50 Years Old & Still Got It: The Joy Of Sex Remains The Horniest Book Around

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This year The Joy of Sex (written by the ironically named Dr Alex Comfort) turns a whole 50 years old. It might seem odd to celebrate a sex book written by a white guy in 1972 when we have so many more diverse sex books with more up-to-date science (and values). But five decades and 8 million copies in 22 languages later, The Joy of Sex remains an impressively international bestseller. And so to find out why this old sex manual is still flicked through by so many thumbs, I read two versions of the book: the original paperback with its notoriously vivid imagery and wild sex tips, and the 2017 audiobook of psychologist Susan Quilliam’s updated edition.

It seems like everyone has been impacted by this book at some point or another, whether they wanted to interact with it or not. It took me a while to track down the original version but when I did, my mum felt an unexpected pang of odd nostalgia when she watched me retrieve it from the garden over FaceTime, telling me: “This book used to slip out of newspapers when I was a kid – everyone had a copy in their house and we’d sneakily flick through it and giggle at the pictures as kids.”

My friend Tom told me that the book was in the sex education section of his secondary school library when he was 12, which is a haunting thought for anyone who’s read the original version. The guy who came to fix my washing machine laughed knowingly as he passed it sitting on my stairs, commenting: “That’s not light reading.”

I also mentioned it to a female relative in her 70s, who excitedly told me: “I can’t believe you haven’t read this! The Joy of Sex was the first book that cared about women’s orgasms.” As far as I can see from research, this is true. For many, the book triggered a reset in how people thought about the female orgasm and women’s pleasure. Though some of its contents are questionable (strap in, we’ll get there), The Joy of Sex has had an undeniably significant and kind of iconic impact.

In the 1972 original edition, Comfort criticises men who don’t utilise “the sensual power of breasts and nipples” during sex and those who don’t “use the entire skin surface in helping a woman achieve pleasure”. He also emphasises the importance of touch that isn’t inherently sexual, pointing to rubbing ears and noses as an important sexual device. That kind of advice wouldn’t look out of place in a modern Dr Emily Nagoski or Dr Karen Gurney book. Considering that only 46% of women always or nearly always orgasm during sex, it’s impressive to pick up a book that is part of history but highlights flaws in the present.

Comfort also criticises anti-abortionists in a section that felt painfully pertinent in the light of the US Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Roe v. Wade. Though Dr Comfort and I wouldn’t often see eye to eye thanks to his casual homophobia, racism and sexism, I couldn’t help but throw my hands up and cheer him on when he writes that it’s “odd that the main moral woe-criers on abortion are also the people who have done the most to block proper contraception“. It’s good to know there are men in positions of power who’ve criticised anti-abortionists all along.

However this doesn’t make up for the original edition of The Joy of Sex’s totally bewildering moments.

Take the so-called “problems and what to do about them” section. The section aims to explore common blockers to sexual pleasure, from impotence to fighting and cheating, and provide solutions. One of the “problems” this section calls out is literally “children”, which made me laugh out loud. Boiling children down to human cockblocks who restrict your ability to break up with someone (I guess divorce was pretty frowned upon in the ’70s), as Comfort does in this section, is pretty dark.

Most of Comfort’s ideas would get him cancelled if his version of The Joy of Sex were published today and provide a lot of context for the biphobia, fatphobia and racism in sex and dating that are still prevalent. It seems that in the ’70s, white men like Comfort were loudly and proudly criticising anyone who didn’t look like them, with little backlash.

For example, Comfort calls out bisexuality as a problem that unravels foundational relationships and ruins sex. As a bisexual reader, it was upsetting to read that “women can sleep with women for sexual pleasure but they shouldn’t leave their male partner for them” and “women exciting each other is a turn on for males”. Throughout the guide there’s a very clear disregard for marginalised and disenfranchised people, and although The Joy of Sex is noted for progression by including information about women, Comfort never speaks directly to us, only about us in disturbing ways. It’s obvious that when Comfort penned this book, he was addressing slim, straight, white, able-bodied and monogamous couples only.

He also has some grim ideas about which bodies are worthy of sexual pleasure and which are somehow excluded from enjoying sex. He declares that “fatness in our culture is unlovely – we all know someone whose pretty fat daughter can only get Middle Eastern boyfriends because of this” and suggests that “if you’re grossly overweight, set about losing it if you value your sex life,” offering no justification for the racial profiling, dismissal of fatness or damning of bisexuality.

Other icky moments in The Joy of Sex include but are not limited to the suggestion that only women are capable of not enjoying sex in three pages about “frigidity”, an obsession with “genital kisses”, recommending Vaseline as lube (this will introduce bacteria that can lead to an infection) and referring to having sex for the first time as “defloration”.

As each suggestion is thrown out into the wind, including ‘rubbing semen into your palms and smearing it on the woman’s nipples’ (apparently a surefire way to achieve female orgasm, though I have doubts), the importance of consent exchanges, boundary setting and communication is sidelined.

The updated version doesn’t fare much better. Despite the fixes Quilliam provided – removing the biphobia, transphobia (Comfort implies that “transvestitism” is an illness) and illegal sex act recommendations (including having sex on a horse and on a moving motorcycle), and adding enlightening notes about sex toys and cybersexThe Joy of Sex is far from perfect. Some of Quilliam’s choices are upsetting, too, like omitting the section on sex workers. Her justification for this, as she told The Guardian, was that “[prostitutes don’t have] anything to do with loving relationships”.

Both versions provided a lot of liberation for me while reading, though. They contain a huge amount of information about not only the clitoris and its pleasurable powers but the entire vulva. It’s refreshing to read a man scold men for ignoring the functions of the whole vulva in partnered, hetero sex.

But the most important component of good sex is glaringly missing from both editions of The Joy of Sex: consent. As each suggestion is thrown out into the wind, including “rubbing semen into your palms and smearing it on the woman’s nipples” (apparently a surefire way to achieve female orgasm, though I have doubts), the importance of consent exchanges, boundary setting and communication is sidelined.

That’s still true of a lot of go-to sex advice floating around today. People continue to rely on pornography, stories from friends and sex scenes in TV shows to educate themselves about sex. Consent is always the missing piece yet it is your most important sexual instrument.

The Joy of Sex is still well worth reading after all these years. It would be potentially dangerous in the hands of someone who is sexually inexperienced and genuinely looking to learn but The Joy of Sex serves as a sexy time capsule for the ’70s, providing so much cultural and political context for why we think the way we do about sex today, and what we have left to learn. And some of the imagery is gorgeous in all its hairy, horny glory.

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