'Joy of Sex' Reinvented for Today's Lovers

Dr. Alex Comfort's 1972 sex classic is reinvented for a new generation.

September 17, 2008, 5:12 PM

Sept. 18, 2008 — -- The year was 1972. Mores were in flux as youth cried, "Make love, not war," and a titillating book, filled with a smorgasbord of illustrations of sexual positions, made a sensational splash in bookstores across the country.

"The Joy of Sex" -- its name evoking the best-selling cookbook with gastronomical subtitles like "appetizers" and "main courses" and "sauces and pickles" -- took sex out of the porn shop and onto the bedside table, helping to fuel America's "Sexual Revolution."

The iconic cover featured a naked, bearded man pressing against his flower-child lover. And, in the tone of the times, author Dr. Alex Comfort -- a British gerontologist with anarchist leanings -- offered tips on the art of lovemaking to a mostly male, heterosexual audience.

But today, 36 years later, the bearded lothario is gone and, for the first time, a woman has completely rewritten the book in the style of Comfort, who died in 2000, keeping pace with scientific advances and new cultural attitudes.

The updated "Joy of Sex" was released last week in Britain and will be available in January in the United States.

So far, its market is the same as the original -- a single person older than 25 who wants a "more advanced technique or deeper view," according to writer Susan Quilliam, a relationship psychologist who was selected by Comfort's son Nicholas to "reinvent" the book.

"Readers don't want just fluffy and romantic or just down-graded sex," Quilliam told ABCNews.com. "They realize it is joyful, but also know it is powerful. People kill and die for sex and it should be taken seriously, because it's a powerful thing."

The new 288-page book -- dubbed "The Timeless Guide to Lovemaking" -- targets the couple, rather than just men, and includes new topics on Internet and phone sex, pornography and intercourse during pregnancy.

Some of the older tips were removed -- having sex on horseback or on a moving motorcycle, although it includes guidelines for sex on a stationary one.

It also has a resources section with research on the female orgasm, use of sex toys and practices that were, according to Crown Publishing Group, "considered too outrageous to admit to."

More modern topics include the pressure to have sex, regret in not having it, self-esteem issues and sexually transmitted diseases.

Though some of Comfort's book has sustained the test of time, much has not. Modern critics have charged that the 1972 version was offensive, heterosexist, misogynistic. They say it gave a nod to some violence in sex. Lesbians were dismissed as "simply women who have given up on men after a lifetime spent kissing frogs who failed to turn into princes."

Quilliam did away with those politically incorrect transgressions, but kept the theme, at least for now, heterosexual. "It was a deliberate decision to mention and honor gay sex, but not to cover it in the main book," said Quilliam.

She looks forward to writing more books in the series that would specifically address homosexuality, diversity issues and topics for a younger age group. Still, she admits Comfort needed a rewrite.

"It was written by a man for a man, completely in keeping with the times," said Quilliam, 58. "He wasn't a misogynist for his day. He was actually forward thinking and mentioned the clitoris and was in favor of women taking the lead. He was very much for equality."

"But yes," she said. "I absolutely had to tone him down."

The original "Joy of Sex" sold 8 million copies and a slightly updated 2002 edition sold nearly 100,000 more, mostly to women, according to the publishers.

The latest overhaul -- done with a team of researchers -- "updates the importance of the clitoris, hormones, pheromones and scientific development in understanding aging and sexual problems," said Quilliam. "There was no real therapy in those days."

"Attitudes have changed completely," said Quilliam. "But we are more inhibited with a new Puritanism, compared to the '70s where Alex Comfort was living the California lifestyle and was very open to sex."

But at the same time, that generation had its own inhibitions. "A lot of people had never heard of sadomasochism," she said. "Nowadays even the most vanilla magazine recommends use of a sex toy."

"The Joy of Sex" was a sensation when it was first published in 1972, according to Pepper Schwartz, professor of sociology at the University of Washington and a relationship expert for perfectmatch.com. The book spawned other racier titles and "fermented" the Sexual Revolution.

"The influence of the original was to make it beautiful enough to be acceptable to look at," Schwartz told ABCNews.com. "Up until then, there wasn't an intermediate form of explicit pictures that wasn't pornographic."

Comfort's book was noteworthy for its detailed drawings, many of which are retained in the new version.

"They looked like nice people who, with their clothes on, would be nice to have coffee with," said Schwartz. "I don't even remember any of the writing. The pictures were unusual, letting you get a good close-up look to get new ideas and permission to try something you didn't know about."

Today's sex books would have been "over the top" by 1972 standards, added Schwartz, author of "Sex Weekend: A 48-Hour Program for Bored, Busy or Bold Lovers." Her book, too, relies on the premise of Comfort's best-seller that without variation, sex is tiresome.

"If you eat steak every day, you would be bored with it," she said. "I think they took a good approach: Strawberries are no better or worse than steak. But you want variety."

And then, as well as now, the illustrations show the reader exactly how. "What would it look like if you were making love with a woman on your lap?" she said. "A picture is worth a thousand words."

But according to writer Quilliam, readers are still looking for answers, nearly three decades later. As an "agony aunt" -- the British equivalent of Dear Abby -- she fields 25,000 letters a year.

"I get a whole age range and a lot of letters from men," she said. "They are relationship questions like the loss of desire or I still want my partner, but they don't want me."

When the book launched in Britain she took two hours of calls from readers. "Some were so basic, just so basic," she said. "I've been with my girlfriend for three months and I know this thing called the clitoris, but I don't know where it is."

"The point is there is an awful lot of information in society, but the problem is a lot of it is inaccurate, useless or positively harmful," she said. "On the Internet a man can see a photo image of women, but it would not help his sex life."

In rewriting the original "Joy of Sex," Quilliam's feminine perspective reflects much of what has changed in the world of sex in 36 years.

"The thing that was completely missing because we didn't know about it was the importance of the clitoris and the way men and women have come together," she said. "Their views of sex have crossed over. Women really love sex and men can be very emotional. And that is the most hopeful message of all."