|Two major bombshells hit Britain in
1972 — the launch of Cosmopolitan magazine and the publication of The
Joy Of Sex, the seminal self-help sex manual which was rather more
risque than anything Cosmo had to offer.
I was a 19-year-old newlywed when I started work as a junior sub-editor at Cosmo that year, delighted to find that new books landed on my desk every day from publicists hopeful of favourable reviews.
I remember the day The Joy Of Sex arrived in the office: I made sure no one was watching, then slipped it into my handbag.
Missing out: 40 years after The Joy of Sex was released, why are so many of us still sexually unfulfilled?
New look: The latest incarnation of The Joy of Sex (left) and as it was when it was released in 1972 (right)
I may not have been a virgin when I married, but I had plenty of hang-ups. My sex education had consisted of my mother telling me, ‘It really isn’t too awful if you love someone,’ which hardly made it an experience to look forward to.
By contrast, The Joy Of Sex transported so many of us from a sense of shame, silence and fear around sex to a world where we could approach it with openness, enthusiasm and, yes, even joy.
This month marks the 40th anniversary of the initial publication of The Joy Of Sex, now available as an e-book but also reissued as The Joy Of Sex — The Timeless Guide To Lovemaking.
If the original book was addressed mostly to men, the new version is clearly targeted more closely at women, providing a fascinating insight into how the sexual landscape has changed in the past four decades.
I was married in 1972 to a man nine years my senior who was far more sexually experienced than me. Several of my married friends, including men, were virtual novices at sex. For them it was an exercise in trial and error, often culminating in mutual disappointment rather than simultaneous orgasms.
So there’s no wonder we couldn’t wait to get our hands on The Joy Of Sex, a handy guide telling us how to get it right and have fun in the process.
The author was not a free-loving American hippy as so many people assumed, but a highly-qualified British doctor, born in 1920 and educated at Cambridge University.
The author of more than 50 works of fiction and non-fiction, as well as head of research into gerontology at University College London, Alex Comfort was a pacifist, poet and co-founder of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament.
But it’s The Joy Of Sex, which has sold more than ten million copies worldwide, for which he is chiefly known.
Previously, Comfort, who died in 2000 at the age of 80, had written one sexually explicit novel and an academic treatise, Sex In Society, and had translated the erotic classic, The Koka Shastra, from the original Sanskrit.
Susan Quilliam, the respected relationship psychologist and sexologist responsible for the revised edition of the book, recalls the impact the original had on her.
‘In 1972, I was 22, and my boyfriend, who was a year younger, was doing a degree,’ she says.
‘One weekend we were alone in his shared flat, and he went into his flatmate’s room to get a record or something and came out brandishing a copy of The Joy Of Sex.
‘We spent the weekend in sexual experimentation before returning the book to his flatmate’s room and buying a copy of our own. It taught me a great deal, and the fact that it was full of humour made us laugh, too.’
So how different is the new from the original? And what does it tell us about changing sexual mores?
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Quilliam says that although Comfort took women’s pleasure seriously, he was slightly chauvinist.
She explains: ‘For example, he said no man should suffer erectile difficulty if his partner is young enough and pretty enough, which is both sexist and patently untrue.’
It’s important, Quilliam believes, to see the huge impact of the original in the context of society at a time when the puritanism and austerity of the post-war years were still fresh in the mind.
There had been no legal abortion until 1968, and for the first few years after its introduction in 1961, the contraceptive pill was available only to married women, and to engaged women at the discretion of family planning clinics and on presentation of a letter from their vicar. It wasn’t long after this that Comfort’s book was published.
Curiously, the revised Joy Of Sex is in certain aspects more conservative than the original —ironic, since we live in a world where, courtesy of the hit erotic novel Fifty Shades Of Grey, even sado-masochism is widely and openly read about and discussed.
For example, sex on a moving motorbike, advocated by Comfort in the original, was banished from the new book on the grounds of it being both dangerous and illegal. Sex on horseback was excluded, too: Quilliam believed no one would be up for it.
When Comfort wrote his book, he was 52 years old and had been married for almost 30 years. For a decade he had also been conducting a passionate ten-year affair with a woman who was to become his second wife. He divorced his first wife not long after the book was published.
As a doctor, Comfort realised, from talking to patients, how little the average person knew about sex. A pregnant patient once told him she was ashamed to let her neighbours know she was expecting because they’d know she’d been having sex.
He was on a mission to educate and it was typical of this iconoclastic, unconventional man, deeply in lust with his mistress, to share with a broader public just how joyous sex could be.
As Quilliam puts it: ‘Here was a man writing from both his heart and his loins.’ Despite the book’s extraordinary success, Comfort didn’t like the popular soubriquet ‘Dr Sex’, saying he would rather be remembered for his poetry and his work on the science of ageing.
So is the new version of the book likely to capture the public imagination as strongly as the original?
Quilliam has updated The Joy Of Sex sensibly and authoritatively, at the same time managing to retain the quirky and humorous style of the original. But something has been lost.
If the hairy couple on the original cover are more likely to make us laugh today than to turn us on, the soft-focus, pseudo-erotic photographs in the new edition miss the sensitivity of the originals.
The story of how the original illustrations — pencil drawings of a couple in myriad positions — came about is instructive.
It was decided early on to use illustrations rather than photographs, so as not to fall foul of obscenity laws.
Only the previous summer, in 1971, Britain had witnessed the media frenzy of the Oz trials, in which the editors of a satirical magazine were found guilty of obscenity for publishing a sexualised parody of Rupert Bear.
There were originally two illustrators working on The Joy of Sex: Charles Raymond did the colour drawings of a couple making love, while Chris Foss drew the more technical black-and-white illustrations of positions and techniques.
The original plan was to take photographs of models working in the sex industry and use them as the basis for copied drawings. But when budget problems arose Charles Raymond came to the rescue, volunteering to model with his German wife, Edeltraud.
Given how open everyone seems to be about sex these days, and the huge amount of material available on the internet, it’s tempting to argue that a how-to sex manual is something of an anachronism. Not so, according to Quilliam.
‘You should see my postbag,’ she says. ‘The world’s sexual problems clearly haven’t been solved and, given the spread of pornography, we need now more than ever to embrace a joyful view of sex based on proper values.’
On the question of whether we enjoy sex more or less today, Quilliam is equivocal.
‘The answer’s both yes and no. On the one hand we are living in an age of hedonism, but on the other I witness far more fear and distress around sex than in the past,’ she says.
‘We may meet someone and go to bed with them immediately, but we still worry. We worry about loss of desire, we worry about whether we should be swinging from the chandeliers, and we worry about the proliferation of date rape and pornography.
‘We even worry about whether we’re sufficiently beautiful to deserve sex. In some ways, despite a gap of 40 years, we feel there’s less joy about sex if only because we feel pressurised to have more of it.’
Four decades after Alex Comfort wrote his groundbreaking book with the intention of spreading his joyous instruction to the world, Quilliam’s conclusion is as salutary as it is sad.