It came! It came! The original 1972 Joy of Sex. Thank you, Mohammed from Brookline, MA. May your positive Amazon ratings never go down. (Look at all the unintentional sexual innuendo we've already covered!) I especially would like to thank Mohammed for making my back-up plan obsolete: taking my mother up on her offer to "see if she can figure out what she did with her copy."
And now that it's here, and I'm looking at it, it's a little gross. But endearingly gross. For a much better and more exhaustive look at the merits and career of Alex Comfort, M.B., Ph.D., I would refer you to Ariel Levy's delightful New Yorker piece from 2009. For a wry fictional take on what it would be like to be the children of the book's authors, you should pick up Meg Wolitzer's The Position, in which the Comforts become the Mellows, and it does not go well for them.
But you're here now, you just have me, and we're going to talk about The Joy of Sex. Generally, it's well meaning and cute and dated, and Comfort seems to genuinely love having sex with willingly lubricious ladies and is, if anything, almost too positive on the subject of their natural odors and body hair. And the male model used for the pictures is distinctly not anaconda. You go, Alex Comfort! Subvert the dominant paradigm! And let's remember that it's not like our nation's confused, horny couples were standing in Barnes & Noble choosing between The Joy of Sex and The Guide To Getting It On. Oh, no! It was The Joy of Sex or… well, actually, Married Love was pretty good for a 1918 sex manual. But you get what I'm saying. It was a big deal. So, we're generally taking the side of "this was a good thing for society, and especially for bored teenage baby-sitters going through their employers' bookshelves."
Now, the basic conceit of The Joy of Sex (and you thought it was just a flipbook of the GEICO cavemen in a variety of weird positions!) is that it is a "Cordon Bleu Guide to Love Making." What does this mean, exactly? It means that it sounds eerily like a Julia Child cookbook, and if you are not careful, you will picture Julia Child in a variety of compromising scenarios. It also means that the body of the work is divided into "starters," "main courses," "sauces and pickles" and… "problems." I guess he couldn't figure out how to make "desserts" cover "depilation," "obesity," "priapism" and "venereal diseases."
Speaking of problems, it's heteronormativity time! Comfort doesn't mean to be heteronormative, bless him. I mean, partially because he didn't know what the word meant. I'm probably doing something unbelievably terrible right now, and in 40 years, my grandchildren will say, "We love Grandma Nicole, but she is so crialicist." But, no, he is. He wants to do the "all people are bisexual" thing, but he pairs that with "straight man-woman sex is the real thing for most people" and undercuts the niceness of his general "same-sex attraction is no big" stance by claiming that homosexuals are just busted bisexuals who have "some kind of turn-off towards the opposite sex." Well, you know, that's one way to look at it. And, either way, there ain't no hairy dudes touching each other in this book. There's one picture of two women daintily pawing at each others' breasts, but since it's captioned "…women exciting each other are a turn-on for males," we're not going to be sending Alex Comfort a nice scented lavender candle and a Tegan and Sara CD. And, God love him, the cultural assumptions!: "Chinese women had to hide their feet but could show their genitals."
Is it any good? Will it help you have better sex? Perhaps, given a certain context. For a modern audience, that certain context is almost certainly "you are staying with your lovahhh at a weird B&B in the Midwest, run by a weird middle-aged couple, and there's a copy in the bedside drawer next to the Book of Mormon, and you're drunk and kinda bored." Otherwise, the "put this leg here / try taking a bath together / use your big toe to stroke her armpit" stuff is just meh. And sometimes, brother is just OUT THERE. Even on a "private road," do not have sex while riding a motorcycle. Nor can we casually accept that "the best sexual lubricant is saliva." I don't know what the hell kind of lubricant they were rocking in 1972, but, trust, the world has changed. And aren't we all pleased about it?
Context-Free Excerpts That Demonstrate What Is Wrong With The Joy of Sex
• "All of us who are not disabled or dumb are able to dance and sing — after a fashion."
• "A woman who can make love with love and variety needn't fear commercial competition."
• "Don't get yourself raped — i.e. don't deliberately excite a man you don't know well, unless you mean to follow through."
• "In women the mouth of the urethra is nearly as sensitive as the clitoris, but it is a bad idea to put tapers or hairpins into it by way of masturbation — doctors often have to remove these from the bladder."
• "Vibrators are no substitute for a penis."
• "Serbian intercourse is mock rape — you throw her down, seize one ankle in each hand and raise them over her head, then enter her with your full weight (do this on something soft — the traditional bare earth is beyond a game)."
• "The domestication of this experience, which veterans will recognize as the Japanese-massage-special-treatment routine, may be the one good thing America gets out of the Vietnam war — the only bar to making it at home, like sukiyaki, is if you're a big girl."
Context-Free Excerpts That Demonstrate What Is Righteous About The Joy of Sex
• "Odd that the main moral woe-criers on abortion are also the people who have done most to block proper birth control and starve research and education about it of funds."
• "The marketers of intimate deodorants and flavored vaginal douches show evidence only of sexual inexperience — nobody wants peach sauce on, say, scampi."
• "On no account fool around with home-built electronics or the line supply."
• "People who communicate sexually have to find their own fidelities. All we can suggest is that you discuss them and at least know where each of you stands." (Awww.)
Utterly Random Context-Free Excerpts
• "Long gloves turn some people on — they suggest the old-style great lady."
• "The other two substitute sites are the hair (long hair or plaits can be rolled into a vagina, or the penis lassooed with a loop of it, though some women may object because it's a bore to wash)."
• "Hide-and-seek with the woman's pubic triangle is one of the oldest human games."
Our discussion questions for this week! Oh, and did I mention that we're doing Fear of Flying next? Because we are!
• Comfort sayeth: "Never blow into the vagina. This trick can cause air embolism and has caused sudden death." IS THAT TRUE? What about standing over a subway grate without underwear? Is this like waiting 30 minutes after eating to go swimming? Because you really don't have to do that.
• Comfort sayeth: "Women lose their fertility at the menopause." Why does nothing sound more dated than including a "the" for something we no longer use a "the" with? Like "the Facebook." I still say "the Facebook," because I joined in 2004. But it makes me sound old.
• Comfort sayeth: "…the bored, semi-erected participants in blue movies seldom merit the trouble." Oh, honey, you don't know about the vast, beautiful realm of free Internet pornography yet! What kind of pornography do you think Comfort would have enjoyed most?
• Earlier I used the word "crialicist" to talk about the possibility of being intolerant of things we don't know we should be more tolerant of yet. What are your best guesses as to what they might be?
• Can you guess what a "Viennese oyster" is? The author of the BEST AND FUNNIEST GUESS, left in the comments, will receive a used copy of the original 1972 Joy of Sex from yours truly. Because "paying it forward" isn't just a shitty Haley Joel Osment vehicle.