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Some Very Un-Joyous Sex

04/12/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

I'm a bit late to the game on the updated edition of the 1972 classic The Joy of Sex. But last week a CBC radio producer emailed me to ask what I thought of the new-ish version and I realized that it was still sitting there in the ever growing pile of books on my desk I think I should read, but haven't. It made its way to the desk pile (as opposed to the donate-to-library pile) primarily for nostalgic reasons. I love my copy of the original, more for the fact that my father gave it to me when he packed up his sex therapy practice than for the homophobic, racist, and decidedly un-radical pearls of wisdom it confers.

In my mind the original remains a cultural artifact as much for its marketing power as for its actual impact on the dominant sexual discourse (well that and those hairy, hairy illustrations that are forever burned in the minds of anyone my age who grew up with the book). I never bought the idea of Dr. Comfort as one of the "world's leading experts on human sexuality" any more than I buy the idea that sexual change happens when middle class, straight white people say it happens. But the book has its place in our sexual history, and I figured I might as well see if an updated version were any less problematic.

The first sentence gave me a sense of where we were headed:

"All of us, barring any physical limitations, are able to dance and sing -- after a fashion."

Ummm, really? Let's parse this sentence: there is some category of "us" and, though we all do it in our own way, we are all able to dance and sing. Unless we have "physical limitations", then apparently, we can't dance and sing. In other words, if you have a physical limitation (whatever that is) you're out of the club.

First of all, I'm not sure exactly what a "physical limitation" is. Having your hands tied behind your back, maybe? I'm guessing is a pathetic attempt to refer in some kind of bland, politically correct drawl to physical disability. Let me say this; there are such things as a disability rights movement, a disability arts scene, and disability activists. Instead of alluding to people with disabilities with euphemisms or condescending "special notes" how about talking about them?

Which bring us to the ultimate failure of this text; its cloying unwillingness (inability?) to speak directly or honestly about anything to do with sex. Its 280 pages of tired double entendres broken up occasionally with soft core photos and suggestive illustrations of young white people having sex. How is this what we need? How does this add anything to individual, social, or cultural discussions about sex?

It doesn't. Instead The Joy of Sex offers a bizarre mixture of biological determinism (the breasts are the "second natural target"; page 50), problematic understandings of race, culture, and ethnicity (the Japanese are "Orientals"; page 214), and the worst kind of theoretical reductionism (there are only two kinds of sex; page 26).

I'd be depressed about people picking this book up and taking it seriously, except I'm not sure anyone will. I'm sure people will buy it. But they also buy Chia Pets. I'm less certain that the audience for sex books is as desperate as it was in 1972. I'm not sure people will be satisfied with authors who can't be bothered the somewhat minor task of writing for a diverse audience, and a spliced editing job which offers a text that refuses to speak either directly or artfully on the subject.

Mind you despite a few gems, the sex book bar is set quite low. So I may be overstating my case.