The Joy of Discovery
My first encounter with The Joy of Sex was an accident. I was nine years old, watching cartoons after school one day when my mother had left to run an errand, and I needed to pee. Realizing that I was alone, there seemed to be something compelling and adult in the idea that I could use my parents’ bathroom, so I entered the master bedroom and sauntered up to the toilet in a familiar room that now seemed brighter and electric.
While I relieved myself, my eyes roamed the counter of perfumes, lotions, shaving utensils, the walls, and there, beside the toilet, the little rack filled with reading material. My eyes fell on a magazine-sized paperback book with a pale tan cover and red serif text that read The Joy of Sex. I was already familiar with the word “sex”, but it was one loaded with mystery, a vague concept of embarrassment and adult bodies, and the urge to unravel that mystery gripped me. I finished, zipped up, and sat down on the toilet lid to crack it open.
In truth, I don’t have clear memories of what I read, but I was left with the striking impression of drawings of a naked couple, bodies clearly visible, and words that I didn’t quite grasp. Knowing that I was doing something forbidden, and that I could be caught by my mother at any time, scared me enough to hurriedly replace the book and return to the TV. No one was the wiser, and I never had to suffer the embarrassment of questioning, but the next time I found myself in my parents’ bedroom I cast a curious glance toward the bathroom toilet and saw that the book had been moved.
It was hardly the first time I encountered sex in those years, and in the years to follow my ideas of the basics began to form in earnest. At roughly the same time that I ran into Dr. Alex Comfort’s enduring legacy, my best friend Adam and I managed to sneak into the TV room during a sleepover at his house to catch the late showing of Revenge of the Nerds on cable. This followed a perfunctory viewing of Porky’s, but Revenge of the Nerds was all the more revelatory when Booger cried exultantly “We’ve got bush!” MTV videos, prime time sitcoms, cable movies, the invisible curtained-off section of the video store—all of these things began to shape an idea of what sex was, that it was something both titillating and embarrassing, and that everyone was basically obsessed with it.
Roughly speaking, I can break down the culture of sex I grew up in into three categories: sex as an element of entertainment and marketing, pornography (from sex scenes in teen comedies on up to hardcore), and sexual health. By the time I encountered The Joy of Sex a second time, I’d begun to understand the nuances of the first two, thanks to the magic of television. But a few years after that first incident, while searching for a Band-Aid, I discovered that same tan cover again. And that time I had the house to myself in the afternoons, so I lay on my bed and read.
Sex’s connection to love was clear in my mind, and I was fairly well aware of the difference between love and lust. Public school had done me the great favor of explaining the science of the body, and now the concepts of The Joy of Sex had context and purpose. But as I read, the idea of sexual pleasure and fulfillment became more real and emotive. In the pages of Comfort’s work, I discovered the notion of sex as connection between partners, exploration and intimacy between couples who shared themselves with love, and the idea of sexual play as sexual health.
The mid-‘80s were a decidedly different environment than 1972, when the book was first published, but the guide was nevertheless eye-opening on the possibilities of what a true sexual connection could do, free of many of the taboos and restraints that yet persisted, and how it could unite two lovers in a real emotional bond. Sex revealed itself to be yet more complicated than I imagined, but in many regards was at least less confusing.
Of course, The Joy of Sex remained but one element in my sexual education. It would be a lie to say that I was any less engaged by sex in entertainment and advertising, or any less furtively drawn to pornography, but all of this remained tempered by an understanding that loving sex, the best sex, lay in the realm of real intimacy and connection between partners. Also ingrained was the idea that the act of sex was a skill that improved with practice, and that the basic mechanics of thrust were merely the beginning of sexual performance. I sought out more knowledge, and other voices from the sexual health and advice industry impressed upon me—Nancy Friday, Dr. Ruth, Chinese pillow books, and so on—and the complexity of sexuality grew for me, in large part because of the doors that Comfort helped open.
The Joy of Change
Beyond personal anecdotes, it’s difficult to quantify the impact that The Joy of Sex has had on the public discourse on sex—in part because it’s one of the landmarks of 20th century sexual explorations, and in part because its original incarnation advocated a sexuality that time has rendered almost naïve.
The original is well known almost as much for where it stumbled as where it succeeded in a frank exploration of sexual practices. Comfort’s thinly veiled framing of the text as collected from an adventurous couple he knew; the overwhelmingly masculine perspective, the florid ideals of free love; the slightly skeevy illustrations—everyone remembers the illustrations. A pair of “natural types”—the man of average build sporting shaggy hair and a bushy unkempt beard, the woman more graceful but unfashionably hirsute—the drawn couple neatly encapsulated all that made it possible to dismiss The Joy of Sex as a hippie love manual for sexually liberated swingers.
And yet, despite the misgivings of audiences since, the book was a product of its times, arriving when sexual barriers were eroding and those who embraced liberation were grasping at new and radical ideologies. Comfort’s vision was to embrace a sex-positive platform, a lifestyle for lovers that not only gave readers permission to have adventurous sex, but to further celebrate it as a spiritual and transformative act. And whether by demand from a public eager to engage with sex, or the notoriety of the forbidden and banned, The Joy of Sex sold well, finding a foothold in an increasingly public sex industry. As Deep Throat made pornography a topic of dinner party conversation, The Joy of Sex bridged the gap between the Kama Sutra and the ‘70s.
Comfort himself compounded the problem of The Joy of Sex‘s legacy. Where the book seems to speak from an enlightened perspective of holistic sexuality, Comfort lived out his own image in unfortunate ways. The original text of the book sprung from an affair the doctor was having with his wife’s best friend. When the affair became public following the publishing of The Joy of Sex, he left his wife and moved with his lover, eventually settling near a California nudist colony and intent on living in an open relationship, which eventually drove a wedge into that relationship.
Beyond the scandal, Comfort’s post-Joy of Sex life mirrored the collapse of free love ideology in the wider culture, and cast a long shadow over the legacy of his work. Ariel Levy makes an excellent exploration of that history in The New Yorker in a review of this new edition of The Joy of Sex that’s well worth reading.
But the fact remains that The Joy of Sex has remained a landmark publication in the world of sexual health and guides to sex in general. By now 8.5 million copies have been sold around the world prior to this revision, and nearly every major bookstore keeps a copy on its Sexuality shelves. The book was first ammended by Comfort in 1973 in More Joy of Sex, and again in 1986 to address the social reality of AIDS and unwanted pregnancy. In fact, publishers have collected, condensed, and reissued no fewer than six versions, including pocket editions. So the question that lingers over this 2008 edition is “Why do we need a new version of the Joy of Sex?”
The Joy of Balance
For those who’ve never picked up a copy of The Joy of Sex before, the main idea is to present a host of sexual topics in separate and distinct discussions, from the foundations of the body itself on up through advanced techniques. It’s a how-to book for making the most out of sex. If you’ve read other sex instructional guides, it will seem completely familiar—though it bears repeating that Comfort helped make the format what it is today. And if The Joy of Sex is your first time with a sex guide, expect to get erogenous zone tips on body parts ranging from the mons pubis to earlobes, advice on fundamentals like foreplay, and a range of technique discussions from the classic missionary position through oral sex, rope work, and sex toys.
Rather than create a step-by-step instruction manual, The Joy of Sex gathers these topics into loose groups and addresses them in short passages that evoke a more sensual atmosphere. The information is frequently scientific in nature (even more so in this revised edition than the original), but expressed plainly and directly, and with an emphasis on getting readers to better understand their own bodies and their own feelings, and from there reaping the rewards of better sex. The tips range from the abstract ideas of creating an atmosphere of play—The Joy of Sex considers both the proper mentality and the ultimate goal of good sex to be adult play—to specific positions designed to maximize clitoral pleasure.
On its surface, the latest edition of The Joy of Sex is not terribly different than its forebears. The text retains the loose influence of The Joy of Cooking in presentation, still presenting sexual activities in terms of a cookbook and breaking categories up into “Ingredients”, “Appetizers”, “Main Courses”, and “Sauces and Pickles”, right down to the French “culinary” names given to positions and acts (rather than “bondage”, Comfort opted for “ligottage”). There is still the occasionally awkward balance of practical instruction with slightly florid descriptions of communion and relationships between couples. And the emphasis remains on the ideal of sexuality as a good thing that can be filled with joy and tenderness.
As stated by Susan Quilliam, the sex and relationship psychologist in charge of updating the material of the book, the primary reason to revise The Joy of Sex lies in the wealth of sexual health information that’s been produced in the 36 years since the first edition debuted.
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