A talk with Susan Quilliam

Revising the 20th century's most famous sex manual

By Pagan Kennedy
October 19, 2008
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WHAT WAS THE most influential book of the 20th century? Perhaps you'd vote for "Relativity," by Albert Einstein. But for my money, the book that blew the lid off the century could only be "The Joy of Sex." In 1972, it flew out of factories and thunked onto suburban coffee tables everywhere, a must-have accessory for the upwardly mobile, along with hot tubs, Danish Modern chairs, and designer jeans. The author, Alex Comfort, peppered his prose with French phrases, which made X-rated acts sound as respectable as Cuisinart attachments. "Chef-grade cooking doesn't happen naturally: it starts at the point where people know how to prepare and enjoy food," he wrote. "It's hard to make mayonnaise by trial and error, for instance. Cordon Bleu sex {hellip} is exactly the same situation." With his recipes for positions like "the goldfish" and "cassolette," Comfort encouraged his readers to imagine themselves as engaging in a pastime similar to wine-tasting. Simply put, the book re-branded kinky sex as a snob's hobby.

The author - a British scientist, snail expert, and orgy king - was far ahead of his time in understanding and describing the way female bodies work. But he wrote from the vantage point of a leering male.

In early 2009, the book's publisher will change all that, with a completely remodeled version of "The Joy of Sex." This time around, the book will speak to women, too. Susan Quilliam - a British sexpert, advice columnist, and relationship coach - has been put in charge of striking out old-fashioned prose and updating the scientific claims. It's a daunting task: Quilliam has had to rethink "Sex" for the 21st century.

IDEAS: Why was the original "Joy of Sex" so influential in the early 1970s?

QUILLIAM: It was representative of the way people wanted to be at that time - Carnaby Street and pills and having sex in new ways. Though that wasn't going on in the circles I traveled in. We weren't going to orgies every night. In fact, I have to admit that I've never been to an orgy.

IDEAS: No? But you must have had your own "Joy of Sex" moment in 1972.

QUILLIAM: Indeed. I was 22 then. My boyfriend at the time, we were in his flat, which he shared with several lads. We found the book lying around, and we disappeared into my boyfriend's bedroom. I can't remember which bits we tried out. But I do remember reading it to each other and giggling over it.

IDEAS: How has sex changed since the 1970s?

QUILLIAM: Culturally, a lot has changed. We now regard it as something completely separate from conception and something both partners have an equal say in. We now regard foreplay as much more important. And then there's technology. . . . The stage is much bigger. But at the same time, there's a new Puritanism around.

In the very first strategy meetings [with the publisher], the phrases I came up with were New Hedonism and New Puritanism. We now know the dangers of sex and yet there's so much of it around.

IDEAS: The people at your publishing company - Mitchell Beazley - were determined to have a woman edit this new edition. Why was that?

QUILLIAM: In 2008, Alex Comfort's views are not representative, and him being dead, the publisher couldn't ask him to revise the book. They needed a female voice intertwined with his. Of course, though he has been criticized for his approach, he was far ahead of others at the time. He said that women can take the lead, that women deserve pleasure.

IDEAS: Could you talk about specific sections that needed to be changed?

QUILLIAM: In the original book there's a section called "Frigidity." I didn't include that.

IDEAS: So instead of pathologizing women's bodies . . .

QUILLIAM: Yes, the original book had a section called "Problems." I decided to change that. We're so aware of problems these days that this could have been a dark book. I wanted to reclaim the joy of sex.

IDEAS: The graphics are so different than the original - they're much prettier. The drawings in the 1972 version were frightening. I remember sneaking a copy when I was kid, opening it up and being terrified at the hairy bodies. In this version, the lovers actually look like they're having fun. Plus, they're well-groomed.

QUILLIAM: The Japanese have a term - a pillow book. It means a book to inform and inspire. And I was keen that the new version be a pillow book, that this be something you could look through and get aroused by, as well as read.

IDEAS: What was the first book you published?

QUILLIAM: It was a grammar book called "Which Word?," a textbook exploring, for example, the difference between "wear," "where" and "ware." You know, homonyms.

IDEAS: So you went from explaining grammar to explaining sex.

QUILLIAM: Well, I suppose I mixed the two. I was writing about English and relationships at the same time.

IDEAS: Few people realize how sexy it is to use proper grammar.

QUILLIAM: Absolutely.

IDEAS: What is the role of sex manuals now? After all, we've got the Internet, which might be considered the biggest sex manual the world has ever seen. How can a mere book compete with a billion pages of porn?

QUILLIAM: I'm a great Internet fan, but this book offers reliable information.

IDEAS: Of course, a book offers pure physicality, the thick creamy pages and satiny cover. You wouldn't want to bring your laptop into bed. As you said, this is a pillow book. The Internet is still a long way from being that.

QUILLIAM: Yes, that's right. I'll use that idea, if you don't mind. You can't give the Internet to your lover. But books - they're beautiful and luxurious.

Pagan Kennedy is the author of 10 books. She can be reached through her website,

Susan Quilliam "I'm a great Internet fan, but this book offers reliable information."
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