joy of Sex." New York Times Magazine. Oct. 27, 1974, 18ff.

Silverstein, Dr. Charles, and Edmund White. The Joy of Gay Sex. New York, Crown, 1977.

Silverstein, Dr. Charles, and Felice Picano. The New Joy of Gay Sex. New York, Harper Collins, 1992.