Rereading Alex Comfort's "The Joy of Sex" on the morning after.
When I heard that Dr. Alex Comfort had died last month, I decided to revisit the original 1972 edition of his bestseller, “The Joy of Sex: A Gourmet Guide to Lovemaking.” Though the book was updated several times, including a 1991 edition with a chapter on AIDS, I wanted to study the Vietnam-era artifact that made such a splash, the one my friend Emily and I snuck out of her mother’s house and studied in our treehouse.
But “The Joy of Sex” is hard to find around here. The original 1972 edition isn’t in the library systems of Washington or the Maryland county where I live, or in my used bookstore. To view the original, subtitled “A Cordon Bleu Guide to Lovemaking” until the Cordon Bleu people objected, I must visit the rare book reading room at the Library of Congress
The library staff makes me put my stuff in a locker and sends me into the high-ceilinged room with just pencil and paper. The hardcover sits at the end of a long table in a book cradle. I feel like I’m here to take a sex exam I’ll fail despite my years of study.
I’m tired; I’ve come straight from negotiating boundaries in a foreign bed. The guy had explained — before we got to his place — that he was fresh out of a long-term relationship and did not want to be anyone’s boyfriend now. But if I was OK with some lesser situation, he said, let’s get it on.
Either Comfort was ahead of his time, or casual sex hasn’t evolved much since he helped get it going. In the introduction he says his book’s approach, “depth-psychology in a jargonless form,” is just right for 1972, “a moment when primatology and classical human psychodynamics look like joining hands.” The strange phrase speaks straight to my Y2K monkey-woman brain.
Last night the smart woman, the one the guy said he likes, admired the clarity with which he kept his emotional distance. The primate then filtered out the content and basked in the admiration. Gee, I “thought,” a girl could really fall for a guy with such integrity and eloquence. Thus devolved down past where language has meaning, I hit the lever for the sex pellet and the accompanying shock of disappointment.
My day’s work — plowing through pages of sex proselytizing and those line drawings of the randy hippies — isn’t the best distraction from obsessing about Mr. Last Night. “The Joy of Sex” is divided into three alphabetized sections of entries, more encyclopedia than cookbook.
“Starters” is Comfort’s cheeky opinions on birth control, clothes, deodorant, foreskin, nakedness, variety and waking. (Men, he says, like sex in the morning more than women do.) “Main Courses” is an odd smorgasbord: bidet, equipment, handwork, lubrication, mouth music.
The final section, “Sauces and Pickles,” is surprisingly saucy for the times. There’s bondage, vibrators (“a new standby”) and “Viennese oyster.” (“A lady who can cross her feet behind her head, lying on her back, of course.”) Comfort was even hip to people who have sex dressed as horses, a subcult I had never heard of until the 1999
Last night was the second sleepover date. Warnings like his against emotional attachment usually make sex both hotter and colder, more performative, but that didn’t happen. It wasn’t Sauces and Pickles — no trapezes were deployed — and it felt warmer and more affectionate than just-sex sex is supposed to. I was unreasonably happy enough not to shower, so I could keep smelling him in the rare book room. Down-with-the-funk Dr. Comfort would have approved: The “deodorant” entry begins, “Banned absolutely!”
Under “Foursomes and moresomes,” Comfort writes, “Orgies … tend to be ruined by liberal intellectuals who invariably end up talking rather than doing — and fall to the ground still talking.” I have to laugh, because what’s making me sigh “He’s so dreamy” is less the sex than the post-coital chat. After several agreements to shut up because we really really have to go to sleep he asked, “So have you read Foucault?” I get all weak-kneed at the thought of a fella who’d rather discuss “Discipline and Punish” than do them.
But he didn’t talk to or touch me this morning, and I slunk into rush hour feeling banished. I wonder if he regrets the evening or if he’s purposely reminding me to stay cool. Fine, well maybe I don’t want to be with him again: Sure he seems funny and smart, but that kind of thing can destroy the distance necessary for good casual sex.
Talking and fucking share a convoluted, occasionally Portnoyesque relationship in the monkey-woman brain. There’s a tendency to prize style over substance, as I did with Mr. Last Night, and to be too fond of a joke. I went to bed with a Midwestern suitor during Clinton’s impeachment hearings, I realize now, mainly in order to say, “I yield to the gentleman from Ohio.”
I once declined a friend/former lover’s invitation to go to bed, saying, “I can’t have sex with you anymore; I like you too much.” My friend replied without missing a beat, “Anything I can do to make you like me just a little less?” Which is just the sort of remark that would have made me sleep with him earlier but kept me from sleeping with him now. If a guy and I share enough wavelength or language, we move quicker to Woody Allen’s relationship shark, where it has to move forward or stop.
To a surprising extent, Comfort addressed these emotional cul-de-sacs back in the heady days of free love. The British biologist/poet/novelist/anarchist’s most famous book is much less a swinger’s bible than I remembered: He was no Hef.
Comfort wrote in the introduction that the book was “based originally on the work of one couple.” Long-standing rumor has it that the couple was Comfort and the late Jane Henderson, whom he married in 1973 after leaving his wife of 30 years. The she-hippie in the illustrations by Charles Raymond and Christopher Foss sometimes wears a wedding ring, but her bearded mate never does.
Knowing the background makes reading the book more juicily voyeuristic. Under the heading “come again”: “Some men can get six or more full orgasms in a few hours provided they aren’t time-stressed and don’t attempt it daily.” Comfort also claims “you can get a roaring orgasm from the skin of the fingertips, the breasts, the soles of the feet, or the earlobes of a receptive woman.” See Jane come; come, Jane, come. No wonder they got married.
Despite the book’s swipes at “women’s lib,” the personal was also political for the indefatigable Comfort, a lifelong pacifist. “If we were able to transmit the sense of play essential to a full … healthy view of sex,” he declared in the introduction, “we would be committing a mitzvah. People who play flagellation games bother nobody … People who enact similar aggressions outside the bedroom are apt to end up at My Lai or Belsen.”
I like this angle — the wild thing as agent of peace and light. And like the kooky fringes, it distracts me from decoding Mr. Last Night’s more troubling communications. It seems sinister, for example, that he praises vulnerability but isn’t correspondingly reassuring, so I’d rather think about us threatening the military industrial complex together than him power-tripping me.
The book’s full of historical diversion, too: The entry for “vulva” begins, “‘The part of you,’ as the advertisement says, ‘that is most girl.’” I know the BBC goes places American TV does not, but even so, What the hell was that ad for?
But Comfort keeps dragging me back to my discomfort. In “Starters,” after “nakedness,” “penis” and “semen,” comes the entry “tenderness,” which ends, “The ultimate test is whether you can bear to find the person there when you wake up.” I have to shut the book: I can’t look at the cuddling hippies anymore. I replay this morning for the 19th time. Could he not bear finding me there, I wonder, and if so, who failed the test — me or him?
It all looks better after I sleep, though not for any good reason. My optimism about Mr. Night Before Last stems from senseless projections of the monkey brain and from a 28-year-old book’s insistence on “the essential open-endedness of a real relationship between people.”
Then yesterday, Mr. Three Nights Ago told me he doesn’t do well in the mornings, which I shouldn’t take personally. I seize upon this with more inappropriate hope, noting that Comfort considers love “anything from a total interdependence to an agreeable night together.”
I know what Mr. Four Nights Ago said about a relationship, but maybe the shark moves in directions we’ve never seen.
Virginia Vitzthum is a writer living in New York. More Virginia Vitzthum.
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