When Senate majority leader Harry Reid announced that he won’t run for reelection in 2016, the first thing that flashed through my mind was his age: he’s 75.
The sexual revolution may have reached its high-water mark 50 years ago, the week of August 5, 1973, when The Joy of Sex: A Cordon Bleu Guide to Lovemaking first topped the New York Times list of nonfiction hardcover best sellers. Published the previous fall, the book had swiftly become a publishing phenomenon. For the first time, anyone in America could walk into a respectable bookshop and openly purchase a detailed, illustrated sex manual: a modern version of the guidebooks that Indian aristocrats, Chinese mandarins, and Florentine grandees had consulted centuries before.
The book would notch 11 weeks at number one, and topped the trade paperback best-seller list for 13 months, making it one of the most successful books ever issued in that format, according to Publishers Weekly. To date, it has sold 12 million copies in various editions, and its sequel, More Joy, some 1.5 million more.
The Joy of Sex opened up the popular discourse about sex play, introducing millions of couples to a less anxious, more receptive and mutually pleasurable approach to intercourse than their parents’. While it was written specifically for heterosexual couples, it helped launch a vast genre of explicit better-sex guides addressing every possible inclination—gay, straight, trans, bi-, even some aimed at conservative Christians, Orthodox Jews, and observant Muslims, not to mention book-length explorations of specific techniques—all of which borrow something from the style and voice of their predecessor and that collectively have sold in the many millions.
Written by a 52-year-old British biologist, physician, poet, novelist, longtime anarchist and pacifist, and all-around pundit with the reassuring name of Alex Comfort, The Joy of Sex was a milestone in a cultural transformation that, half a century on, is still unfolding.
The sexual revolution was declared dead and buried during the AIDS crisis and has since endured a powerful, rolling backlash from antiabortion zealots, antigay and anti-trans crusaders, and opportunistic politicians eager to take advantage of the latest moral panic. But it never really ended. Despite efforts to discourage and suppress teenage sexuality, the Centers for Disease Control’s National Center for Health Statistics estimated that even in the pandemic year of 2021, 30% of teens had had sexual intercourse by age 18. Nor has the queer community gone back into the closet. Last year, the Gallup Poll reported that 7.1% of U.S. adults self-identify as other than heterosexual, double the percentage of 2012.
What did The Joy of Sex bring to the sexual revolution, and what does it have to say to us today, in the wake of the #MeToo movement and amidst the ongoing tug-of-war between personal freedom and social control? It was not the first best-seller to discuss sex frankly, but it was the first book from a major publishing house, intended for a mainstream, middle-class audience, that told you—and showed you—how to do it. To secure that audience, it rewrote the language and look of the sex manual: the format, the presentation, and above all, the voice. Previously, books about sex had fallen into one of two categories: sleazy, cheesy, and pornographic, or else dull, clinical, and unarousing. The Joy of Sex, by contrast, was urbane, witty, and disarmingly casual. “A well-designed bedroom can be a sexual gymnasium without it being embarrassing to let elderly relatives leave their coats there,” it advised.
The relaxed, humorous tone was intrinsic to the book’s message: “Bed is the place to play all the games you have ever wanted to play, at the play-level. If we are able to transmit the sense of play which is essential to a full, enterprising and healthily immature view of sex between committed people, we would be performing a mitzvah.” That approach extended to the visuals: a portfolio of paintings depicting the stages of a sexual encounter, a series of drawings explicitly illustrating the various positions described in the text, and a selection of classical Asian erotic illustrations, adding a touch of aesthetic refinement.
To be sure, The Joy of Sex displayed many of the deficiencies of what had always been a male-dominated form. It was noticeably phallocentric. In a good sexual encounter, it told the reader, the penis becomes like a third party or a child of the couple: “‘their’ penis.” That being the case, it was the woman’s responsibility to arouse the man, not so much the other way around. And while the book had no quarrel with non-hetero sex (“we’re all bisexual”), it still framed this as a deviation from the norm. Rape fantasies were fine as long as they weren’t acted upon, and when real rape occurred, it may have been the fault of the woman who deliberately excited a man she didn’t know well. The book would obviously receive plenty of justified criticism on these points and others in the years to come.
In spite of which, The Joy of Sex introduced an important positive element, urging couples to talk about their erotic needs and desires openly, unanxiously, and without embarrassment. “The whole joy of sex-with-love is that there are no rules, so long as you enjoy, and the choice is practically unlimited,” it urged. “That includes our whole skin surface, our feelings of identity, aggression, and so on, and all of our fantasy needs.”
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Comfort’s agenda ran deeper, however. In his day, most people who studied sexual behavior assumed that sex had two functions: pleasure and procreation. Comfort added a third: sociality, or what he called “the forgotten art of being human.”
If socialization is the way we internalize society’s norms of conduct and belief, sociality is how humans learn to associate and cooperate with each other. Comfort held that sex is one of the most basic and profoundly formative ways that we achieve sociality. It’s how individuals, generally in adolescence, accustom themselves to understand and respond to each other’s needs and desires and, importantly, how they learn to share power within relationships rather than compete for it.
Unlike most forms of socialization, sex helps us achieve this not through discipline or instruction but through play. Fantasy is a basic part of erotic enjoyment, Comfort argued, and an important means by which couples understand and accommodate each other. He therefore encouraged exploration and experimentation over rigid sex roles (“refusing to try anything but the missionary position is as much a fetish as only being potent when wearing a diving helmet”).
Here’s how he summed up the elements of a healthy sexual relationship: “mutual respect, mutual communication, and a strong desire to protect one another without any corresponding wish to manipulate or mold.”
Other critics of sexual repression, especially Freudians and the followers of Wilhelm Reich, saw bad sex as leading to violence, oppression, even fascism, but Comfort turned that dynamic on its head. An unstable, economically precarious, often violent society distorts sexual behavior; sex can’t perform its crucial role in building sociality. In turn, a sexual culture riddled with violence helps make a violent society more so; and the cycle continues. Men are conditioned to experience sex as a kind of gladiatorial contest. Sexual imagery becomes increasingly tinged with violence and violent images in art and entertainment are eroticized. Meanwhile, much of the sex education that students receive in school is slanted to reinforce traditional roles and mythologies rather than to challenge them.
Censorship was not the answer, said Comfort, who had campaigned against the devastating air war that the UK and U.S. allies had conducted over occupied Europe during World War II and later against nuclear weapons. Rather, “a general outbreak of public resistance to militarism,” he once suggested, “would contribute more to the removal of sexual imbalance than any action through the channels we have come to regard as political.”
Accurate information that doesn’t just reinforce myths and stereotypes about sex must be made easily available, Comfort argued, and adolescents should be encouraged to explore their sexuality, not stifle it. He stipulated only two commandments: “Thou shalt not exploit another person’s feelings and wantonly expose them to an experience of rejection,” and “Thou shalt not under any circumstances negligently risk producing an unwanted child.”
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The Joy of Sex was Comfort’s attempt to smuggle this agenda into the mainstream by updating the ancient but underground genre of the sexual instruction manual for the modern middle class. His timing was perfect. Booksellers couldn’t get enough copies fast enough, readily seeing it as the logical next step after Masters and Johnson’s dryly scientific bestseller, Human Sexual Response. Some put it on display like their other titles while others kept an unwrapped copy at the counter for patrons to peruse. Either way, opening this explicitly illustrated sex book at your local outlet became a semi-subversive statement for millions. You didn’t just look at it, you got away with looking at it.
Thereafter, and in spite of being repeatedly banned from public and school libraries, The Joy of Sex continued to sell in successive editions, the most recent appearing in 2009, nine years after Comfort’s death.
What kept the book fresh for so long, despite its flaws, was its insistence that we get the best sex when we develop the unashamed capacity to experience it not as an outlet for aggression or a neurotic exercise, but as play. Comfort’s insistence that problems in sexual relations between two people are not separate from social problems such as war, economic injustice, and abuse of authority still echoes strongly at a time when men in positions of power are repeatedly found to have leveraged their status to extract sexual favors.
The revolution that The Joy of Sex sought to instigate in the bedroom and in society at large is still a work in progress. But Comfort’s book, persistently in print and persistently finding readers, reminds us of the critical role that good, mutually satisfying sex can play in building a healthier, freer humanity.
Eric Laursen is the author of Polymath: The Life and Professions of Dr. Alex Comfort, Author of “The Joy of Sex” (AK Press).