Looking back from a distance of more than three decades, there's something hilariously off about sexologist Alex Comfort's best-selling ode to getting it on, The Joy of Sex. That groundbreaking first edition, published in 1972, brims with hippie wisdom, general male cluelessness — and hair. A woman's armpits, it counseled, "should on no account be shaved," as not to soften their furry eroticism, and deodorant for both sexes was to be "banned absolutely." In the book's once-notoriously explicit charcoal illustrations of acrobatic sex acts, the woman's hirsute lover, in retrospect, bears a sidesplitting resemblance to the GEICO caveman. And the manual, which describes female genitalia as "slightly scary" to some men, offers strategies for the "defloration" of women.
Thankfully, the newly revised Joy of Sex — the book's first major reissue since Dr. Comfort's update in 1991 and death in 2000 — approves of waxing and shaving, subs out Serpico and Janis Joplin for a pair of impeccably groomed models and substantially reworks the material to reflect up-to-date knowledge about male and female sexuality.
True to its original structure and subtitle — A Gourmet Guide to Lovemaking — this new how-to is still modeled on a cook book (with chapters titled "Ingredients," "Appetizers," "Main Courses," etc.) and remains a smorgasbord of stimulating, if somewhat buttoned-down by Internet-era standards, ideas and images. Intact, too, is its exclusively hetero orientation and humorously staid and clinical tone. Here's a passage from the manual's not-especially-spicy fetish section, "Sauces and Pickles": "How [sexual turn-ons] become programmed in a given individual isn't known, but there is an identifiable repertoire of components, like the repertoire of feathers one can use in a lure, from which most of these stimuli are made." Hey Miss Manners, bust out the handcuffs!
It's not that The Joy of Sex lacks intentional humor, especially in the hands of this edition's "reinventor," U.K. relationship psychologist Susan Quilliam. Any sex guide that refers to a woman's post-coital attempts to re-arouse her male partner as "corpse reviving" is OK with us. It's just that the book's refusal to be indelicate extends even to its core mission: the promotion of healthy sexuality. Limited to just three of nearly 300 pages, the crucial discussion of STDs and safe sex is treated like a buzzkill.
Of course, the publishing success of The Joy of Sex led to multiple imitators. Arguably, the best is the pansexual, playfully irreverent and more comprehensive Guide to Getting It On, which, itself, is available in a newly minted sixth edition. Still, there's something to celebrate about the enduring life of so seminal a piece of educational literature as The Joy of Sex. For pride's sake, at least — and on the assumption that, one day, this polite primer will be purloined by your tweenaged sons and daughters — wouldn't you really rather have it hidden somewhere in your bookcase than, say, Tickle His Pickle or The Complete Idiot's Guide to Amazing Sex?