February 17, 2017

Joy of Sex & Our Bodies, Ourselves Became Huge Bestsellers in the 1970's

In 2011, a surprise hit for the publishing industry was the huge success of an erotic novel (a trilogy, actually) from British author E. L. James called Fifty Shades of Grey, which featured explicitly erotic scenes featuring elements of sex involving bondage/discipline, dominance/submission, and sadism/masochism (BDSM).  Fifty Shades of Grey depicted BDSM as a relatively normal part of the spectrum of human sexuality; all things that were once considered sexual deviation and depravity, even though what truly occurred behind closed doors was never really known.  The book was followed-up with a film version of Fifty Shades of Grey.  While BDSM had its day in the sun thanks largely to Fifty Shades of Grey, in hindsight, the English-speaking world should not have been surprised by any of it.  In fact, over forty years earlier, the publishing world was similarly surprised when another book about sex made the bestseller lists in the UK and in North America for many weeks.

The book was The Joy of Sex, an illustrated sex book (it was written as a sex manual) written by British author Alex Comfort MD PhD (he died in 2000) that was first published in the UK in 1961.  It became a bestseller there, and was then successfully published in the US, Canada, Australia and New Zealand in 1972.  The Joy of Sex book was very loosely modeled on the cookbook the Joy of Cooking, which in the UK was a culinary how-to book that helped to transform the way most of its readers thought about food.  The very first edition of the Joy of Sex considered sex on moving motorcycles (which is now generally outlawed, mostly due to safety concerns). The original book wrote: "If you have access to a private road, the hazards are yours," counseled the book's ironically surnamed author Dr. Alex Comfort.  Doing it on horseback (also mentioned in the 1972 edition) is also now outlawed in many places.  But the locations were never the point, rather it was that sex is supposed to be enjoyable for those involved, not merely a very dark means of potential or accidental reproduction.

At the time The Joy of Sex book was published, the UK, the US and the Anglo provinces of Canada, Australia (all unlike most other Continental European countries) were still very prudish about sex, perhaps due to outdated Victorian laws still on the books, and because the English/Anglo-American culture never openly discussed sex.  That meant that sex was something that was done (as birth rates in all English-speaking countries prove), yet was certainly never talked about in an open matter.

Yet in the US, The Joy of Sex became a huge bestseller (making the publisher very, very happy), spending 11 weeks at the top of the New York Times bestseller list and remaining in the top 5 for more than 70 weeks (from 1972–1974).  All told, it spent a total of 343 weeks on the New York Times bestseller list.  With a publishing success like that, it wasn't surprising that it was followed-up by a sequel called More Joy of Sex.  With the book's discreet cover, its content was divided into what could kind of be described as appetizers, main courses, and special sauces (consistent with the cookbook design for The Joy of Cooking).

The "hairy man" and his female lover from The Joy of Sex book
Because obscenity laws still existed in the UK and US, visual depictions of the act of sex presented some challenges, but the publisher creatively got around that with illustrated drawings, rather than with actual photography, which conveniently avoided potential controversy that might have accompanied explicit photos of people having sex, which could have been considered pornography.  That said, The Joy of Sex emerged around the same time that mainstream pornography was then starting to appear in theaters (at least in the US), including the bestselling movie of all-time (including all non-porn films) Deep Throat, would challenge decades of religious dogma which until then, had largely dominated American society almost without question (catch my post on the mainstreaming of pornography at https://goo.gl/9FG5K for more).

Although Playboy had successfully operated since the 1950's, it initially operated within a very complicated barrage of restrictions and prohibitions in certain local counties, meaning it could operate as long as there weren't local restrictions, but that was ever-changing.  Then, in 1973, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in its decision on Miller v. California that dramatically narrowed and simplified the definition of obscenity, which resulted in dramatically fewer prosecutions nationwide.  In that case, the definition of obscenity went from being an extremely broad understanding of "utterly without socially redeeming value" to that which lacked "serious literary, artistic, political, or scientific value."  That meant that many serious sex publications were suddenly allowed under the nation’s newer understanding of obscenity laws.

Marilyn Monroe was the centerfold of the 1st
edition of Playboy in December 1953
Note that the 2016 decision for Playboy to eliminate the nude centerfolds it helped popularize didn't last long.  As of February 2017, the publication announced that its nude centerfolds would be back.  Founder Hugh Hefner was critical of the decision, and predicted it wouldn't last, and he was right.  Evidently, in spite of quality articles (really!), that really wasn't enough to sustain the magazine's subscriber base in an era where nudity can be attained free online from virtually anywhere in the U.S.  Buzzfeed covered the reversal at Playboy to feature nudes and did a good job covering that ill-fated decision.  Catch the article at https://www.buzzfeed.com/jimdalrympleii/playboy-is-bringing-back-nude-photos for more.

As noted, because The Joy of Sex was illustrated, rather than with actual photos, it managed to avoid the same kind of scrutiny as actual photography might have.  The illustrations were very graphic, but looking back on them 50 years later is almost comical, with hairstyles better left in the 1960's and bushy pubic areas.  The man in the illustration was heavily bearded; his hair was long, and, and frankly, his hair seemed to be a little greasy, too. His eyelids were usually at half-mast.  He came to be popularly known in the the UK as the "hairy man" and his only slightly-less-hairy female partner (some hipsters are now doing the same thing, so I guess they haven't really learned from their elders' mistakes, even if the porn they consume looks dissimilar to them).

Our Bodies, Ourselves: the feminist alternative
There was also a feminist alternative to The Joy of Sex called Our Bodies, Ourselves which came out around the same time. That book announced on its original jacket that it was By and For Women.  But Our Bodies, Ourselves covered almost all of the same material as The Joy of Sex, just with a slightly different tone, mainly from the female perspective. That book, too, had very similar hand-drawn illustrations of a couple having sex in a series of different positions.  Interestingly, both of these books also explained that everyone was basically bisexual, so it meant that gays and lesbians weren't suddenly being as casually dismissed as society as may have tried to do (so much for Anita Bryant's initially successful, but ultimately failed efforts a few years later … men and women were still having sex with one another in a variety of combinations, no matter what she tried to ban).  This was the world in which kids of the 1970's came of age.  Kids of that era were basically left to figure things out for themselves, with the help of a very, sexually-explicit book (or two).  I later learned that these books had been banned in some parts of the country.  Maybe they could easily be removed from school libraries, but the books could still be found in many public libraries.  And kids did just that.  At least where I grew up.   And, if it wasn't available in our local public library, we could order it via an inter-library loan (ours had it, I checked for myself).

I recall finding a copy of The Joy of Sex at home (or maybe it was More Joy of Sex, I don't recall exactly, it was one of them) as a kid.  But to my surprise, I wasn't punished for finding it, I was actually allowed to read the book in its entirety, by myself, and was told to ask if I had any questions (I could tell they didn't want to do that, but felt obliged to offer that).  I guess if I found a book that someone at home was reading, they really couldn't lecture about my reading it, and not another word was ever mentioned about it.  When we had sex education in school a few years later, I remember thinking that we were kind of short-changed with the stuff we were taught in school because that book had so much more.  In school, we were taught that sex consisted of a man "inserting the penis into the woman’s vagina".  Um, "insert", as if that was a single second in time, and that was it?

Evidently, I lived in an area of the country that was more progressive than some other parts of the country.  Some places (like Utah, or Mississippi or Alabama) were trying to ban these books and some continue to do so in 2017.  They also tried to ban Playboy and/or Penthouse.  And others, like Judy Blume books.  (see my post on her at http://hgm.sstrumello.com/2012/06/tales-of-4th-grade-nothingjudy-blume.html)  Like we kids weren't talking about this stuff openly on our playgrounds?!  And there was always some kid who had moved in from out-of-town, maybe where books were banned, but school kids quickly indoctrinated them on the taboo content, so it didn’t stay secret for long.  This stuff has a way of being shared on the school playgrounds.

I guess many kids of the 1970's had a very similar experience.

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