Alex Comfort’s love life
And why Joy was his best work
Publishing a raunchy illustrated sex manual like The Joy of Sex was risky in 1972. Only a few years earlier Dr Eustace Chesser had been unsucessfually prosecuted for his milder, and unillustrated Love Without Fear. But Alex Comfort, also a doctor, loved risk. Married to Ruth Harris, and having an affair with her best friend Jane Henderson, he gave Polaroids of himself and Jane to the Joy of Sex illustrators. His only concession to his wife’s feelings, to persuade the artists to ensure that the final results bore no resemblance to the originals.
Comfort and Henderson’s exhibitionism did not end there. Soon after the book came out and Comfort had divorced Harris, they emigrated to California and joined the Sandstone Retreat, a swinging community frequented by Sammy Davis Jr, Timothy Leary, and the porn star Marilyn Chambers – Gay Talese wrote Thy Neighbour’s Wife about it. It must have given them both a thrill to see their book eventually become the best selling sex manual of all time.
Comfort was an anarchist and pacifist who believed that our healthy sexual urges were illicitly restrained by social conventions and power structures. But he didn’t always write as well as he did in The Joy of Sex. Here’s a representative extract from his 1948 pamphlet Barbarism and Sexual Freedom: Lectures on the sociology of sex from the standpoint of anarchism. The title should be a warning.
“It is because the whole emphasis of anarchist thought is upon the removal of power and the refusal to employ power-institutions as a vehicle for reformist measures that it seems to me to embody the most comprehensive and scientifically legitimate approach to sexual ethics. I think I have made it clear that the closeness of the relation between this branch of human conduct and social institutions in general makes it impossible to modify either except by way of the other. A general outbreak of public resistance to militarism would contribute more to the removal of sexual imbalance than any action through the channels which we have come to regard as political. The problem is that of human freedom, and human freedom has little to do with institutions or the reform of institutions. Yet there is a stronger case for reformist action as a stop-gap treatment in this field than in any other. While we cannot excise the problem radically until megalopolitanism destroys itself or is superseded through the direct action of peoples, that does not mean that we can afford to withhold first-aid measures.”
What is he trying to say?
Late in life Comfort regretted the way The Joy of Sex overshadowed his other writings.
I’m jolly glad it did.