At 37, 'The Joy of Sex' Gets a Major Face-Lift

The revision has 42 new sections.
The revision has 42 new sections. (Crown - Handout)
  Enlarge Photo    
By Monica Hesse
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, January 10, 2009

The Hairy Man -- skinny, skeezy, looks like a lost member of Jethro Tull? -- must have represented some male ideal at some point, but that is a memory we have repressed. The big toe was surely never the "magnificent erotic organ" it was made out to be.

Yet something about "The Joy of Sex" resonated with people -- or at least reached them, parked as it was on the New York Times bestseller list for years after its 1972 release. It went directly from shelf to nightstand drawer, where kids found it and went "eww."

It scintillated, it titillated, it taught French you never learned from Madame Cousin. But most of all, it normalized. In the boudoir, everyone was okay, and everyone could be taught. Subtitled "A Gourmet Guide to Lovemaking," with such chapter headings as Starters, Main Courses and Sauces & Pickles, doctor-author Alex Comfort's book made being a sexpert a snobby hobby. Like cheese-tasting, but naked.

This week in bookstores, an overhaul. A major overhaul -- not like the smaller updates done over the years. "The Joy of Sex: The Timeless Guide to Lovemaking" has 42 new sections mixed in with the old standards like cassoulet and pattes d'araignee. Comfort died in 2000, so Susan Quilliam, a British relationship shrink, stepped in to write new content and balance out the phallocentric worship from the original.

According to "Joy's" introduction, this version was written to benefit the "ordinary, sexually active reader."

Ordinary? What, in the "Joy of Sex" world, does that mean, anyway?

* * *

Spoiler alert: People still have sex. The mechanics of it haven't changed since 1972, AD or BC. We might be overwhelmed with info now (See: "Internet"), but the popularity and longevity of "Joy" make it seem a lot more trustworthy than, say, "Tickle His Pickle," $10.17 on Amazon. It's been a bellwether of human sexuality for decades.

But it really did need an update. Sections of the original read like shag-carpeted relics. The anti-condoms attitude, especially, but also the sex on horseback (we're outraged, too, PETA); the aversion to shaving anything (especially the Hairy Man); and the assertion that regular orgies were the way of the future (only in some exurbs). Reading him 37 years later, Comfort sounds a lot like your lecherous great-uncle.

The new version is better, in some ways.

For one, the Hairy Man is gone. He has been replaced by a guy who looks like a Best Life cover model, and his new partner is a curvy, comely redhead. In the arty photographs throughout the book, they appear to spend more time in the throes of giggling than in the throes of passion, which is somehow a relief.

CONTINUED     1        >

© 2009 The Washington Post Company