This Is How We Do It

The Joy of Sex: The Ultimate Revised Edition BY Alex Comfort. Harmony. Paperback, 288 pages. $23.

The cover of The Joy of Sex: The Ultimate Revised Edition

SEX IS AS OLD AS DIRT, yet every generation claims it anew in the words and tropes of its time. Dr. Alex Comfort’s The Joy of Sex is very much a product of 1972—its subtitle, “A Cordon Bleu Guide to Lovemaking,” is pure ’70s, nodding to the era’s obsession with French food and hippie tenderness. Cracking the spine, you can almost hear the fondue burble in the background; you can almost smell the weed and patchouli. You don’t need to imagine the full, proud bushes and beards, for there they are on the pages in front of you: The original Joy of Sex (the book has since been updated several times) is most famous for its lush, loving, and frank drawings, which leave no hair follicle unrendered, regardless of its location.

Richly illustrated, unabashedly erotic, and not shy about risqué territories like bondage and fetish, The Joy of Sex had the success of a watershed book, but it was not without its predecessors. In 1969, both the clinical, user-friendly Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex (But Were Afraid to Ask) and the lurid, steamy The Sensuous Woman had dominated the New York Times best-seller list for months, and The Joy of Sex followed suit, spending 343 weeks on the list and selling more than twelve million copies. The Joy of Sex was a legit phenomenon—every groovy couple had a copy stashed in their nightstand or displayed on their coffee table. More than a manual, it acted as a passport for citizens of the carnal world.

It’s easy for us to forget how hard it once was to get solid sex advice. For one thing, people didn’t talk about fucking. For another, books were often banned for prurient content. In Comfort’s native UK in 1971, just the year before his book came out, Oz magazine lost an obscenity trial over a smutty depiction of the children’s comic-strip character Rupert Bear. For the first edition of The Joy of Sex, Comfort claimed to be merely the text’s editor, which was a sleight of hand aimed at sidestepping obscenity charges, as were the pen-and-ink illustrations. The text itself reflects the taboos of its times, containing euphemisms such as “birdsong in the morning” for dirty talk, “mouth music” for oral, and “matrimonial” for man-on-top sex.

Far more off-putting than its twee terminology is the book’s ambient rapeyness. Comfort’s seven-page section on bondage includes a slender meditation on gagging in which he writes blithely: “The expression of erotic astonishment on the face of a well-gagged woman . . . is irresistible to most men’s rape instincts.” He describes the “South Slav Style” as a “mock rape” where you “throw her down, seize one ankle in each hand and raise them over her head, then enter her with your full weight.” While rape fantasy pops up repeatedly, rape as reality appears only at the end of the book, in the “Problems” section. After suggesting that a woman deflect her would-be rapist by “suddenly emptying her bowels,” Comfort advises, “Don’t get yourself raped.” He elaborates: “Don’t deliberately excite a man you don’t know well, unless you mean to follow through.”

Charles Raymond and Christopher Foss’s illustration for Dr. Alex Comfort’s The Joy of Sex, 1972. Crown Publishers, Inc.
Charles Raymond and Christopher Foss’s illustration for Dr. Alex Comfort’s The Joy of Sex, 1972. Crown Publishers, Inc.

Comfort’s comfort with rape could be attributable to the time period—Susan Brownmiller’s groundbreaking book Against Our Will was still three years away—but some of his other enthusiasms seem far more singular. Studded with paeans to body hair (“these are antennae and powderpuffs to introduce [a woman] in a room”), body odor (“a woman needs to guard her own personal perfume as carefully as her looks”), and the unexpected voluptuousness of the pad of the male big toe (“a magnificent erotic instrument”), The Joy of Sex reads like a midlife crisis—because it was one. Married for thirty years, Comfort wrote the book as his union dissolved and his decadelong affair with his wife’s former best friend became increasingly public. Even if you don’t know Comfort’s personal history, The Joy of Sex is musky with the lust of a fifty-two-year-old man who has read too much Rumi and hit the sexual revolution at a gallop.

Ready, willing, scented, and knowing, the Joy of Sex everywoman lives in a near-constant state of orgasm. Comfort’s erotic world is one where a woman (often called a “girl”) can come from having her earlobes nuzzled, her breasts kissed, or her mons pubis jostled as her lover grabs her by her pubic tufts. She can also enjoy “continuous female orgasm” from something called a “grope suit,” a knobbed rubber affair with internal fringing that Comfort calls a “diabolically ingenious gadget.” It sounds good. Who doesn’t want to walk around encased in rubbery orgasm? The only issue is that, like the eternally pleased woman, the grope suit doesn’t exist. It’s a figment of Comfort’s imagination, something he admitted in a 1974 New York Times interview.

There’s a hint of Humbert Humbert in this bit of fiction smuggled in as fact. Comfort also likes to season his book with French: It’s not body odor, it’s cassolette; it’s not sixty-nine, it’s soixante-neuf; it’s not cunnilingus, it’s gamahuche. All this Francophilia—layered with the Japanese paintings, Indian erotology, cordon-bleu elitism, precious language, blind racism, and general atmosphere of luxury—reads like a dizzying Nabokov knockoff. Comfort, who died in 2000 at the age of eighty, was a medical doctor, a fiction writer, a gerontologist, and a psychiatrist. Clearly he knew the difference between fact and fiction and must have understood that to slip that scrap of rubbery fancy, the grope suit, into his sex manual was to risk casting doubt on the whole endeavor. Maybe the “best sexual lubricant” isn’t actually saliva? Maybe you can’t orgasm through the “goldfish” method? Maybe “genital kissing” is a nauseating term? What if The Joy of Sex is a baroque work of assertively masculine heterosexual fiction?

Does it matter? Play is another form of fiction, and play, Comfort says at least thirteen times over the course of his book, is central to good sex. On that point at least, he’s right. Still, as a manual, The Joy of Sex is a weird item. It’s too intimate. It susurrates like the fantasies whispered between two people, sweaty and odd and wrong in ways that feel right only to them. It’s a 250-page, thickly illustrated love letter from one very strange, owlish, hairy British guy to his mistress—and it succeeded on a level that’s difficult to comprehend today. In this post–Dr. Ruth, post–Dan Savage world, it’s hard to imagine that anyone could write a best-selling sex manual, awash as we are in listicles, videos, and tutorials. How strange that intimacy should be the sticking point in Comfort’s forty-five-year-old book, and how much there is that we humans have to learn and learn again.

Chelsea G. Summers, a former academic and ex-stripper, writes almost exclusively about sex.