Applied Sociology, the Zeitgeist, and Why I Am Not Rich

February 20, 2022
Posted by Jay Livingston

I wonder how  “Sex as Work” happened.  (For those who don’t follow this blog regularly, i.e., everybody, I discussed this 1967 Social Problems article by Lionel Lewis and Dennis Brissett in the previous post.)

I  imagine one of the authors mentioning, after a second or third beer one evening, that he had read a “marriage manual” not too long ago, whereupon his colleague confesses that he has too, though not the same one. “Not much fun in there that I could find.” “Not in the one I read either. What a letdown. I wonder if there are any others.” Thus are research studies born.

I’m surprised that “Sex as Work” ever got published. It has no statistical analysis, no quantitative data, not much data at all, just their take on fifteen “marriage manuals.” It reads more like something from a stand-up comic of the “observational” type. (“And what’s up with all this working on your technique? I mean, does anybody ever get off practicing scales on the piano?”) That and a really good title. In short, my kind of sociology. Yet it was the lead article in the flagship journal of the SSSP. Hey, it was the sixties.

Well, I said to myself when I had finished reading the article, that’s interesting and probably true, and it fits with other thoughts I have about American culture. And I closed the journal. 

But what anyone with half a brain — the half with the money-making lobe  — would have done is to call on their inner applied sociologist. And then they would have called on a publisher or literary agent. Here’s the elevator pitch:

The only sex-instruction books around are from the fifties or have a fifties mentality. We’re now in sixties. This is the decade that began with the pill. People in the book-buying classes are having more sex with more partners, and they’ve stopped kidding themselves about marriage. They’re having sex younger and getting married older. And there are lots more divorces. Is anyone really going to buy A Doctor’s Marital Guide for Patients? (Yes, that’s one of the books in the ”Sex as Work” bibliography).

What they would buy is a book whose attitude towards sex is that it’s fun, a book without a medicinal smell, a book that doesn’t turn sex into goal-achievement through dogged technical mastery, a book that instead offers a tasting menu of all sorts of sexual activities.
Alas, I did not make that pitch, I did not write that book or suggest it to a publisher, and I did not get rich. But not long after, someone did. Alex Comfort. The book was The Joy of Sex, and it was in the top five books on the New York Times best-seller list for about a year and a half. 

(Click on the image for a larger view.)

The cover, inspired by The Joy of Cooking, is just plain text. The table of contents includes entries like “g-string, bondage, foursomes and moresomes, soixante-neuf, etc., as well as more traditional topics covered in “marriage manuals.”

I’m not a big believer in the Zeitgeist, but The Joy of Sex was a book whose time had come. Actually, its time had come a few years earlier, around the time that some sociologists were writing “Sex as Work” in an academic journal and other sociologists were reading it.

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