Sex & Relationships

Sex Was More Fun in the 1970s

The original "Joy of Sex" emphasized pleasure. The new version of the book seems like one more manual on how to perform and impress.

The new ultimate revised edition of The Joy of Sex by Dr. Alex Comfort is finally here, thirty-seven years later. Here’s a review from The Washington Post. The reviewer is a woman who was not around for the first The Joy of Sex. Though she gives comparison of the new and old edition fair treatment, she can’t possibly understand what a radical icon of freedom the original book became. You had to be there to understand what this book really meant. It gave us permission to begin the sexual liberation we enjoy today (and continue to liberate) to be the men and women we were meant to be.

I remember when The Joy of Sex came out. I kept it in my bedroom, and read it with my new husband, and sometimes without him. It was "far out". It was titillating. It was rebellious. It was freeing.

It was 1972. The Vietnam war was finally, and humiliatingly, coming to an end. Two years earlier, I had graduated from The University of Michigan. A liberated woman coming of age in the '60s -- that’s how I saw myself. A bra burner. A protester (I remember locking elbows and holding a candle  in a huge circle two hundred yards in diameter, on the "Diag" at U of Michigan, singing We Shall Overcome, interlocking arms with the black students, a radical action for both of us. Who knew that in the presidential election of 2008, we really would overcome? We had yet to get past the dreaded Orwellian 1984!.

Somehow, however, my "liberation" led me to being married in 1970 upon graduation. It never occurred to me that being liberated did not include marriage. After all, I had marched in the moratorium on Washington. I had lain in the mud at Woodstock. So what if I got married? It didn’t mean I was giving up my cause(s). By the way, I was also in a sorority. Sorority girls got married after graduation.

There was a new freedom being born when the first The Joy of Sex came out. Old traditions were being threatened, but not entirely released. There were a lot of contradictions. Burning my bra and living in a sorority house? You had to be there to understand. As Bob Dylan proclaimed, "the times they are achangin’" (but not changing completely, not yet). We stood up and we protested everything. The environment. The War. Racial inequality. The University Editorial policy. Sex. We protested sex.

"Living together" outside of matrimony was radical. We hid it from our parents (whom, we were confident, had no sex before marriage. In later years, I found out that was a lie. Go Mom and Dad!). It was mutinous to insist on sleeping in the same bedroom as your boyfriend/girlfriend when you came home for the weekend. Okay, do that at college, if you can get away with it, but don’t shove it in your mortified parents’ faces.

The world was graduating from the Ozzie and Harriet world, and into the revolutionary, shockingly funny world of All in the Family. Still, we pretended a lot. No one was gay. They were queer (the original connotation, not the one used today). Lesbians were mostly gym teachers. "Queer" men lived in New York and did nasty, dark, unspeakable things. Everyone had two parents (of different genders). Wives had dinner ready for Father when he arrived home. Divorce was a desperate, tragic act.

My mother called the menstrual period, "The Curse". Girls wore skirts, mostly (I remember my first pant suit). Sexually transferred infections were unheard of, except for syphilis and gonorrhea. Condoms were used for birth control. "Porn chic" was coming to life with movies like Behind The Green Door. Brave women everywhere were being inadvertently overdosed on estrogen as they were taking the "pill" -- a revolutionary concept.

Sex was hush-hush for our parents. For us in the '60s generation, however, we wanted to be free. Planned Parenthood was continuing to listen and liberate women -- at the same time that women were still dying from botched abortions (Roe vs. Wade would be decided the next year, 1973).

Against that backdrop, The Joy of Sex appeared in the book stores (no We saw real sex, liberating sex. It normalized sex. It validated our new freedom. Yes, okay, it was primarily phallic focused, and we would not accept that today (that has changed in the new version). Yes, it emulated concepts that are outdated, of course. Erections were celebrated as a minor miracle. Simultaneous orgasms happened (magically, apparently, for most women) in missionary position in marriage.

Nevertheless, our open views today were spun from that first publishing of The Joy of Sex. It was permission giving. It was honest. The male body in that version was hairy -- all over. It never occurred to us to be repulsed by that hairiness. In fact, the hit musical on Broadway was Hair. Even the lyrics extolled the virtues of lots of hair: Gimme down to there, hair. Shoulder length or longer. Here, baby. There, mama. Everywhere, Daddy, Daddy! …Hair! We were comfortable with the messiness, the realness, the authenticity of lots of hair. It was like everything else in the era -- daring, statement-making, authentic, and a definite measurement of sexiness.

We look at things differently thirty-seven years later. Today, many prefer bodies clean shaven and sterile, just like our lives -- orderly, clean, and fast -- much like the computers that drive us. This is the man who appears in the ultimate, revised edition. Uncontaminated and fresh, he becomes about as sexy as a Sears Catelog underwear ad avatar.

In retrospect, we may have lost something in the translation. The original The Joy of Sex gave us permission to be who we really are. It’s kind of refreshing that the authors of the original weren’t afraid to have less than perfect specimens, hairy and skinny. Like us, as we reach midlife and beyond, bodies are what they honestly are -- hairy or hairless, heavy or thin, sagging or dimpled. At midlife, when we tumble and shift in our sexual exploits, it’s hard to hide the wrinkles and rolls. It’s almost impossible to hide our authentic selves.

The original The Joy of Sex was a joy: honest, open, a bit innocent as judged by today, revolutionary, and titillating. It granted us permission to enjoy ourselves sexually for the first time, openly, freely and honestly. The emphasis was on Pleasure. I wonder if today we have lost the pleasure. Instead, we have one more manual on how to perform and impress. Bigger, better, ultimate. I’m not sure that’s what we need. If hair means simple authenticity rather than perfection, I prefer hair.