Paging through the 1972 bestseller The Joy of Sex isn’t like the carnal epiphanies of a stroke book. It’s more like a recipe book for decent, solid cuisine that doesn’t make you salivate – like the old Joy of Cooking whose title was its inspiration. But Alex Comfort’s prose is much wittier than that of the Rombauers.
The books have much in common. Both are organized roughly by course – The Joy of Cooking progresses from cocktails, canapés and soufflés to fish and meat dishes, and then to deserts and especially taxing concoctions like jellies and candies, and pickles. Special chapters at the end deal with problems posed by blenders and high altitude cookery, as well as tips for menus and other factors the complete cook needs to take into account when organizing a feeding regimen.
The Joy of Sex borrows this approach, with “Starters”: foreplay and general tips on sexuality; “Main Courses”: recipes for specific sexual technique; “Sauces and Pickles”: advice about sex in odd places, group sex, and so forth; and “Problems”: tips for dealing with defloration, premature ejaculation, and the like.
Both books feature memorable drawings. The Joy of Cooking (in my grandmother’s 1953 edition) has stylized depictions of a female hand in the act of making cookies, rolling out a pie crust, skinning a squirrel, and plunging spaghetti into a boiling pot. The Joy of Sex features a female hand pumping her lover’s manhood into a second erection. The couple illustrated are well-proportioned and hip for the time but generic. They grope, suck, caress, and hump each other in all sorts of postures. Each book echoes its own time: in The Joy of Cooking the woman’s hand is sleek and jet-age, feminine but efficient. In The Joy of Sex the man is scruffily bearded and the woman has hairy armpits. The line is fuzzier, but the effect is the same: you can perform this recipe yourself: have confidence!
The Joy of Cooking served as a manual to introduce post-WWII American women to the systematic production of food to keep their families happy in an atmosphere of plenty. Irma Rombauer warns in the introduction that the cook’s first thought should be about the nutritional value of the meal. Then she reassures: “Your first efforts at cooking may result in confusion, but soon you will acquire a skilled routine that will give you confidence and pleasure.”
The Joy of Sex was a manual to produce sexual pleasure after decades of civil rights and women’s liberation that followed WWII. Women were entitled to orgasms and men should know how to make the sexual experience produce them: “Finding out someone else’s needs and your own, and how to express them in bed, is not only interesting and educative but rewarding, and what sexual love is about.”
The Rombauers demystified the kitchen. Comfort demystified the bedroom. Both books are formulas for domestic harmony, meant to domesticate wild appetites. The Joy of Cooking never got much crazier than hors d’oeuvres. The Joy of Sex included a section on people who like to play horsey.
The Joy of Cooking was clearly by women for women as homemakers. The Joy of Sex addressed both members of the heterosexual unit, meant to satisfy both sides of the equation. If it was a cookbook, it might be addressed both to the cook and to the ingredients. Comfort admitted the incongruity. “My wife says you can tell this book is written by a man,” he said. “That’s true. Women have to write their own book. I can’t be a woman.” It would not be fair to say that The Joy of Sex is oriented only to male gratification. But its stress on orgasm may reveal an unconscious male bias, much as The Joy of Cooking (asexually) overstresses salt.
It is said that Irma Rombauer was a mediocre cook but a great recipe organizer. She turned The Joy of Cooking from a small-town project into the Great American Cookbook. Comfort’s story was much different – he came to The Joy of Sex after an illustrious and multifarious career in literature and science.
He was educated at home by his parents in a north London suburb and was precocious enough to blow the fingers off his left hand at age 14 while constructing a bomb. Once he made it to Trinity College in Cambridge he embarked on a remarkable career but initially it was in literature even though he was reading natural sciences. A journey to South America and Africa as a teenager, undertaken with his father, had resulted in an early novel, which Evelyn Waugh urged him to destroy. Undeterred, he published his first novel (a different one) in 1941 at age 21 and he followed it with more novels, plus plays and several books of verse. The thread running though his literary output was a political stance of anarchism and pacifism. In a famous wartime opinion piece he called for the prosecution as war criminals of allied leaders who directed saturation bombing of Germany.
In the 50s and 60s the peripatetic polymath, by now a physician and Phd biochemist, turned his attention to gerontology, specializing in the biology of aging. He published hundreds of academic papers and over 50 books. He translated the Koka Shastra, an Indian sex manual in the vein of the Kama Sutra, but it was not until 1972 that he began to address sexuality in earnest. “That’s the way to find out about anything, to write a book about it,” he told the London Telegraph a few years ago. Unsurprisingly, he was a quick study. In Thy Neighbor’s Wife, Gay Talese wrote about encountering Comfort at Sandstone, a luxurious California sex commune, where he depicted Comfort puffing on a cigar in the nude, inspecting copulating couples. “After he had deposited the cigar in a safe place – he would join a friendly clutch of bodies, and contribute to the merriment.”
The book evidently took its toll on Comfort’s marriage. He divorced and remarried his long-time mistress shortly after it came out. A second volume, More Joy of Sex, followed in 1973. It was more of the same, but with increasingly complicated positions and a greater stress on group sex. A fully revised edition appeared in the 90s, stressing fidelity in the face of AIDS – it’s hard not to imagine the old fellow thinking that this represented a good bit less joy. (The newly-revised edition of The Joy of Cooking is also a bit less joyous, owing to the excision of cocktail recipes.)
So what kind of sex did Alex Comfort find most joyous? He never addressed it directly, but the stresses in his books give a clue. He liked light bondage and group scenes. He liked whimsy – a passage in the original Joy of Sex advises stimulating a woman at a restaurant table with the big toe while all four hands are on the table, a practice that will “keep her in almost continuous orgasm.” Comfort wanted sex to be mutual, satisfying, frequent, and a little dirty. He wanted it free from guilt and fear of disease, and just plain free. (These attitudes fit well with his political pacifism and anarchism.) Sex was a skill to be continually honed. It was best with love, but fine without. The best, he said, was the wisdom of our forefathers: “The pièce de résistance is the good old face-to-face matrimonial, the finishing off position, with mutual orgasm.”
Sexuality, he stressed, is serious play, “man’s programmed way of dealing acceptably” with “oldstyle moralisms about what is normal or perverse.” He denigrated Masters and Johnson. They were for people who “are getting over hang-ups so basic that in past generations the folk tradition would have taken care of them.”
He could be foolish, too. He said that if everybody knew how to have great sex the gas chambers of WWII and the Vietnam war would have been avoided. “Sex must be physically the safest of all human activities,” he wrote, in an age when venereal disease ran rampant even if AIDS wasn’t yet a fear.
It is said that Comfort was irritated that his main fame was as a sexologist, when the work he considered most salient were his gerontology, his novels and poetry, and his politics. We should all be so unlucky. Alex Comfort did a great thing with his sex books, at least as great a thing as the Rombauers did with their cookbooks. Many men and women have published ground-breaking work, but only a few have enhanced the pleasure of millions.