Polymath: The Life and Professions of Dr Alex Comfort, Author of The Joy of Sex
“For Freedom and Beauty are not fixed starts, but cut by man only from his own flesh, but lit by man, only for his sonjourn.”
Have you read The Joy of Sex by Alex Comfort? Since its publication, the book has sold 12 million copies in various editions and its sequel, The New Joy of Sex (1991), some 1.5 million more. The book’s full subtitle, A Cordon Bleu Guide to Lovemaking, was released in the U.S. in October 1972, and, by August 1973, it topped The New York Times bestseller list of nonfiction books.
Sadly, popular history may have forgotten Comfort, but Eric Laursen has not. His Polymath is a comprehensive, truly exhaustive, 700-plus page testament to a most remarkable man. Comfort (1920–2000) was a British medical doctor, PhD biologist, research scientist, cultural critic, political activist, and leading pacifist-anarchist thinker. By the time he published The Joy of Sex, he had published 30 books as well as innumerable scientific studies, numerous poems, novels, essays and letters-to-the-editor to leading medical journals (e.g., The Lancet) as well as to political and popular magazines.
Comfort published his first book, The Silver River in 1938, an account of a trip with his father to Argentina and Senegal while still a high-school student. He went to Cambridge’s Trinity College and studied natural sciences. He played a vital role in making gerontology (i.e., the study of aging) a branch of modern science and translated The Koka Shastra, an erotic classic, from the Sanskrit.
The Joy of Sex capped the 1960’s counterculture revolution of sex, drugs, and rock ’n’ roll. It pushed the boundaries of acceptable sex beyond the conventional boundaries of procreation and pleasure to include sociality or what he called “the forgotten art of being human.” The book presents the wonders of sex invoking the magic of a tasteful cookbook, with chapter headings like ''Starters,'' ''Main Courses'' and ''Sauces and Pickles.''
The book’s nonthreatening spirit is suggested by a “recipe” for “foursomes and moresomes" that acknowledges, "Orgies . . . tend to be ruined by liberal intellectuals who invariably end up talking rather than doing—and fall to the ground still talking." And the final chapter, "Sauces and Pickles," is surprisingly saucy. There's bondage, vibrators ("a new standby") and "Viennese oyster" ("A lady who can cross her feet behind her head, lying on her back, of course.")
To further soften the book’s message, it is illustrated not by X-rated photos but with suggestive drawings of a middle-aged couple embracing in all manner of tangled positions. And it offers simple, sometime humorous advice like ''Never fool around sexually with vacuum cleaners” and that even one’s big toe can be an erotic turn-on.
The book’s message was simple and to the point: “The whole joy of sex-with-love is that there are no rules, so long as you enjoy, and the choice is practically unlimited.” By “no rules,” Comfort meant that traditional rules, laws, or moral codes of Christian or Western (e.g., UK or USA) society no longer applied.
The only “rule” of “sex-with-love” was mutual consent among equals, thus sex practices like pedophilia, rape, or abusive violence were unacceptable. So, while homosexuality, bondage and sadomasochism were still considered “perversions” by the leading psychiatric associations, The Joy of Sex saw them as forms of sexual play.
Yet, in keeping with the dominant, heterosexual patriarchal sexism of the era, as Laursen points out, “Alex was suggesting that the traditional family could be replaced by a wider, less possessive circle of intimacy, although in his telling, the male tended to reap the biggest benefit.”
Laursen makes clear that Comfort practiced what he preached. He visited Sandstone Retreat on a number of occasions. Secluded in the hills of Topanga Canyon, just north of Los Angeles, it was a unique experiment extending traditional erotic exploration. Founded by John and Barbara Williamson in 1969, Sandstone drew a fairly wide and often distinguished following among “free love” advocates, those exploring the limits of sexual intimacy.
In addition to Comfort, other retreat regulars included Phyllis and Eberhard Kronhausen, the journalist Max Learner, the artist Betty Dodson, the performer Bobby Darin, and Daniel Ellsberg, renowned for leaking the Pentagon Papers. According to one estimate, its membership topped 275 couples.
Further insight into Comfort’s sexual adventurism is suggested by Gay Talese in his 1981 “sex-posé,” Thy Neighbor’s Wife. ''Often the nude biologist Dr. Alex Comfort, brandishing a cigar, traipsed through the room between the prone bodies with the professional air of a lepidopterist strolling through the fields with a butterfly net,'' Talese wrote. ''With the least encouragement—after he had deposited the cigar in a safe place—he would join a friendly clutch of bodies, and contribute to the merriment.''
Comfort reportedly earned $3 million from The Joy of Sex and gave the money away.
Comfort was a lifelong pacifist who, during World War II, was, as he put it, "an aggressive anti-militarist." His strongest stand was a campaign against the indiscriminate bombing, arguing against what he considered “war crimes” inflicted by British and American air raids on German people and occupied cities. He sought to remind people that the Allies’ “Good War” bombing campaigns killed some 600,000 European civilians, seriously injured over a million and left 7.5 million homeless.
For him, pacifism led to anarchism, for he came to believe that pacifism rested "solely upon the historical theory of anarchism." His 1950 study, Authority and Delinquency in the Modern State, applies his analysis of psychiatry and social psychology to 20th century politics as a relationship between crime and power among antisocial predators that conventional society seeks to contain.
One of Polymath’s most compelling subthemes is the debate between Comfort and George Orwell that played out during the WW-II era. This debate was the subject of Laursen’s early study, The Duty to Stand Aside: Nineteen Eighty-Four and the Wartime Quarrel of George Orwell and Alex Comfort (AK Press, 2018).
Faced with the war, Orwell—author of Animal Farm and 1984—maintained that standing aside, or opposing Britain’s war against fascism, was “objectively pro-fascist"; Comfort argued that intellectuals who did not stand aside and denounce their own government’s atrocities—in Britain’s case, saturation bombing of civilian population centers—had “sacrificed their responsible attitude to humanity.”
In the 1970s, Comfort lived in the States. In 1973, he worked at the Center for the Study of Democratic Institutions at Santa Barbara, CA; from 1974 to 1983, was a lecturer at Stanford University's psychiatry department; and from 1980 to 1991 was a professor at the University of California’s Neuropsychiatric Institute.
It’s a good time to recall the works and life-practice of Alex Comfort, his lessons as a doctor, teacher, writer and political activist are something we can learn from. And Eric Laursen’s Polymath: The Life and Professions of Dr. Alex Comfort, author of The Joy of Sex—all 700-pages!—is a great starting point. Sadly, this exhaustive biography lacks a bibliography of Comfort’s many, many works.