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'Joy of Sex,' revised from top to bottom

'The Joy of Sex' has been overhauled and is set to hit bookstores this week.  But is the new version of the best-selling guide an improvement to the 1970s classic?
/ Source: a href="" linktype="External" resizable="true" status="true" scrollbars="true">The Washington Post</a

The Hairy Man -- skinny, skeezy, looks like a lost member of Jethro Tull? -- must have represented some male ideal at some point, but that is a memory we have repressed. The big toe was surely never the "magnificent erotic organ" it was made out to be.

Yet something about "The Joy of Sex" resonated with people -- or at least reached them, parked as it was on the New York Times bestseller list for years after its 1972 release. It went directly from shelf to nightstand drawer, where kids found it and went "eww."

It scintillated, it titillated, it taught French you never learned from Madame Cousin. But most of all, it normalized. In the boudoir, everyone was okay, and everyone could be taught. Subtitled "A Gourmet Guide to Lovemaking," with such chapter headings as Starters, Main Courses and Sauces & Pickles, doctor-author Alex Comfort's book made being a sexpert a snobby hobby. Like cheese-tasting, but naked.

This week in bookstores, an overhaul. A major overhaul -- not like the smaller updates done over the years. "The Joy of Sex: The Timeless Guide to Lovemaking" has 42 new sections mixed in with the old standards like cassoulet and pattes d'araignee. Comfort died in 2000, so Susan Quilliam, a British relationship shrink, stepped in to write new content and balance out the phallocentric worship from the original.

According to "Joy's" introduction, this version was written to benefit the "ordinary, sexually active reader."

Ordinary? What, in the "Joy of Sex" world, does that mean, anyway?

People still have sex
Spoiler alert: People still have sex. The mechanics of it haven't changed since 1972, AD or BC. We might be overwhelmed with info now (See: "Internet"), but the popularity and longevity of "Joy" make it seem a lot more trustworthy than, say, "Tickle His Pickle," $10.17 on Amazon. It's been a bellwether of human sexuality for decades.

But it really did need an update. Sections of the original read like shag-carpeted relics. The anti-condoms attitude, especially, but also the sex on horseback (we're outraged, too, PETA); the aversion to shaving anything (especially the Hairy Man); and the assertion that regular orgies were the way of the future (only in some exurbs). Reading him 37 years later, Comfort sounds a lot like your lecherous great-uncle.

The new version is better, in some ways.

For one, the Hairy Man is gone. He has been replaced by a guy who looks like a Best Life cover model, and his new partner is a curvy, comely redhead. In the arty photographs throughout the book, they appear to spend more time in the throes of giggling than in the throes of passion, which is somehow a relief.

For two, the book has abandoned most of its bizarrely offensive terminology -- a sexual position dubbed "a la Negresse," a crack about "one-legged ladies" -- the latter of which is replaced by a thoughtful address to disabled readers.

The rest of it is A-to-Z sex, ingredients to entrees to sauces and pickles. Phone sex now makes an appearance. "Safe words" now make an appearance. Transexualism now makes an appearance -- a soft, nonjudgmental appearance, in which Quilliam gently, gently advises people with trans partners to "help them by comprehension and see that they -- and just as importantly you -- get counseling support if wanted."

In the section on new positions, Quilliam recommends arranging a "practice session" before the actual interlude, to make sure no one gets hurt.

And at the end of the book, a four-page resource guide on everything from menopause to eating disorders.

Suddenly, we miss Hairy Man. Hairy Man wasn't for everyone, sure, but his uniqueness meant that he was probably for someone and that those who dug him were ecstatic to see him in print.

Not like the new guy. The new guy is benignly attractive, but nothing about sex should be benign. "J. Crew sex!" a friend exclaims upon seeing the new book, and no one gets hot and bothered over J. Crew.

It no longer feels like your lecherous uncle dispensing the advice, it's your old-fashioned aunt, the one who says things like, I used to drive my beau wild by blowing in his ear! How else to explain the three-paragraph section on earlobes or the full page on blowing? Even the section on cybersex seems almost prim -- "New technology . . . is the ultimate in safe sex" -- and all those leftover first-edition terms that must have once seemed so French and so sensitive now just seem stupid. "Birdsong at morning?" Really, now. It's called "moaning."

Really quite quaint
For all its frank illustrations and detailed descriptions, "Joy" is really quite quaint.

Is this what "ordinary" sex is, then? Quaint? Boring? Definitely heterosexual, that's for sure (though the new version is gay-positive).

It's not such a bad thing. It's kind of a relief, actually, to get back to the basics. Raise your hand if, even after 32 (32!) episodes of HBO's "Real Sex," you quietly admitted to yourself that you did not always understand which parts were supposed to be erotic. "The Joy of Sex" feels kind of like a re-virginization movement. Forget about nipple piercings! Earlobes, baby, earlobes!

"Ordinary" sex today might also be "exhausted," as in, "Teach us anything that does not require locating the letter-spot du jour." (And, in fact, Quilliam dedicates just a few short paragraphs to the G-, A- and U-spots.) She mentions, and it's not totally surprising, that women in the 1950s had more sex than women do now, mostly because they had more unstructured time. (Go, Mom! Maybe you were the one who had it all.)

What's disappointing about the revision has nothing to do with euphemisms or J. Crew. It's that under the veil of acceptance for all kinds, this version still has vestiges of some 1972 creepiness. Like: "The penis has more symbolic importance than any other human organ"; and later: "An erection is always a minor miracle." (Oh, please. A thing that can happen when you're fast asleep, and for no discernible reason, and you want us to have a small religious ceremony for it?) One assumes those were Comfort's original contributions, since, well, really ...

Or what about the section on general body confidence, which claims that "women care hardly at all about shape," so men can "relax please." (Men -- there is a reason Hugh Jackman probably graces more screensavers than Seth Rogen.)

Or the sentence that anoints "good old face-to-face matrimonial . . . with mutual orgasm" the "piece de resistance" of any couple's sexual experience. Other things might be for special occasions, or "like pepper steak, stunning once a year but not staples." Says who? Some of us have pepper steak every week.

Those are small sentences, true, in a book that some readers might still find far too scandalous ("chains" and "harness" each gets its own section). But that's the trouble with a book designed to please everyone. Whether it's too square or too out there, something somewhere in "The Joy of Sex" is going to make someone feel like a freak.