Polymath: The Life and Professions of Dr Alex Comfort, Author of ‘The Joy of Sex’ 
by Eric Laursen.
AK Press, 740 pp., £27, January, 978 1 84935 496 7
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Alex Comfort​ was exhausting. After meeting him, the pioneering sex researchers William Masters and Virginia Johnson swapped notes. ‘If we could learn to produce on a 24-hour level the way he does, I think we’d probably have it made,’ Johnson said. ‘Five or six hours is all I can stand,’ Masters replied. ‘I end up out of breath while he’s talking.’ One woman who met him at Sandstone, a kind of commune for swingers in California, said he was ‘very full of himself’.

Comfort became best known for The Joy of Sex (1972). This annoyed him. It was his 31st book. As well as a sexologist, he was a poet, novelist, doctor, biologist, gerontologist, anarchist, scientific humanist, public intellectual, and activist in the pacifist and anti-nuclear movements. Even as a child, Comfort was a polymath. He won a scholarship in classics to Highgate School, published poems in the school magazine and set up a peace society. He developed an interest in science, and after blowing three fingers off one hand while trying to make fireworks for George V’s Silver Jubilee, turned gratefully to the study of molluscs. As a teenager, he was, in his own words, an ‘insufferably evangelical’ Christian; when he went up to Cambridge in 1938, he intended to become a medical missionary, and met his first wife, Ruth Harris, at Congsoc (the University Congregational Society). Soon she was ‘washing his test tubes’ and they were tacitly engaged, though they wouldn’t have sex until 1943, when they got married.

Early in the war, as he began his practical medical training and was confronted with ‘death, suffering and mayhem’, Comfort lost his religious faith. As a disabled medical student he was in no danger of being called up, but he insisted on registering as a conscientious objector. For Comfort, refusing to fight didn’t mean keeping his conscience clean while others did the dirty work: it required determined resistance to war by means of direct action. Pacifism – as well as poetry – led him to Herbert Read, Britain’s most famous anarchist, and he absorbed many of Read’s ideas. The state became the primary target of his political critique. Drawing on psychoanalysis, he argued that individuals long to submit themselves to the state because ‘it is a womb into which one can crawl back and become immortal because unborn.’ In place of this regression, Comfort prescribed individual responsibility to others and collective resistance through disobedience.

A fellow poet in Comfort’s Neo-Romantic circle described him as ‘the heroic toreador of the mad bull of contemporary society’. During the war, he attacked the indiscriminate slaughter of civilians in Allied bombing raids, and the ‘minor pieces of fascist practice’, such as press censorship, that the war provoked in Britain. He was blacklisted by the BBC because of his politics. After 1945, he agitated against nuclear weapons and the doctrine of mutual assured destruction. In his most significant statement of his anarchist beliefs, he argued that it wasn’t an accident that ‘delinquents’ had leadership positions in the state: in fact, the state requires psychopaths. Who else would declare war, build concentration camps or drop an atom bomb? He inspired Stanley Milgram’s famous experiments, whose results suggested that Comfort was right: deference to authority led individuals to inflict hideous pain on others with remarkable ease.

Traces of liberal Christianity – including the medical missionary Albert Schweitzer’s definition of ethics as ‘responsibility without limit to all that lives’ – were evident in Comfort’s anarchism. So was scientific humanism. He came to the conclusion that the rational study of nature, humans and human society could create a better world than religion or revolution ever had. The social sciences and psy-sciences, Comfort thought, were capable of transforming individual consciousness and directing social progress in a sane direction. By this time one of the BBC’s regular talking heads, he started broadcasting on topics like ‘The Case for Humanism, or Can Science Make Us Good?’

Comfort proposed two other routes to an anarchist future: the creation of small communities founded on mutual aid and civil disobedience. A member of CND and of two anti-nuclear organisations committed to civil disobedience – the Direct Action Committee and the Committee of 100 – he marched, spoke and wrote extensively in favour of unilateral nuclear disarmament. In 1961 he and 35 other members of the Committee of 100 were summoned to court, accused of inciting ‘breaches of the peace’ by organising a mass sit-down in Trafalgar Square. Comfort, with 31 others, refused to abandon the demonstration; they all received prison terms – his was a month in a minimum-security prison. The sit-down went ahead, and was even larger than it would have been without the publicity.

One of the men imprisoned with Comfort recalled that he ‘certainly behaved differently than I had expected – a bit less anarchist-style than most of us in there’. While the others refused to play along with the marches and drills that prisoners were made to participate in, ‘Alex was clicking his heels, doing the left-right.’ After a week, he made an about turn, pledged good behaviour and paid a fine in return for early release. He explained that he needed to ‘get back to work’, his own and that of the Committee of 100. But it seems he was worried about how his notoriety was affecting his family and his career. His son, Nick, had followed him to Highgate School and was being mocked by classmates about ‘my father the jailbird’. Alongside his political activities, Comfort had been developing a reputation in the new field of gerontology, which was now under threat. After leaving prison, he stepped back from direct action. He still supported the anti-nuclear movement, but didn’t want to be so prominent in it.

Comfort started to write about sex in the late 1940s and soon began collating a card index on the subject. He saw it as closely connected to his anarchism. ‘Rulers,’ he believed, ‘have always had a hardly conscious conviction that sexual freedom was in some way related to political liberty’: they always wanted ‘to appear as the upholders of a morality increasingly based on fear’. Capitalism and the state created a ‘barbaric’ world that deformed people’s ability to have good sex. Comfort hoped that scientific study and enlightened education programmes would remove the forcefield of anxiety around sex, and formulated two rules to govern sexual behaviour: don’t risk producing unwanted children and don’t exploit other people’s feelings.

But Comfort would probably never have written The Joy of Sex had it not been for a development in his personal life. After more than fifteen years of marriage, he began an affair. Comfort had no trouble making friends, but formed few close relationships, and in Polymath Eric Laursen speculates that he had married Harris in part because her love made him feel loveable. Now he started sleeping with Jane Henderson, an old friend of theirs (and Harris’s former roommate in Cambridge). Harris was blonde, rather formal and reserved; Henderson was dark, bohemian, physical and opinionated. Comfort asked his wife for an open marriage. ‘My father was an extremely polite and considerate person, and my mother was brought up not to argue with people,’ Nick recalls. ‘I didn’t hear a raised voice until around 1960.’ Now there were arguments, but in the end Harris agreed. She loved her husband, as well as enjoying the stability of their home and her role as the wife of a prominent scientist and public intellectual. Henderson, it seems, was happy to have Comfort part-time. He probably worried that scandal would harm his career and reasoned that he couldn’t leave Harris while Nick was still at school; they all agreed not to explain the situation to him.

And so the three of them entered into a secret arrangement where Comfort spent weeknights with Henderson and came home to his wife and Nick at the weekends. As Laursen concludes, ‘it was really a fairly ordinary affair, confined to a London flat and clearly destined to make all three participants unhappy.’ It was sustained not by a ‘commitment to some radical ideal of open relationship’ but by the participants’ Englishness. In Sex in Society (1963), published when the affair was a few years old, Comfort argued that monogamous marriage is best for childrearing, but that it was certainly possible to love more than one person at once, and that adultery could be a useful ‘prop’ to keep a married couple ‘on their feet’. Conveniently for him. At the time, Comfort took pride in his arrangement, which persisted for more than a decade. Not until 1994 did he admit to a journalist that ‘it didn’t work very well,’ and that both women were ‘in eruption the whole time’. Even this frankness had repercussions: Henderson was angry with him for dragging their miserable arrangement into public view after so many years.

With Henderson, Comfort began a programme of sexual experimentation, with both personal and scientific goals. It was formative in the writing of The Joy of Sex. Only when the book was about to come out did he make a choice: he asked his wife for a divorce, telling her that ‘Jane needs me more.’ There may already have been signs of a drinking problem that would later become serious; certainly, Comfort felt that Henderson needed his commitment and more of his time. She may have demanded that her place in his life was publicly recognised, with the book to which she had contributed so much being readied for publication.

In 1989, Comfort said it was ‘purely the luck of the draw’ that The Joy of Sex sold so much better than his other books. This was disingenuous. The book rode the wave of the ‘sexual revolution’, following in the wake of a shoal of similar books, including David Reuben’s Everything You Always Wanted to Know about Sex but Were Afraid to Ask, a highly dubious publication that claimed anything other than the ‘penis-vagina version of sex’ was a perversion, and Nena and George O’Neill’s Open Marriage: A New Lifestyle for Couples, a mixture of anthropological study and self-help guide, which suggested that ‘sexual fidelity is the false god of closed marriage.’ The Joy of Sex combined a relaxed, humorous tone with Comfort’s medical and scientific credentials (he was initially billed as its editor rather than author). Its title was a riff on Irma S. Rombauer and Marion Rombauer Becker’s bestselling The Joy of Cooking and it was organised into sections – ‘Starters’, ‘Main Courses’, ‘Sauces & Pickles’ and ‘Problems’ – with entries on topics from ‘penis’ to ‘tongue bath’ to ‘Viennese oyster’ to ‘waterworks’. For years it was rarely out of the bestseller lists.

Comfort said his goal was to give couples the information and techniques they needed to have safe, enjoyable and exciting sex, free of anxiety and guilt. He offered lots of tips on technique, but didn’t catalogue dozens of difficult sexual positions. After all, missionary was ‘one of the most rewarding’. He didn’t assume a couple would be married, and focused on pleasure, decentring the orgasm and insisting that sex should be play: ‘a thrilling form of “indoor sport”’. Underlying this was his longstanding belief that good sex was related to political liberation, but he didn’t push this idea hard in The Joy of Sex.

Paintings and line drawings of a couple in various stages of copulation accompanied the text. Producing these was a challenge. The two commercial artists involved both needed images to work from, and they only had six weeks. First, Comfort offered what Max Monsarrat, his editor, described as ‘really rather grubby little Polaroid pictures of him and Jane’, not ‘very expertly taken’. They tried collaging cut-ups from magazines, but the results were horrendous. Monsarrat scoured Soho porn shops, but couldn’t find suitable images; he sourced a pair of models, but they ‘looked sleazy’. The artist engaged to produce the paintings, Charles Raymond, took one look and said: ‘I’ll do it with my wife.’ He recalled that during the shoot, ‘We got carried away, and [the photographer] disappeared.’ This was how the images ended up depicting a quite ordinary-looking, slightly alternative couple – her with unshaven armpits, him with long hair and a beard – in middle age and genuinely in love.

The Joy of Sex​ now seems appallingly outdated in several ways. Some powerful sexist assumptions slunk into the text. ‘Don’t get yourself raped – i.e. don’t deliberately excite a man you don’t know well, unless you mean to follow through,’ Comfort advised, but he thought that couples ‘play rape games without end’. Laursen notes that Comfort received criticisms of these passages from early readers before the book was published, but refused to alter them. His sexual menu also reproduced racist stereotypes, offering ‘Japanese style’ (a mixture of ‘violence and formality’) and ‘négresse’ (‘from behind’, with the woman kneeling).

Comfort argued publicly as early as 1947 – a decade before the Wolfenden Report began to make the view respectable – that private homosexual acts between consenting adults were hurting no one, and should be decriminalised. In 1948, the Kinsey Report showed that more than a third of American men had had homosexual experiences, and Comfort promptly rejected the idea that only heterosexual acts were ‘normal’. In both cases, he was well ahead of his time, and The Joy of Sex encouraged readers to explore their bisexual side in threesomes and group sex, and not to fear that it was ‘bad magic, poisonous or odd’ to respond sexually to someone of the same gender. Ironically, though, his belief in universal bisexuality led Comfort to dismiss the ‘idea that “homosexuals” exist’. Following Freud, he viewed homosexuality as a form of arrested development. He told his readers ‘not to cultivate’ homosexual feelings, if possible, and dismissed the growing movement for lesbian and gay liberation as misguided. As Laursen points out, even postmodern scholars who contest the naturalness of categories like ‘gay’ and ‘straight’ have recognised the utility of what Judith Butler describes as ‘necessary errors of identity’. Saying homosexuals don’t exist wasn’t very helpful to men and women fighting hateful prejudice.

Comfort had experienced group sex at Sandstone, the quasi-intentional community founded by John and Barbara Williamson in Topanga Canyon, California. Up to twenty people lived there, hosting regular parties on Wednesday and Saturday nights at which attendees (mainly couples, who paid to be members of the club) could have sex with whomever they liked. The community’s goal was to encourage ‘the free expression of total relationships’. In fact, John Williamson had bigger plans than just liberating human sexuality: he thought humankind would survive a looming ecological and political catastrophe only if small groups formed autonomous communities based on much better communication than was possible in complex, bureaucratic modern societies. Comfort was a regular attendee at Sandstone; one journalist described him ‘brandishing a cigar’, wandering through the mêlée ‘with the professional air of a lepidopterist … waving a butterfly net’. He probably wasn’t aware of Williamson’s apocalyptic fears or his ultimate plans for the community. He also seems to have been unaware of the tensions, disagreements and occasional violence that erupted there, which Laursen excavates in interviews with several former residents. For Comfort, Sandstone seemed like a utopia. Henderson didn’t agree: she went there with him several times, but, he admitted, found it ‘more than she could take’.

Partly influenced by Sandstone, Comfort began to criticise the traditional family, arguing that larger groups replacing jealousy and possessiveness with intimacy and care could provide a better way to live. The ‘genuine insight present in “swinging” by the bored and the unrealised could expand’, he hoped, ‘into something far more like institutionalised sociosexual openness’. In More Joy: A Lovemaking Companion to ‘The Joy of Sex’ (1977), he described Sandstone in detail, though by then the centre had closed. He argued for group sex and the sharing – not swapping – of partners. ‘Othello and all that’ was out: ‘Secure and communicating couples which include each other in all their fantasies and pleasures aren’t jealous.’ Comfort now connected sex more openly with social transformation. ‘People who have eroticised their experience of themselves’, he wrote, were ‘inconveniently unwarlike’ but ‘violently combative in resisting goons, political salesmen, racists and “garbage” people generally’.

In recent years, open relationships, ethical non-monogamy and polyamory have bubbled up into the mainstream again. Some of what Comfort wrote on the topic still seems sensible – about responsibility and communication as the foundations of good relationships, for example – but his life offers little practical inspiration. In any case, the roots of today’s enthusiasm for ditching heteronormativity and the nuclear family lie mainly in queer cultures and LGBTQ+ activism, not in the dated products of the 1970s sexual revolution. My boyfriend and I have always had an open relationship, and his boyfriend is part of our daughter’s life and of our family. But I don’t share Comfort’s frankly naive hope that sex is going to usher in a political revolution. Free healthcare – or free childcare – seems more radical today than free love. And as non-monogamy goes mainstream, it can easily be sublimated into simple lifestyle politics. In the New Yorker last year, Jennifer Wilson wrote about the appearance of polyamory in a host of recent books, films, podcasts and TV series, and remarked that a lot of it looks like ‘the rich using non-monogamy as a vaccine against an expensive divorce’. Back to Comfort’s ‘adulterous prop’.

One way of seeing The Joy of Sex is as an end-point: a fit successor to Marie Stopes’s Married Love (1918) and a conclusion to fifty years of attempts to demystify sex and enshrine sexual pleasure as a central pillar of successful marriage. More recent scholarship sees it as heralding the birth of a new regime of (as the historian Ben Mechen puts it) ‘sexual liberalism’. This paradigm demands that good sexual citizens take responsibility for their own sexual education and personal fulfilment: while announcing itself as ‘liberating’, sexual liberalism in fact demands a great deal from its adherents. In the 1980s, Comfort said that anarchism had been the ‘background to all my thinking’; but although The Joy of Sex, his most influential work by far, centred the individual and individuals’ responsibility to one another, it did little to seed anarchist ideas. Perhaps if it had been more radical it wouldn’t have sold more than twelve million copies.

In 1972, shortly before The Joy of Sex was published in America, Comfort admitted to a psychologist on Sandstone’s board that he had an ‘identity problem’: ‘I am trying to get off the ground a big scientific project in the control of ageing, and from past experience I am desperately anxious to stay Mr Ageing, while the press (following some of my earlier writings) wants to make me Mr Sex.’ Comfort made important contributions to gerontology and to training doctors in geriatric medicine – ‘for a long time looked upon as just another branch of embalming’ – as well as working with the Grey Panthers to agitate for change in the social treatment of the elderly. But his big project, a ‘test-battery’ that would follow a group of people as they aged to determine the biomarkers of senescence, never got funded, despite years of effort.

In 1973, Comfort and Henderson moved to California, where he had a job at the Centre for the Study of Democratic Institutions. The centre had recently been reorganised along the lines of Princeton’s Institute of Advanced Studies, and seemed an ideal home for a polymath like Comfort, but it didn’t turn out well. When he moved, Comfort agreed a tax ruse that ascribed a large portion of his US royalties from The Joy of Sex to the centre, which then used the money to pay his salary. The goal was to dodge the UK’s top tax rate of 75 per cent. Comfort justified this on the grounds that he had a wife and an ex-wife to support, and didn’t know how long The Joy of Sex would continue to sell. But the centre ran into financial problems and Comfort ended up embroiled in a long lawsuit, trying to wrest back control of his royalties. He got them but didn’t receive damages: the judge was scathing about the original tax dodge and the whole affair tarnished his reputation. Afterwards, he found it difficult to get prestigious, well-paid roles. But he was still teaching, thinking and writing. He produced two studies integrating quantum mechanics with the study of biology and religion, as well as a sci-fi novel intended to popularise his theories. But he struggled to sell books on topics other than sex, and abused his publisher for supposedly failing to promote his other work effectively. He continued to feel anxious about his tax bill.

His relationship with Henderson was also troubled. Isolated in America, she suffered badly from depression. Her drinking became more and more of a problem. She insisted that Comfort break off a longstanding friendship with another woman – one of the very few close friendships he had. This was clearly not a ‘secure and communicating’ relationship. In the mid-1980s, they moved back to the UK, at least partly in the hope that it would be good for Henderson. But though Comfort wanted to help his wife, he was unable to find a way. A neighbour in Kent recalled that her conversation was ‘broken up’ and that for long periods ‘she would disappear.’ Early in 1991, Comfort suffered a series of strokes and ended up spending months in hospitals and rehab centres. Henderson, struggling to cope and drinking heavily, died of a brain haemorrhage in November that year. Comfort lived for another nine years, mainly in supported living facilities for the elderly, his hectic pace of work finally curtailed. When he died, The Joy of Sex was still on Hatchards’ top five bestsellers list.

Laursen is sympathetic to Comfort’s thinking – one of his previous books is an anarchist account of the state – and has a biographer’s affection for his subject, whom he calls ‘Alex’. Polymath sometimes suffers from TMI, not on the topic of Comfort’s sex life, but on such subjects as his youthful experiments in doing his own wiring, his attempts to get a driver’s licence, his eventual purchase of a car (a used Morris) and where he kept it (over the road from his house … in a garage). But Laursen is clear-sighted about Comfort’s shortcomings. In 1942, Holly Cantine wrote in the anarchist magazine Retort that anarchists must build up ‘a nucleus of the new society “within the shell of the old”’. This Comfort failed to do. Is it unfair to judge him for not practising the anarchist ideas he preached – for being so conventional, for caring about his career and about money, for failing the women closest to him? The problem is that his politics centred on individual responsibility to others. Anarchism was an attitude – ‘the rejection of authority’ – and its slow percolation through society would, Comfort argued, have transformative effects, as anarchists became ‘active, unbiddable and exemplary lumps in the general porridge of society’, starting to ‘affect the types of choices which societies make’. But, as he admitted, ‘I don’t think you would have inferred my political opinions from my lifestyle.’

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