January 11th, 2009
When I was about eleven years old one of the fun-yet-naughty things my girlfriends and I enjoyed was rummaging around in their parents’ bedroom when they were out. Our quarry – their parents’ sex books. Most homes seemed to have at least one, and it was usually The Joy of Sex. No matter how many times we searched for and found this book our response was always the same. We’d marvel over the things you could do in the name of sex, we’d all agree we’d never do those things ourselves, and we’d have hysterics over the beardy hippie man who appeared in the illustrations.
Apart from on one occasion when we discovered one set of parents had underlined segments of their book. For a while we wondered why they might have done this – until the reason dawned on us. One of our gang then whispered to the girl whose parents owned the book – ‘your dad licks your mum’s fanny’. We were gobsmacked that anyone, but particularly parents, could do something like this. We were all subdued for the rest of the day. It was all round the school the next day, although nobody seemed to be laughing, they were also shocked that someone’s mum and dad might enjoy oral sex.
We were only eleven though, and by the time we left school we’d got a few more ideas about oral sex and some of us even found we liked it. Although by then we’d left The Joy of Sex and the funny hippie man behind and were getting our sex tips from other places.
That seems to be a bit of a metaphor for the revision of The Joy of Sex which has just been re-released. We’ve all left it behind and are getting our sex tips from somewhere else. Can it compete in this new sexual climate?
The Joy of Sex wasn’t the first sex manual, nor was it the most groundbreaking. What did make it different was it was the first mainstream sex manual in the UK that had continued links within the media and seemed to spark the trend of using sex advice books to inform sex features. As with many texts of its kind it was written in a fairly finger wagging tone by a Alex Comfort who instructed everyone they ought to be enjoying sex.
As a product of it’s time it takes a pretty progressive view of things like group sex and suggesting sex is something you have the right to enjoy. It also takes a pretty negative view about women (vaginas are described as scary, women are instructed not to provoke rape by provocative clothing and domestic violence is presented as something women can avoid by not giving their husbands cause to smack them). That’s not to say such an approach was inevitable, as the Boston Women’s Collective’s Our Bodies Ourselves was out at the same time and delivered a very different (and some might argue more empowering) message. You can read a fascinating discussion of both texts and more on the Joy of Sex in Ariel Levy’s recent review.
At the time of its release (1974) the trend for expert written texts was still growing. Although a common literary device, it’s nothing like the flooding of the market we currently see where experts in everything from gardening to cooking to sex tell us how to improve our lives. Comfort was medically qualified which at the time was probably seen as a good enough qualification to tell people how to have sex (to an extent this is still the case). He did have an enthusiasm for discussing sex provocatively and was seemingly well-intentioned towards improving our sexual lives.
That said the book is achingly middle class and full of suggestions from someone who doesn’t appear used to being questioned or contradicted. In that respect it’s very similar to contemporary sex manuals that present sex as something we all should learn to do better, written by folk who assume we can all do this so long as we simply apply ourselves. The only difference is now anyone can be a ‘sexpert’ and the standard of sex advice books and the qualifications of those writing them diminishes year-on-year.
Which is why the re-release and revision of the text surprises me. I wonder, given the current vogue for seventies nostalgia, why the book simply wasn’t re-released without change? I could definitely see a market for that. Part of the charm of the book is the way in which its written and how we can see what has and hasn’t changed since then – for example the original is keen on bodies being natural, pubic hair in abundance, and couples trying new sexual experiences as a form of liberation. Contrast that with today’s plucked and surgically enhanced image of sex where couples are encouraged to try new things to better themselves. The liberation message may not have been accessible to everyone in 1974, but the aspirational message for ‘perfect sex’ we now face is arguably even worse.
I’ve not seen the new version yet, but will try and get it to compare with the original. Reviews so far are not particularly positive, and there’s probably a very good reason for this. When the original Joy of Sex came out it had very few competitors. We hadn’t yet experienced AIDS, the internet, Viagra, and nor did we have many public sex stores. Sex books sold, but they were in their infancy as a mass market product. It was only really after the Joy of Sex did publishers realise what a goldmine such books could be, and only since sex has become more commercialised have sex manuals really taken off.
There are so many sex books out there now telling us all what should go where, how we ought to be doing it (and doing it better), presenting us with a range of new activities with funny names that we all should be trying on a regular basis. Add to that the range of sex sites (porn, entertainment and advice) you can access on the net and you wonder do we really need The Joy of Sex mark two?
Yes, we’re still hung up about sex, our sex education is poor, our anxieties probably even greater than in 1974. There’s more performance pressure on women and men. But I’m not sure the book in a revised form will do much to change this, nor compete in a market where, even if you’ve lost the beardy hippie man you’re up against glossy sex manuals fronted by chirpy savvy Sex and the City clones. Comfort’s book, for all it’s faults did present sex as an adventure. Modern manuals are more like a list of skills to acquire to match our perfect furnishings in our perfect homes. Unless the book has completely altered it probably won’t sell that well.
Sex has changed. We like to think we’ve advanced since 1974. Truth is we had lot to learn then, and a lot to learn now. It’s just back then we were open to exploration, and now we’re told we should just want perfect sex.Tweet