The Unbearable Joy of Sex

joy of sexCheeriness is not sexy. A smile -- salacious, conspiratorial, sly -- is. And so are shared jokes, dirty or otherwise. But cheeriness, which can imply a sort of pep-talk falsity, is a real turn-off. And "The Joy of Sex," just reissued in an edition said to be "Fully Revised & Completely Updated for the 21st Century" (of which more later), fairly reeks of cheeriness.

When "The Joy of Sex" first came out in the early '70s, I was too young for it to be more than something I'd peek at surreptitiously in bookstores or upon chancing to find it in someone's house (and I found it in houses I wouldn't have expected to). By the time I was old enough to look at it, it was something of a joke -- particularly the illustrations of the hairy Lawrentian hippie male, his hirsuteness nearly matched by the thickets under his partner's arms. The text itself often sounded like the work of a doddering hippie eccentric who was more taken with his cuteness than anyone else would be. Comfort's division of sex into "Appetizers," "Main Courses" and "Sauces and Pickles" sounded less like an erotic invitation than the menu at one of those restaurants where the food is plentiful without any of it tasting very good. It wasn't until I saw Will Ferrell and Rachel Dratch as the hairy, academic lovers in the "Saturday Night Live" sketches that I thought, "That's exactly the sort of people this book is for." You know the sort, the ones still reading "Siddhartha," wearing macramé vests, and saving for that summer sojourn to Mykonos.

Comfort died in 2000. It's not clear whether this revision was finished before he died or if others worked on it. And obviously, with 5 million-plus copies sold in the U.S. alone, lots of different kinds of people have read it (or at least own it after receiving it as a gift). When I began reading through this new edition, though, it took me a while to figure out why the book gave me such a swift pain.

It's easy to be superior or dismissive when evaluating sex manuals, easy to decide a book isn't hip enough or daring enough and forget that plenty of people need information on the basics before they get advice about setting up a threesome or using a dildo on their partner. More than anything else, these people need simple, informative, reassuring, honest talk that tells them they aren't freaks or perverts.

In a lot of ways -- for heterosexual couples at least -- "The Joy of Sex" delivers that. Comfort's underlying argument is for communication and tenderness (which needn't preclude passion or even aggression) in sex. He has no time for cads of either sex, and he believes that every sexual encounter should be marked by respect for your partner. He also stresses that adults have to take responsibility for their sexual behavior, not just by practicing safe sex but also by taking note of a partner's emotional and physical state. He doesn't completely shy away from the element of aggression that always exists in sex, and he's not so squeamish or unrealistic that he links sexual aggression to hatred or sadism. While he warns against the damage that lying can wreak in a sexual relationship, he makes the same warning about absolute candor. Sometimes, he just offers good practical technical advice. If, for instance, you've ever tried to have sex standing up with a partner much shorter or taller than you, you might be grateful for Comfort's tip that a couple of telephone books can make things easier.

So why would "The Joy of Sex" be among the last books I'd recommend to anyone seeking sexual information? It all circles back to Comfort's goddamned cheerful tone. He keeps saying that sex should be adult play, but Jesus! does he make it sound like work! And of course, sex is work, particularly in a long-term relationship. Comfort is right that sex needn't start (or finish) in the bedroom. Everyday attention and tenderness needs to be part of it. Even in brief encounters there's an obligation to find out what your partner likes and to be attentive to him or her. And Comfort is right that a large part of that comes from our ability to relax.

But when he includes sentences like "The main dish is loving, unselfconscious, intercourse -- long, frequent, varied, ending with both parties satisfied, but not so full they can't face another light course, and another meal in a few hours," he's expecting Olympian endurance in people who may just want to know how to get started and have a little fun. Using his food-as-sex metaphor, Comfort says "chef-grade cooking doesn't happen naturally." It comes with practice and experience. Does that mean, though, that people who aren't yet up to chef-grade cooking should feel inadequate? And how does he expect people to relax if he's planted the idea that they can do better?

Imagine a woman who likes sex but has trouble reaching orgasm reading this sentence: "Multiple orgasm comes easily to many if not all women if they are responsive enough and care to go on." What about the women who can easily come more than once but, at a certain stage, find their genitalia too sensitive to go on -- even if they would like to go on? Comfort doesn't do much better by men. Try to imagine a man who needs a little time to recover before continuing sex coming across this nugget of wisdom. After assuring men they should not let the idea of attaining another erection become "a self-aggravating worry," Comfort concludes, "It matters not a jot provided you can get another erection inside half an hour." This is sex as "Beat the Clock." God forbid it should take you 43 minutes, or even that you may be done for the night.

Reading "The Joy of Sex," I kept thinking about what people with kids do, or people whose schedules don't allow them to take a full afternoon for sex. And if somebody has to get up and work in the morning, are they somehow failing the holy grail of sex by not being able to devote hours to it the night before? Yeah, sometimes you have to make time for sex, especially in an economy that dictates that both partners have to work. But the last thing people in that situation need is more pressure.

Elsewhere, Comfort just seems misinformed. A new section, designed to address sex in the age of AIDS, includes this under the heading "Anal Intercourse": "In the light of present knowledge, this is best avoided altogether." Even for monogamous couples who know each other's sexual history? It's hard not to reach the conclusion that Comfort was one of those guys who get a bit freaked out about ass play. "Single dildoes with a harness," he writes, "are intended for woman-woman relations." If the aim here is to make people comfortable with their desires, doesn't this just reinforce the male fear that enjoying anal stimulation makes you gay?

But then, Comfort isn't too well informed on sex toys for women either. After reassuring his readers that vibrators are "no longer an embarrassing aid for the lonely or inexperienced" (shouldn't that be perceived as an embarrassing aid ...?) he goes on to say, "Vibrators are no substitute for a penis." I'd say it depends on the vibrator and the penis. But in any event, Comfort's statement is just great news for women who have no current sexual partner. Or for couples who have happily incorporated toys into their sex life, whether by choice or because of some male dysfunction. Comfort's message may as well be, Sorry, ladies, but if you happen to be in a loving relationship with a man who has trouble getting an erection and you've still achieved a mutually satisfying sex life, that aid you've got is just a consolation prize.

That's just one of the more visible signs of the book's weird, hard-to-pin-down male bias. Most of the names Comfort gives his various positions are on a level with Austin Powers' reference to the "Chinese Shag Swing." One deserves mention, a position where the woman rests on her elbows and knees, locking her legs behind her lover's knee to draw him into a rear entry. Comfort describes it as "a deep position in which she becomes a true lady by taking the weight on the arms." A true lady? Because she's in the submissive position? And what are we to make of this position's plantation-fantasy title, "The Negresse"?

Again and again, Comfort's peculiar method is to offer his readers reassurance and then to wreck that reassurance with a demurral that usually reflects nothing more than his own ignorance. Pornography is a perfectly acceptable sexual aid, Comfort tells us and then goes on, "The only drawback to the commercial stuff" -- as opposed to what? -- "is that because it is based on fantasy, and often inexperienced fantasy at that, it's not much help with sex practice for real lovers." But who, besides adolescents, takes porn to be anything but fantasy? Fantasy is the whole appeal of porn, particularly when it's used by couples.

"Real couples are worth watching," Comfort tells us, which brings to mind the unappetizing sight of those middle-aged swingers you can see on HBO's "Real Sex." He then goes on to note that "the bored, semi-erected participants in blue movies seldom merit the trouble." What porn was Comfort watching? That deep cache of films that employ guys who can't get it up? And if Comfort is so concerned about reality in our voyeurism, why is the couple in the book's illustrations trim, young and healthy? Why is the couple in the photographs smooth and tan and looking right out of a Bally's ad? The answer is that people want good-looking people to fuel their sexual fantasies. Undemocratic or -- God help us -- "looksist" it may be, but that's the fact, Jack.

And speaking of the illustrations, as in previous editions since the first, that hairy male lover has been replaced by a guy with an ordinary crop of hair. His partner, however, still has noticeable tufts under her arms. Some things change, but apparently Comfort's underarm-hair fetish never did. "In my opinion," writes Comfort, "shaving is simply ignorant vandalism. Hairs catch a woman's natural scent which is irresistible to a man ... Kissing deeply in the armpit leaves a partner's perfume with you." To which some of us may respond, ewwww. OK, Alex had a thing about pits. Fine. No shame should attach. But his contention that in sexual encounters deodorant should be "banned absolutely" is a bit more, uh, continental, than some of us may be willing to go.

He's also gaga on the subject of pubic hair. Even though he claims that trimming is fine, something in Comfort revolts at the thought of less pubic hair. He can barely contain himself explaining the 101 ways to have fun with your bush. "It can be combed, twirled, kissed, held, even pulled," and perhaps washed, set, and styled as well. "Men can shave if they like," he writes, "or if their partners like, but it's difficult to shave the scrotum." True, but you can always practice on a bag of Ruffles.

If "The Joy of Sex" has played a part in opening up your sexual enjoyment, then my objections will be nothing more than quibbles. And I don't want to underestimate the fact that when it came out, few above-the-counter books had anything like its degree of liberalism. Nor do I want to fall into the trap of assuming that people who seek advice from sex manuals have already attained a certain degree of hipness. There will always be a need for a sex manual that is heartening, encouraging and not intimidating. But if our sexual maturity has grown at all in the three decades since this book appeared, then the best sign of that growth would be for "The Joy of Sex" to be consigned to the relic heap where it belongs.

Charles Taylor is a Salon contributing writer.

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