I will open with a kinky confession: I bought Sex in Society because I thought it would be funny.
Why wouldn’t it be? This is a Pelican edition published in 1964, featuring the text of a 1963 revision of a book originally published in 1950 as Sexual Behaviour in Society. Alex Comfort was a novelist, poet and essayist as well as a lecturer, Classicist, practicing medical doctor and translator. An educated polymath, his obsession as he aged became sex and sexuality, and while some of his conclusions and phrasings may betray his 1920 birth year, in many places Sex in Society remains prescient, which is really fucking bleak.
Comfort has a bit of an over-reliance on the theories of Freud for a lot of this book to have aged well, particularly as regards homosexuality. While Comfort makes very clear his scientific and personal opinion that gay sex acts are not “unhealthy” and should absolutely not be (as it still was in the UK in 1964) illegal, he does “explain” being gay using that patronising Freudian theory that defines it as a fetish, and all fetishes as the product of arrested sexual development. Comfort is trying to be liberal and tolerant, but writing in the late 1940s and then revising just over a decade later means that his gently controversial but still mainstream liberal opinions still end up sounding pretty offensive to the modern reader.
What Comfort does repeatedly address in a less old-fashioned manner is the problem of sexual repression and its damaging effects on society. This is still pertinent. Either he is off-handedly predicting the sexual abuse scandals that would rock the Catholic clergy in the 2000s or the existence of predatory paedophilic priests was an open secret in the middle of the century, but Comfort makes very clear the personal and societal ills that come from people growing up unable to separate sex from shame and guilt.
There are interesting and insightful discussions, too, about the fact that sex is (was?) one of the few times in life when adults are socially allowed to “play”, and that playing is important for everyone’s mental health. Comfort isn’t advocating the infantalisation of adulthood that has latterly happened (when 30 year old men able to maintain lovely, strong erections can be caught playing Super Mario 64 DS), but instead the more widespread enjoyment of sex. Would there be crazy golf courses and ping pong bars and axe-throwing venues and 18-rated video games if we were all banging like mad 24/7? No, there wouldn’t, and in many ways we have let down the old-school but optimistic Alex Comfort by not embracing the playfulness afforded us by effective contraception, legal abortions and practical sex education in schools.
We are a more sexless age now, and Comfort writes – at the time of the sexual revolution, though it was focused on the generation below his – that the effects of war and poverty and the threat of nuclear apocalypse are more likely to get people ripping off each other’s clothes and getting down to “coitus” in an array of different “postures”. There is a tone of envy when he writes about the “variety” of sex positions that are described in Arabic and Indian sex literature, and also when he writes about the growing fashion in mid-century France to divorce and get a new, hornier, lover once your kids have left home. Comfort also, though mocks ideas that would persist for a lot longer, such as it being a failing in a women to not orgasm from vaginal stimulation alone. There’s a bit of repressed-feeling presumption that no one in England ever gives or receives oral sex, and there’s little-to-no mention of ass play or kink. Comfort, in his own way, is trying to be sex positive and he is consciously writing with “what he’s got”: England before the introduction of the pill, the slashing of censorship and the legalisation of homosexuality. Though some of the pronouncements Comfort makes might feel a tad “fuddyduddy” now, he is trying his best and he wisely clocks the still-present hypocrisy within popular literature and film to treat violence with less restraint than mutually-pleasurable sex. Comfort even goes so far as to say that the then-contemporary furore around Lady Chatterley’s Lover wouldn’t have existed had the book contained explicit descriptions of extra-marital embowelment rather than romantic and pleasurable extra-marital shagging.
Repression and denial and shame, Comfort writes, are the real social ills, the real poison, not sex itself. It’s not a revolutionary attitude now, and his writing evidences its effect on his theorising. But Comfort’s thoughts are pointed in the right direction: he’s trying, and though he may not have fully understood that “mature” sex and sexuality is not just gracefully sliding a male member betwixt female labia, he was tolerant and open-minded towards other people’s behaviour, as long as it wasn’t exploitative or resulting in unwanted children and – more progressively – unhappy marriages. At one point he quotes a conservative academic rival who believes that one of the reasons to remain a virgin until marriage is so you “don’t know what you’re missing” if you and your spouse aren’t sexually compatible. What bullshit, Comfort opines in more repressed language, people will be happier if they have more and better sex. Comfort doesn’t quite know how to make that happen, but he’s optimistic for the future, which is nice.
Not the barrel of laughs I was anticipating: dated, but not without insight. Reading it gives me no regrets, no shame, no guilt. Nice.
OH MY GOD I JUST LOOKED HIM UP AND HE WROTE THE JOY OF SEX. Probably should have clocked that sooner. So, lol, it turns out Comfort DID figure out a way to change the way people had sex. Hahaha.
On November 14th 2018, I launched my first book, Bad Boy Poet, in the basement of Burley Fisher Books, Dalston. Here are some of the songs and poems I performed:
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God, Alex Comfort, there’s a name I haven’t heard in years.