By SARAH LYALL
Published: December 17, 2008
WITH its forthright prose, little-before-discussed-in-the-suburbs
erotic advice and amusing pictures of an ardent naked person known
popularly as the Hairy Man, "The Joy of Sex" was a revolution in its
time. Published in 1972, when sex was still supposed to take place in
the dark and under the sheets, the book thrust itself into public
consciousness with all the subtlety of a gigolo at a convention of
bishops. It was also stunningly popular, a well-thumbed fixture of
bedside tables across America that spent 343 weeks on the New York
Times best-seller list.
The book has undergone various tweaks and expansions over the years,
and six years ago the Hairy Man and his somewhat less hairy female
partner were relegated to wherever old hippies go to retire. But now
comes a completely revised version of the book, written, for the
first time, for women as much as for men. It tackles an array of
modern topics unheard of in the 1970s, like Internet pornography,
AIDS and Viagra, and features photographs (and drawings, when things
get too graphic) of a suitably buff 21st-century couple.
But still. In a society where, if anything, people talk and think far
too much about sex already, what is the point of reading anything
else about it? Is there really anything new to say?
Yes, indeed, said Susan Quilliam, a British sexologist, advice
columnist and relationship counselor who extensively revised the
book, which will make its American debut next month (the British
version came out in September). People desperately need help in
negotiating the culture's bewildering sexual messages, she said.
"Because we are more sexualized, we need something that is credible,
accurate and authoritative," Ms. Quilliam said.
As pervasive as sex is, she said, society seems just as ignorant and
nervous about it as ever. And who could blame people for being
confused, bombarded as they are by explicit images, impossible
expectations and contradictory, alarming information from an
ever-expanding array of media promoting the notion that everyone
should be having amazing, contortionistic sex all the time.
Particularly if they get their information from the Internet, as
teenage boys increasingly do. "There's an awful lot of stuff out
there that's inaccurate," Ms. Quilliam said. Ms. Quilliam, who is 58
and divorced, and who arrived for a recent conversation wearing a
cardigan over a racy silk camisole, was hired to rewrite "The Joy of
Sex" by its British publisher, Mitchell Beazley (the original book
was British, as was its author, Dr. Alex Comfort, who died in 2000).
She had plenty of experience, having already written a number of sex
and relationship books. She also had fond memories of discovering the
original book with her boyfriend in Liverpool back in the day.
One weekend, they saw the book, which belonged to one of his
roommates. "We disappeared into his room and came out at the end of
the weekend," she said.
In retrospect, it was an innocent time: a time before AIDS and after
the Pill, a time when condoms could be considered optional (Dr.
Comfort, at least, considered them "useful protection," but only for
birth control; the updated book has a diagram showing exactly how to
use one, and repeats the old British Army motto: "put it on before
you put it in"). Love seemed free and the possibilities endless. But
even the doctor might be shocked at what has happened since then.
Ms. Quilliam noted that people have more sex with more partners and
think nothing of talking about it the next day in Starbucks, on the
bus, on their cellphones as they walk along the street. College
students hook up instead of dating. Magazines aimed at teenage girls
publish practical advice on where to put what, and what to do then,
when performing oral sex. Sexual images loom down from billboards,
leap out of television sets and beckon from computers. Old-style
pornography has become modern erotica; the newer, hard-core versions
can be easily found by anyone with a computer.
But conversely, argues Ms. Quilliam, with the new libertinism has
come a parallel and opposing strand: a better understanding of the
repercussions of casual sex.
"We have a lot more freedom about sex, but at the same time we're
starting to realize that sex is serious," she said. In the 1970s,
Americans were like adolescents when it came to sex, she said, with
an attitude of "isn't this fun the hormones are flooding!" But now,
she said, we're sort of 19 or 20."
On the other hand, she said: "There's an awful lot of trivialization
of sex. I am absolutely in favor of making sex fun, pleasurable,
loving, playful. But this is serious stuff. You sleep with somebody
and it bonds you to them.
"Men growing up in Alex Comfort's time had a very different
education," she said. "I'm not saying they're all new men now," Ms.
Quilliam said, but she gets a lot more letters from men saying "I've
slept with her and now I love her," than saying that they want a
one-night stand. (She also gets a lot of letters from men saying,
"I've found it and I don't know what to do with it.")
Which brings us to the clitoris.
"He mentions the clitoris, he honors the clitoris, he says it's
important," said Ms. Quilliam of Dr. Comfort. "That was a lot more
than most people did in those days. But he only mentions it in
passing a few times and has no specific section on it.
"Not because he was anti-clitoris," she added, "but because he just
If Dr. Comfort was a man before his time, he was nonetheless still a
man, and his book was written from a man's perspective.
"He had a section on tactful ways to take a woman's virginity," Ms.
Quilliam said. "He had a section called 'frigidity.' I'm sure he was
a lovely man, but he said that most men, given a young and attractive
partner, can always get it up it's only when a woman lets herself
go that he has a problem. And you're going, 'No, no, no!' But that is
what it was like then."
Dr. Comfort said, too, that another part of the female genitalia, the
vulva, was "slightly scary" to many males. Ms. Quilliam's version has
replaced his passages with some suggestions on the proper erotic care
and treatment of a vulva and the observation that its image has been
"beautifully immortalized in feminist artist Judy Chicago's
exhibition, 'The Dinner Party'. "
(Dr. Comfort, an English gerontologist who wrote the book because so
many of his patients were profoundly ignorant about even the basic
mechanics of sex, seems to have had other limitations. He practiced
his own joy of sex by ditching his wife and moving to a free-love
commune in California, a move that made him happy but did not do much
for the family he left back home.)
Technology has moved on considerably since Dr. Comfort was grooving
to his own tune, all those years ago. There was no Internet and no
e-mail. There were no cellphones, no JDate, no Skype sex and no such
thing as "teledildodonics," devices that allow partners thousands of
miles apart to combine virtual sex with real sexual pleasure, via
computer. There was no such thing as an MP3 player that doubled, in a
pinch, as a vibrator.
There was, apparently, sex on moving motorcycles, or at least in Dr.
Comfort's book. Ms. Quilliam has dispensed with that and has also
removed references to prostitution and to sex on horseback.
Intriguingly, she has added a section speculating on how to perform
the "Venus butterfly," the fictional sexual technique that was
featured on the television program "L.A. Law" in 1986 and is supposed
to drive women wild, every time.
The new book also aims to reflect the latest research about the
biology of sex. Here are some of the things, according to Ms.
Quilliam, that we know more about now than we did in the 1970s: "The
arousal cycle, hormones, pheromones, the clitoris, the relevance of
the nipples, how erections work, aphrodisiacs." We know, too, (or at
least she knows) that in addition to the elusive G spot, women can
also enjoy two other sexual pleasure points, should they be lucky
enough to locate them: the A spot, deeper inside the vagina than the
G spot; and the U spot, between the clitoris and the vagina.
Ultimately, Ms. Quilliam takes a practical approach, urging that we
all keep things in perspective.
"Alex was debunking the idea that sex was dirty," Ms. Quilliam said
of Dr. Comfort and his revolutionary book. "I'm saying: 'Let's
normalize this. Most people don't have screaming orgasms every weekend.' "
She continued: "Have fun, have love, have sex. But don't give
yourself a hard time if you're not doing it 24-7."