The Joy of Sex

An Endless Smorgasbord

by Patrick Schabe

12 March 2009


Less Seditious and More Serious

This edition seeks to strike a balance with a more contemporary outlook on sexuality and human behavior, concentrating on responsibility while acknowledging that sexual practices have changed and evolved over time. While the general notions of Comfort’s maxims of concentrating on communication and play between partners remains intact, this new edition advocates a more practical exploration of healthy practices. The 2008 version places a greater emphasis on understanding the physical and mental conditions that limit sexuality, and Quilliam attempts to remake The Joy of Sex into a work applicable to a broader audience.

Primary among those developments is a greater awareness of physical health and its relationship to sex. As the updated section on “Foursomes and Moresomes” notes:

When this book was first written, the idea of open sexual relationships with multiple partners was described as “an important anthropological resource… becoming socially more easy to arrange.”  When the book was next reissued, the AIDS epidemic had taken hold and the same behavior was described as “suicidal.” Nowadays, both sets of comments would be seen as extreme….

In addition to advocating “smart love” over “free love”, discussions here have been expanded to include sexually transmitted diseases and tips for the physically disabled, as well as commentary on birth control, Viagra, and safe sex practices.

Additionally, cultural norms about sex have changed as well. Quilliam acknowledges homosexuality as a fact without judgment, where Comfort originally treated it as an exploratory diversion that runs the risk of diverting one from the real practice of sex between a man and woman, casting it as a dangerous aberration. In the “Preferences” section, Quilliam addresses the changes over time in the cultural acceptability of homosexuality as more normative, though still acknowledging that The Joy of Sex is written to the straight reader, with the understanding that practices can be equally adopted within the context of a positive relationship.

More concretely different is the greater emphasis on the woman’s role in a healthy sexual relationship, the new edition advising readers of both sexes equally. In the original edition, female sexuality was frequently read as being passive, something for the man to unlock. Somewhat less misogynistic than the “hunter” mentality of previous masculine roles, Comfort’s new sensitive male was still the primary actor—the sensitive man was still responsible for her pleasure. In the years since, women have been encouraged to become more responsible for their own pleasure, and Quilliam revises the text accordingly. Gone are the references to women as “girls”, topics are discussed from the female perspective, and women have an equal part to play in the new text.

Because sexual and physical health are of greater concern in our time, there is a renewed emphasis on good general health practices, continued from prior revisions and expanded to meet contemporary health knowledge. This collection includes a list of resources for readers interested in learning more about cancer, eating disorders, relationship counseling, and sex therapy issues. While the information is certainly warranted, and even adds to the sense of personal responsibility advocated in the book, it often comes at odds with the sensuality of the original, as in this parenthetical addendum to a passage on breasts:

Going round and round the nipple with the tongue tip or the glans, soft kneading with both hands, gentle biting, and sucking gently like a baby are the best gambits—she can do the same for him. (While there, both can occasionally check for suspicious lumps.)

Unfortunately, one of the odd consequences of this balancing of health and expanded notions of sexuality is that the book feels uneven and, frankly, a little less sexy. The aims of removing and revising the anachronistic ideas from Comfort’s original text are worthy and in the proper spirit, but the two voices don’t always merge well. On the whole, Comfort’s advice was actually quite good in many cases, but his concern was more about creating a sense of permissiveness that stripped some of the shame away from sex.

The shift towards responsible sex in our present time makes the more clinical inclination of some of the updates bump up against the pleasure-seeking aspects. And now that it’s less seditious and more serious, the heavy doses of sentence fragments in both Comfort’s text and Quilliam’s presumably imitative additions make the book’s shifts in tone a little jarring.

And, of course, there are the changes to the illustrations. This edition promises “All New Photographs and Illustrations” right on its cover, helping ease any lingering concerns about confronting the hairy hippies of the past. Now we have a smooth, clean, and mostly hairless couple—man with dark cropped hair, woman with blond curls—posed in their place. The book also includes a number of photos of this same pairing in various soft-focus softcore poses, artfully arranged to include only a bare minimum of nudity.

While these changes may help sell the book to modern audiences with contemporary beauty ideals, there’s something over-sanitized about the results. Not only does the new couple seem blandly generic, but they seem less real. With so many photographs crowding out the illustrations, the physicality of the drawings is diminished. This might seem like a minor complaint, but the illustrations are the only time when The Joy of Sex even depicts genetalia, or provides a visual cue to actual positions and techniques.

Beards and hairy armpits or no, the original artwork felt more explicit, and therefore more honest. This edition pulls The Joy of Sex back down to the level of its current competition, where frank sexuality is tempered by modest photography to make sure books will be shelved in stores, and the result is that The Joy of Sex loses some of what made it stand out. 

The Joy of Now
If there’s a problem with this new edition of The Joy of Sex, it’s not that it fails in equalizing the content of the original to fit the times, but that in the past 36 years, the very genre that it helped create has surpassed the scope of the book. For better or for worse, sexuality is more publicly open in 2009 than in 1972, and the publishing industry’s role in that openness has only expanded. The Joy of Sex spends a scant three pages discussing oral sex, whereas The Low-Down on Going Down and Blow Him Away (both 2004) provide a book-length treatment each of technique for both sexes. There is simply a greater wealth of practical information on sexuality and sex advice available today.

Nor is The Joy of Sex the best book for analyzing the wide spectrum of sex. In terms of both practical advice and a sex-positive approach to healthy, responsible sex, the crown must go to Paul Joannides’s Guide to Getting It On, which deals with a huge range of sexual topics with specific details, humor, and a completely open mind.

Already on its ninth edition, the Guide to Getting it On has responded to change better and has stayed contemporary while maintaining an encyclopedic view of human behavior. The best comparison of how far public discourse on sex has come from 1972 isn’t to compare The Joy of Sex then with The Joy of Sex now, but to compare Comfort’s original text with Joannides’s massive tome.

When the first edition of The Joy of Sex was published, it was subtitled “A Gourmet Guide to Lovemaking”, a nod to the book’s metaphorical connection between cooking and sex. But there was something else contained with the idea of “gourmet”—Comfort was subtly saying that this way the best, most advanced sex lies. The Joy of Sex was meant as a guide for connoisseurs, those who already had some experience and were looking to take it to the next level.

At the time the bill fit, but in the intervening years the information contained within the book has become the baseline. Qulliam’s revised “On Gourmet Lovemaking” introduction tries to place this new edition in similar territory, making it a guide for lovers who want to fully explore their sexualities together, but the details read like introductory material throughout. You’ll get some ideas about the acts available, but mostly only enough to go find out some more detailed information elsewhere if you’re really interested in learning more. Contrary to its original mystique, the best audience for today’s reader will be those with little sexual experience and little experience with other sex instruction books.

Which takes me back to my 12-year-old bedroom. Sex education is an extraordinarily complicated issue in American culture, and there are always concerns about what is and isn’t appropriate for children. We fear giving teenagers too much information and understanding because we don’t trust them to act responsibly with it, yet we also fear the actions of teenagers who are acting irresponsibly out of ignorance. About the only thing we can generally agree on is that teenagers are going to make mistakes.

But in today’s media age, concerns about losing the war for sexual health have some weight. Sexuality is as laced throughout entertainment media as ever, and pornography is only a mouse-click away at any given moment. In comparison, instruction about positive, healthy sexuality is lagging pretty far behind.

I’m certain that my story of discovering The Joy of Sex is hardly unique, and that it has, in fact, been repeated in hundreds of other homes throughout the world. And while I can’t advocate for handing your young teen a copy of the book in lieu of “the talk”, there are certainly worse things than letting youth know that sex isn’t limited to what they see online when their parents aren’t watching.

Curiosity and sexual exploration during our developmental years are perfectly ordinary, and it seems far better that these discoveries include some encounter with the idea that sex should also be about communion, respect, and an engagement with pleasure for the emotional rewards, not just the physical. All the better that the book has now been revised to address equality to a greater degree.

I am also certain that my own sexual development benefited from that encounter and has served me well for my adult life. And yet, as that adult, this new edition of The Joy of Sex is primarily of interest as historical record. Thanks to my accidental discovery so many years ago, re-reading this material has been like a review of the basics—it’s never a waste to have a refresher course, but don’t expect anything new. Which is not to say that there’s no use for The Joy of Sex today. If used properly, the book can reignite passions between longtime lovers, or work as a foundation for new couples to begin to build and explore together.

But The Joy of Sex will stay on my bookshelf as a tribute to the impact of its history. Foibles, follies, and hair fads aside, there is much to be thankful for in Dr. Alex Comfort’s barrier-breaking work. Though not the sole beacon for sexual revolution, it nevertheless helped throw open the closet doors on our human sexual diversity and inspired a like-minded industry to take up the mantle of helping adults have more fulfilling sex lives. And I don’t know anyone who has a problem with that.

We all know how critical it is to keep independent voices alive and strong on the Internet. Please consider a donation to support our work. We are a wholly independent, women-owned, small company. Your donation will help PopMatters stay viable through these changing, challenging times where costs have risen and advertising has dropped precipitously. PopMatters needs your help to keep publishing. Thank you.

//Mixed media