Revisiting the Sensual, Highbrow Advice of The Joy of Sex

VulgaritiesVulgaritiesA week of indelicacy

The best sex, by far, is the sort that leaves you thinking about it the next day, too embarrassed to tell anyone else what happened, but interested enough to ask for more of the same the next time. Sex can be an intellectual pursuit but the best sex leaves intellect behind, instead toeing the line of vulgarity, of filth. It is lewd; it’s loud, and, most specifically, leaves little to no room for sensuality. In 2019, this sort of sexual experience sits comfortably next to other, more chaste interpretations of the act itself, but in 1972, when Dr. Alan Comfort’s The Joy of Sex was published, dirty, nasty sex wasn’t exactly a topic of public conversation.

Written in 1972, The Joy of Sex was meant to be seen as a back-to-basics style cookbook for a generation that might have been too old for—or scared of—the sexual revolution’s unbridled, derelict hedonism. Comfort’s aim in writing this guidebook to intimacy was to show that sex is not shameful. In order to elevate sex from the rutting, sweaty, dirty mess that it is, his approach was to go highbrow. According to the Washington Post’s 2000 obituary, Comfort took up the onerous task of demystifying sex for an audience of intellectuals after someone called him reporting that the London Hospital was “not teaching sex properly.” He took matters into his own hands, and his book that changed the way Americans think about sex.

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From the introduction, Comfort’s intentions are clear. “One aim of this book is to cure the notion, born of non-discussion, that common sex needs are odd or weird,” he writes, before laying out the game plan: sex and sexual desire are perfectly normal, but it is not lowbrow. Sex, as presented in The Joy of Sex, is sensual rather than messy. It is an attempt to highbrow an act that at its very best, is decidedly lowbrow. Desire is highly subjective, but the best kind of sex should leave an indelible mental mark. Comfort’s approach to sex pushes the sensuality agenda, likely in an attempt to appeal to suburban couples looking to spice up their staid relationships with something extra, like a “grope suit” or sex “Slav Style.” For that purpose, I understand why The Joy of Sex exists, but reading it now, in an age where sex has shed its taboo, the book exists as a strange artifact of America’s sexual repression.

It’s clear that the book was not meant to be read cover to cover—it’s less Sex for Dummies and more like a reference to consult for undiscovered scenarios. Comfort is clear from the start that sex, in this book, only concerns the interactions between a man and a woman. Most of the advice in each section is written for a bumbling man who is just learning about a woman’s sexuality, interspersed with some truly horrific line drawings of a very hairy, Cro-Magnon adjacent man and a woman with a Jane Fonda Klute shag engaged in various shades of sexual congress.

Lord.
Photo: Megan Reynolds

Reading the book is like being immersed in the roiling hot tub in that SNL sketch where Will Ferrell and Rachel Dratch play overly-familiar lovers. It is intimate, soft, tender. Oral sex is called “mouth music,” a phrase meant to strip away the unsavory details of the act itself; other standard sex acts like eating ass and rear entry are referred to by their French names—feuille de rose and croupade, respectively—and are treated with kid gloves. This choice makes sense for the time the book was written, but considering it now, in 2019, the text is unintentionally funny and equally puzzling.

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Consider the section near the front of the book, which takes stock of the sort of furniture one should have in a room suitable for lovemaking. The best kind of sex in Comfort’s mind is “enthusiastic” and therefore requires use of “almost every piece of furniture in the house.” The bed for sleeping is not usually the best bed for sex. As a solution, Comfort offers the option of having a bed for sleeping and then, strangely, a “mattress on the floor as well.” There are recommendations for bed frames (“Massive old bed-frames have great advantages, in that they don’t rattle or collapse,” he writes), as well as a suggestion that I feel could have a place in modern relationships today. “If you have room, have a single bed as well, in case either partner is sick and feels more comfortable solo,” he writes. “Twin beds have no place in a full sexual relationship.”

While it is fairly ludicrous to imagine the sort of physical space one might need to have two beds, a mattress on the floor, four stools, and various credenzas to contain your various sex toys and supplies, Comfort clearly understands the joy of options while still recognizing that discretion, above all, is key. “A well-designed bedroom can be a sexual gymnasium without it being embarrassing to let elderly relatives leave their coats there,” he writes—a detail surely meant to appease a couple eager to explore light bondage in their spare time without cluing the neighbors into their proclivities.

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For all the joys contained within, both intentional and unintentional, Comfort’s understanding of sexuality and desire leaves the woman’s perspective on the table. A small section, “Men,” is written by a woman, but focuses specifically on how women understand male sexuality—less nuanced and more of a hair trigger. “Male sexual response is far more brisk and automatic,” the nameless woman writes. “It is triggered easily by things, like putting a quarter in a vending machine.” Comfort’s unnamed woman exists solely to clarify the contours of male sexuality and desire. Working from a pre-Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus understanding of male-female interactions, the woman in question gently explains to the reader that men are almost always willing to go straight for the honeypot instead of taking the time for foreplay, simply because that’s how their biology works. Women are expected to tailor their sexual behavior for men, working with this understanding instead of against it.

Tenderness is the thread that holds this text together, hand in hand with its slightly softer cousin, sensuality. It is never my intention to yuck anyone’s yum, but for me, sensuality has no place in the bedroom. Love, however, is a different story. Sex, in Comfort’s eyes, is best achieved between a man and a woman in a loving relationship, primed and ready to explore each other’s bodies in a full, open-minded capacity, within the relative safety and comfort marriage permits. There’s little room for casual sex but lots of room for love—the magic ingredient that Comfort believes heightens any sexual experience. It’s not the love of fairy tales, but a “mutual tenderness, respect and consideration” that exists between two people who trust each other enough to take off all of their clothes and rub genitals. While I firmly reject all other gestures towards sensuality Comfort’s text provides, this interpretation of love stands the test of time. It is wholeheartedly correct, though the decision to call it “love” rather than “respect” or “human decency” is a telling frame.

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Comfort recognizes the importance of this concept and its imperative to good fucking, which he is too polite to call the act itself: “Love, moreover, involves someone’s neck besides your own.” Love isn’t necessary to have good sex, but an intimate understanding of your partner’s interior life only enhances the experience for the better. Sexual love isn’t romantic love necessarily, the stuff of fairy tales and wedding reality TV. It’s the simple act of caring enough about another person to consider the consequences of your actions and how they will affect them. It’s being concerned with their experience as well as your own; love exists not in a vacuum, but in a shared space built on mutual respect and, most importantly, the desire to understand a perspective outside of yourself. Simply put, it’s being a good person when you can to the people who are good to you.

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