Comfort and Joy
11/18/2002 at 01:00 AM EST
When Alex Comfort published The Joy of Sex in 1972, its explicit content shocked millions of readers—none more than the author's son Nick, then 26. "It was pretty mind-blowing stuff. I thought, 'He knows all this—he's obviously done all this,' " Comfort says of his father, who died in 2000. " 'This gives me an awful lot to live up to!' "
Now he faces new performance anxiety. To celebrate The Joy of Sex's 30th anniversary, Nick Comfort has shepherded the first major update of his father's famous sex manual, which has sold over 8 million copies and been translated into more than 20 languages. "Even though people are supposed to be better informed about sex than they were 30 years ago," says Comfort, "there is just as much fear, misunderstanding and ignorance today."
The updated book, which arrived on U.S. bookstore shelves last month, replaces some of Joy's famous pencil illustrations with color photos. The section on making your own G-string has been removed (today you can buy them in any lingerie store), and women are no longer referred to as "girls." Comfort, 56, also wrote material on subjects including AIDS, Viagra and sperm banks, penned in the style of his father's prose. "He had a light, accessible touch," says Nick. "I wanted it to read as if he had written it."
Mission accomplished. "I was worried that Nick was going to take all the quirkiness out of it, because Alex Comfort's personality is stamped all over that book," says Hot Sex: How to Do It author Tracey Cox, who hosts a number of British sex-and-relation-ship TV programs. "But he's done a brilliant job."
The assignment was an odd one for Comfort, who admits that "sex wasn't something I naturally spoke about." Nor was The Joy of Sex required bedroom reading for him and wife Corinne, married since 1990. "We never said, 'Let's go see if this thing on page 66 works,' " he says. But his seemingly straitlaced persona is "a facade," says Corinne, 42, a real estate investor. "He's got that wicked, English sense of humor. He says the most incredible things but with a deadpan face."
As a topic of conversation, sex didn't come naturally for Comfort's father either. "He was good about talking about sex in the abstract, but when he had to tell me about the facts of life he was embarrassed," says Comfort, who was 12 when Alex sat him down. "He got it all over with quite quickly and hoped I wouldn't ask any questions." Instead the curious youth read through his father's medical and research sex books. "Most," he says, "were so full of technical terms that they were a complete turnoff."
After graduating from Cambridge University in 1968 with a degree in history, Comfort worked for three decades as a political writer and editor for British publications like The Daily Telegraph and The Independent on Sunday, managing to avoid his father's limelight. "Very few people made the connection," he says of the Comfort name. "I've never traded on it, but equally, I've never tried to avoid it, because I'm proud of what he did." He started taking over his father's affairs in 1991, after Alex suffered the first of several strokes. (Comfort's social-worker mother, Ruth Harris, and Alex had divorced in 1972.)
By Joy's 25th anniversary in 1997, Comfort began discussing "a complete write-through" with publishers—three earlier updates contained only minor tinkering—and sought his father's advice during their weekly Sunday-morning chats, held in the years before Alex's death. "He wanted to get it right, and he still had strong views on what should be in and how it should be marketed," says Comfort. Alex also recommended fixes, such as toning down his section on group sex, written in a decade when he "was heavily into the swinging scene," says his son.
"With the revised book's release, Comfort, who shares a London apartment and Oxfordshire country house with Corinne and their son Alex, 8, has discovered that Sex and politics don't mix. In September he left his job as an adviser to Helen Liddell, the secretary of state for Scotland, to devote more time to promoting the book and continuing his father's legacy. "My role in all this is not as a sex guru," he says. "I'm a guardian of the flame."
Nina Biddle and Aaron Lovell in London