The Joy of Sex

The Joy of Sex (1972) by Alex Comfort

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To understand a book it always helps to know a little bit about its author. Alex Comfort was an renowned and highly qualified doctor, who also had an insubordinate streak. He was a non-conformist at a time when rebels were in fashion: when teenagers were taking to the streets to protest against the war in Vietnam, and their parents were packing the cinema to watch James Dean in Rebel Without a Cause. Alex Comfort was in many ways a product of his age – an ardent anarchist, pacifist and conscientious objector. He was a pre-eminent man, in the true sense of the world, in that he stood out from the crowd. A prolific writer, his early books – Peace and Disobedience (1946) and Authority and Delinquency in the Modern State (1950) – attacked the establishment for its old-fashioned views. In the same way his later, and far more successful, book The Joy of Sex provided an equally vehement challenge to the sexual prudery of the day. This gained him world wide fame and earned him the soubriquet ‘Dr Sex’, a nickname which he thoroughly deplored.

Prior to Comfort’s entry into the market place books about sex had been dull academic textbooks – like The Kinsey Report and Master and Johnson’s The Human Sexual Response. A few years before he went into print his fellow sexologist, Dr Eustace Chesser, had been unsuccessfully prosecuted for writing a relatively benign manual Love Without Fear which carried no illustrations. So Comfort was taking a considerable risk in publishing a book with text and illustrations designed to titillate as well as inform. Many middle Englanders, and most churchgoers, thought the illustrations of copulating couples were unashamedly pornographic. (Nothing does more to swell the sale of sexually explicit books and plays than the angry protests of local vicars.) But the timing was good, for America in particular was still enjoying the permissiveness of the swinging sixties; and the arrival of reliable contraception had for the first time made it possible to separate the reproductive and recreational use of sexuality. ‘No other book has come close to providing such an imaginative, uninhibited guide to lovemaking,’ the publishers proclaimed when the book was launched. Heavily featured in the media, for the storm

of controversy it provoked, the book spent eleven weeks at the top of the New York Times bestseller list, and more than seventy weeks in the top five. To date it has sold well over eight million copies in fourteen languages and earning royalties of an estimated $3 million. On re-reading the book after a lapse of over thirty years, I’m reminded how strait-laced the English-speaking races once were regarding their sex lives. Toujours l’amour was strictly for the hot-blooded Mediterranean people, which is why they needed ‘French’ letters, and suffered from what was once called ‘the French disease’. That no doubt is why most sex practices have French names like croupade, cuissade, flanquettes and soixante-neuf.  The French it seems have sex lives, while the English make do with hot water bottles.

Over the years the book has been regularly revised to take account of new research discoveries and changing circumstances. For instance, with the arrival of AIDS, the book no longer supported wife swapping, casual sex and swinging parties. At the end of his introduction to the 1991 edition Alex Comfort announced that the book ‘will be revised again in future as knowledge increases.’  That major make-over has now been made with the help of Susan Quilliam, a sexologist and relationship psychologist whose lifetime aim has been to help people enhance their emotional and sexual partnerships. The bulk of the text remains the same, but approximately forty new entries have been introduced to incorporate new advances in academic research; the changing role of women in initiating and directing sexual encounters, and the belated recognition that sex remains a preoccupation of a high proportion of golden oldies. The other transformation is the introduction of a new array of explicit pictures and paintings of an athletic young couple engaged in the sex act in positions that couch potatoes over the age of forty couldn’t achieve unless they were ballet dancers or contortionists. These will titillate some readers, but deter others. Many people today are too busy, or tired, to enjoy a vigorous sex. If they could be roused from this torpor by viewing these pictures, I fancy they could be turned-on more readily by watching the intimate couplings shown every day on the internet, cinema and adult TV channels. And is there anyone today who really needs an explicit photograph to show them how to perform a blow job? If the book is truly intended to help the elderly, couldn’t it include just one picture of a fully dressed Darby-and-Joan couple locked in a tender embrace – pour encourager les autres?  But these are perhaps petty quibbles, which could easily be addressed when the book has its next reincarnation.

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