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.
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.