Today, it’s easy to mock. When not resembling a scene from Jackass (having sex while riding a motorbike is not just dangerous, it’s illegal, you know), the original book is hilarious. Its old-fashioned illustrations, its persistent use of the word “lady” (as in “hey there, foxy lady”) and its juxtaposition of liberal mores and school-marmish advice (encapsulated in the way it extols the big toe as “an erotic instrument”, before quickly warning, “make sure the nail’s not sharp”), is enough to render modern readers helpless with mirth.
Yet when Dr Alex Comfort first published the book, 40 years ago this week, it performed a valuable service, reassuring people that far from something to be ashamed of, sex could be life-enhancing.
“You have to remember that – though the Pill went on sale in 1962, it was still illegal to give it to anyone who was not married at the end of the decade,” says sexologist and agony aunt Susan Quilliam, who undertook the most recent and radical update of the book in 2008. “By the time you get to 1972, people were taking on board the new sexual values, but were still quite uneasy with them. What Alex Comfort was trying to do was to try to give people information, but also teach them that sex was good and they should enjoy it and they now had the freedom to enjoy it. So he not only reflected the sexual revolution, he also created it.”
Exploding on to the market a year after Oz magazine was convicted of obscenity for publishing a sexual parody of Rupert the Bear, The Joy Of Sex was shocking. Where the only previous sex manual, Marie Stopes’ Married Love, though pioneering in its own way, was strictly for the monogamous, The Joy Of Sex portrayed intercourse as an everyday leisure pursuit, endorsed “twosomes, foursomes and moresomes” and demonstrated a penchant for the kind of voyeurism now known, less whimsically, as “dogging”. It wasn’t confined to the top shelf; you didn’t have to smuggle it home in a brown paper bag, but in some parts of the world it was shrink-wrapped, so you couldn’t sneak a peak at its illicit pictures while browsing in the book shop.
In the early days, it was criticised by church figures and politicians alike. Yet despite this – or perhaps because of it – it flew off the shelves, eventually selling more than 10 million copies in 20 countries.
Since then, the book has undergone many revisions; the Kris Kristofferson lookalike has been replaced by a clean-shaven, more honed, 21st-century specimen of manhood, and photographs have been introduced to complement the line drawings (still necessary, even today, when erect penises are on show).
In defiance of the explicit sexual material now available in books, TV and online, The Joy Of Sex has, if anything, become more conservative, as Comfort’s vision of an anything-goes society, in which dinner party guests would give each other a massage as a precursor to group sex, failed to materialise. With the likes of Tommy Sheridan and the Krankies as its poster boys, it is perhaps unsurprising that swinging is as fringe an activity today as it was when Comfort was traipsing naked through the clothing-optional community of Sandstone in California.
“Even though it seems like a more permissive society today, there are lots of things Comfort endorsed that we wouldn’t condone now,” says Quilliam. “For example, we cut the ‘goldfish’, which involved tying a couple together and getting them to make love, while others stood round and watched, because it wouldn’t be acceptable these days.”
Also excised was the book’s cultural stereotyping. Comfort no longer expresses his view that “Arabs prefer fat girls”; the sexual position that involves taking a woman from behind is no longer called “A La Negresse”; and, mercifully, women are no longer reassured that if they can “make love with love and variety, they need not fear commercial competition”.
In the latest edition, there is a greater emphasis on the female perspective, the references to technology have been updated to take account of cyber-sex and teledildonics (sex toys which can be plugged into a computer and operated remotely), and the section on health covers STIs and sex in pregnancy. Yet something of the original spirit has survived; despite its more contemporary treatment of issues such as prostitution, it’s still devoted to ridding people of their inhibitions and ensuring they get the most out of their physical relationships.
It was the sense that couples were lacking sexual fulfilment which first inspired Comfort. A British GP, anti-nuclear campaigner and polymath, he was shocked to find his patients were still embarrassed by sex. So he decided to share the expertise he had gained in his erotic relationship with his long-term mistress (and wife’s best friend) Jane Henderson. The book had its origins in a homemade sex manual the couple had made. But it took a degree of ingenuity to turn it into the kind of publication which would meet with the approval of both the censors and Comfort’s long-suffering wife.
To placate the censors, Comfort agreed the copulating figures should be hand-drawn from photographs of a real-life couple. After a succession of sex workers hired to replicate the positions demanded more money mid-job, one of the illustrators, Charles Raymond, offered himself and his German girlfriend Edeltraud as models. And so it was that, during a period of industrial strife, when fuel was in short supply, the pair worked against the clock to create their own electricity before the heating and lighting was cut off for the day.
To placate his wife (and the medical fraternity), Comfort presented himself as the editor rather than the author of the text, which, he insisted, had been handed to him by a mysterious couple who wanted to share their sex tips with the world. Though he won over the censors, his wife was less easily convinced, particularly after her erstwhile partner was dubbed “a sex god”. The pair divorced soon after, Comfort and Jane moving off to the US’s most free-loving state to pursue their hedonistic lifestyle.
Nor was Comfort’s permissive attitude much appreciated by his son Nick, the product of Comfort’s marriage. A respected political journalist who in the 1990s worked regularly for Scotland on Sunday, he says his father – so eager to educate the rest of the world – shied away from telling him the facts of life. Nick, who went on to become a special adviser to Helen Liddell when she was Secretary of State for Scotland, has said the book did little to enhance his own sex life. “What I wanted to know was not how to do it, but how to find someone who was interested in doing it with me,” he admitted, while overseeing the 30th anniversary edition.
The title and structure of the book were modelled on The Joy Of Cooking, a seminal work by the turn-of-the-century domestic goddess Irma Rombauer, with the various positions listed as “starters”, “mains” or “sauces”. Now, of course, the two concepts have merged to give us gastro-porn. Nigella Lawson sucks her finger suggestively as she checks to see if her soufflé has risen or wilted. Sophie Dahl exposes her ample cleavage as she displays her knickerbocker glory. But back then there was just the hairy man and his partner serving up a smorgasbord of sexual delights. Like all good cooks, Comfort was also concerned about cleaning up afterwards. Hence he made sure to include vital tips on how to get semen stains out of soft furnishings (apparently, bicarbonate of soda does the trick).
For all that Comfort was a medical man, and The Joy Of Sex presents itself as a quasi-scientific analysis of lovemaking, the original book read more as a manifesto for his personal prejudices and predilections. He came down in favour of his own sexual preferences (extolling the virtues of natural smells and hairy armpits); he believed that exclusive obsessions in sex were like “living on horseradish”; and he was nothing if not phallocentric.
For someone so liberal, he had little to say about gay sex. With all the enlightenment of Loaded magazine, his only visual reference to homosexuality was an image of two woman touching each other’s breasts with the caption: “Women exciting each other can be a real turn-on for males”. When it comes to gender politics, Comfort , who died in 2000, was significantly less enlightened than, say, Jeremy Clarkson. The Joy Of Sex came out two years after Germaine Greer’s The Female Eunuch, but Comfort had more of a Dr Hook attitude towards female sexuality, as evidenced by his penchant for “the buttered bun”, where two men have sex with one woman, and his assertion that “the vibrator is no substitute for the penis.” He may have been an enthusiastic advocate of the “woman on top”, but in Comfort’s world there’s no doubting who would have been smoking the post-coital cigarette and who would have been getting busy with the bicarbonate of soda.
“For his time, he was actually very liberated,” says Quilliam. “He mentioned the clitoris several times – back then most people didn’t know anything about the clitoris. But he was way behind when I came to revise the book. He said things like ‘no man should experience problems with his erection so long as his partner is young and pretty enough’, so obviously I had to bring the values up to date.”
In the past couple of years, publisher Mitchell Beazley has also brought out a pocket edition (as in “Is that a copy of The Joy Of Sex in your pocket or are you just pleased to see me?”) and an e-book with a taster called A Bit On The Side.
Set beside other more modern books, the latest edition of The Joy Of Sex seems a trifle anachronistic. Yet Quilliam believes that in a world where so many young men have their ideas about what is acceptable in sex shaped by online porn sites, an educational, uninhibited and yet value-infused sex manual is as relevant as ever.
“One of the problems of having so much information nowadays is that so much of it is false,” says Quilliam. “We want to offset the more harmful information that is out there.” Still for most people, the attraction of The Joy Of Sex lies not in what it teaches us about love-making, but in the abiding kookiness of its language and its ability to transport us to a time when trying out different positions seemed the height of daring and failing to depilate didn’t spell social death. Forty years, on we may chortle at the book’s mores, but – for all his aesthetic limitations – it was the hairy man and his partner that opened the door on to a less sexually uptight future. «