'Joy Of Sex' Hits 30

Joy of Sex, Alex Comfort CBS/AP

This is a family story. It's a story about a wayward father who returns to the fold and a dutiful son who leaves behind a high-flying political career to carry the old man's torch.

But of course, it's really a story about sex.

Specifically, the "Joy of Sex," the no-holds-barred how-to guide and "advanced lovemaking" manifesto which took the publishing world by storm in the 1970s and is coming out next week in a 30th anniversary edition.

The late Dr Alex Comfort's book has sold some eight million copies, has been translated into languages from Afrikaans to Serbo-Croat, and has offered its menu of "appetizers, main courses and sauces" to three generations.

It is loaded with terminology and technical detail -- descriptions of positions with names drawn mainly from French. But what always set it apart was the author's obvious relish for his subject.

"If you haven't yet learned to be childish in your lovemaking, you should go home and learn, because it's important," he wrote. "The amount of laughter you have... is a measure we think, of how well you are managing to love."

A fixture in the free-love era of California in the 1970s, Dr Comfort became confined to a wheelchair after a stroke a decade ago, and died in 2000 at the age of 80.

Bringing the book up to date has fallen to his portly, bespectacled son Nicholas, about the most unlikely person you can imagine in the role of keeper of the flame for the ultimate guide to 1970s hedonism.

A former White House correspondent for the staid Daily Telegraph newspaper, he was an official in the British government -- special adviser to the cabinet minister for Scotland -- until just last week.

With journalists ringing up to ask about the sex book, he stepped down. It was the time pressure that forced him to quit, he insists. Promoting his father's book is a full time job.

"I really loved the opportunity to do good work in government," he told Reuters. "But it was as if I had inherited the family business. It took too much time. I couldn't do both."

But he acknowledges he might not have had to quit government if the book was, say, the Joy of Gardening.

"Attitudes toward sex have changed," he says. "But there's still something controversial about it."

SEXUAL SAMIZDAT

His father, a British medical doctor, biologist, poet and anti-nuclear political agitator, began compiling his sex manual as a typewritten, photocopied manuscript for his friends in the 1960s. Nicholas calls it "a sort of sexual samizdat" -- the word for underground manuscripts circulated by Soviet dissidents.

By the time it was properly published, Dr Alex Comfort had married Jane, his co-author and long-time lover, leaving his first wife and Nicholas behind and moving to California.

Much has changed since those days, of course, most importantly with the arrival of AIDS. In the 1980s Comfort added warnings to the book that much of what he had once encouraged was now deadly. Orgies with strangers, for one, were out.

But there's still plenty of tying up and tying down, tips on how to have sex on a garden swing, something called the goldfish, and something else called the Viennese oyster. The book also recommends "old fashioned expedients like holding hands."

The 1972 edition was accompanied by line drawings of a pair of actual lovers, captured in explicit, enthusiastic and occasionally acrobatic flagrante delicto.

The woolly-bearded man in the original drawings, something of a pop-culture icon, was in fact the illustrator, who performed with his wife for a photographer and then copied the pictures in pencil. Beginning with the 1991 edition, the publisher had them redrawn, without the beard.

The newest edition also adds some soft-focus color photos, though these -- with professional models in comparatively demureposes -- are likely to disappoint fans of the original.

THE PRODIGAL RETURNS

As can be imagined, Alex Comfort didn't have much time for family in his 1970s heyday. Children, in his book, were mostly an impediment to good sex.

"The sound and fury of really ongoing sex would give primal scene problems to any small child, so don't take risks; the sort of sex we have, and are talking about here, almost excludes fertility," says the book.

Says Nicholas, with a sigh: "He was off being a sex guru, and children -- and that included me -- became something of a distraction."

But that changed a decade ago when Alex Comfort's wife died suddenly of a heart attack, and the sex guru suffered a debilitating stroke. Dr Comfort returned to live near Nicholas and his family.

The old man formed an especially close bond with Nicholas's young son, little Alex, now eight.

Nicholas has since looked after his father's literary affairs. When the publisher hired an editor and a medical expert to revise the book for the latest version, Nicholas joined the team -- not as an expert on sex, but as an expert on his father.

It was a blessing having the old man around at the end, Nicholas says, especially watching him with his grandson.

But he says he has no illusions that if his father's body had held up, the old man would still be off sowing his oats.

"If he had been able bodied, he'd have been gone, vanished like the dust."

By Peter Graff
  • Bootie Cosgrove-Mather

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