A NEW American movie entitled Sex Tape is released here on September 3.
Already the reviews have been pretty bad — a couple, played by Cameron Diaz and Jason Segel, have two small kids and therefore little opportunity for sex. They seize an opportunity to make a private sex tape based on the positions shown in the famous 70s manual, the Joy of Sex. Predictably, the sex tape falls into the wrong hands. With hilarious consequences.
Perhaps the only intriguing aspect of this whole idea is the inclusion of the once radical — now slightly comical — Joy of Sex, with its infamous sketches of the hairy guy and his groovy lady — a book set in 70s cultural aspic, all beards and flares. What is even more intriguing is the book’s enduring success — it remains one of the most influential sex manuals of all time since its publication in 1972, still in print and updated for contemporary readers — with sales of over 10m copies. Yet at the time, its publication shook sleepy suburbia awake, ripping at its net curtains and redefining sex for a generation — for those who could access a copy, that is. Naturally, it was banned in Ireland.
Inspired by the best selling Joy of Cooking, and edited by British doctor Alex Comfort, the Joy Of Sex offered “starters” , “main courses” and “sauces and pickles”, billing itself as “A Gourmet Guide To Lovemaking”.
For its time — just over a decade after the obscenity trial of Lady Chatterley’s Lover, and a year after Oz magazine’s obscenity trial — what the manual was trying to do was incredibly brave and forward thinking, presenting sex as joyful pleasure in an era still tinged with puritanism. As well as its own contemporary sketches, the book included illustrations from ancient China and India which depicted explicit yet tasteful sex, thus presenting itself as part of a long tradition of erotic education. (Lest anyone thought that sex had only been invented by swingers in the 70s.)
The reason the beardy guy and the woman with the hairy armpits feature in the pen and ink illustrations throughout the book is because in the early 70s it was thought that neither British nor American readers were ready for actual photographs showing the full human body having full human sex in all kinds of angles and positions. The publishers were at a loss as to how to illustrate their book, briefly employing sex workers from Soho to pose for photos which would then be sketched — but the Soho professionals kept demanding more money, and the project became untenable.
Enter beardy guy and hairy woman. Charles Raymond was the colour illustrator of the book, and came to its rescue with his German wife. They posed for all the photos taken over a period of just two days by the book’s black and white illustrator Chris Foss, who then sketched the photos; as a real life couple, the Raymonds’ authenticity came across even when the photos were replaced by Foss’s drawings. And while some of the book’s sexual suggestions are quite out there — it is never a good idea to have sex on a motorbike, especially a moving one — most of it is fairly simple stuff. Taking a bath together or stroking your lover’s armpit with your toes — they needed a manual for that in the 70s?
Yes they did. Outside the Californian porn bubble, itself a hilarity of giant moustaches and bushy ladies, sex in the 70s did not sound like much fun. The Joy of Sex was banned in Ireland in 1974, and astonishingly again in 1987. In fact, all kinds of sex was banned in Ireland, apart from the married lights-out variety, and only then if you wanted to make babies. The every-sperm-is-sacred idea still had Irish society firmly by the throat, resulting in both huge families and huge sexual denial. There was no space for a frank, uninhibited and rather joyful look at sex, in the shape of Alex Comfort’s manual, which although now hilariously dated, was 40 years ago radically ahead of its time.
Unlike Ireland. Ireland was never ahead of its time when it came to matters sexual. In fact it was quite the opposite, in comparison with its European counterparts. Only the Family Planning Association was allowed access to the Joy of Sex, and sold out its 25 copies within 90 minutes of the second ban in 1987. The judge who banned it thought it would have a terrible impact on 13 year olds — which prompted the Family Planning Association to call this pronouncement “ludicrous”, as the book would never be sold to 13- year- olds. (Little did anyone know back then that 13- year- olds were just a few decades away from unlimited porn downloads on their phones.)
Ireland in the 80s was still a sexually miserable, repressive place where covert sexual abuse was rife and the stain of those religious “laundries” lingered, imprisoning generations of women without trial or recourse. Mostly, the first rule of Irish sex was like the first rule of fight club — you just didn’t talk about it. Occasionally, some individuals did.
In 1983, a Kildare doctor, Andrew Rynne, was prosecuted for dispensing condoms to a patient who was not married, and fined IR£500. The following year, perhaps one of the single most notorious moments in recent Irish social history, the 15-year-old school girl Ann Lovett died alone giving birth in a field in a Co Longford village. It wasn’t until 1986 that condoms were allowed to be sold over the counter in chemist shops, but only if you were over 18. If you looked younger, you could be refused (this happened to me when I was 19, in a city centre pharmacy in Cork).
In February of the following year, 1987, the Irish Censorship board renewed their ban on the Joy of Sex, despite its international reputation as the go-to manual used by doctors, psychologists and psychotherapists. Of Irish censorship in general, the then director of Easons, Harold Clarke, is said to have dismissed it as “a bit of Irish weirdness we will get over”. Which we did, but only very slowly. Being gay stopped being illegal in 1993, and divorce became available (albeit with a ton of terms and conditions) in 1997. Don’t even mention abortion — still illegal as ever, Ireland continues to grant a zygote more rights than an adult woman.
Today, thanks to the internet, we can now confuse sex with porn, but at least we are no longer pretending that sex does not exist, and that babies come from underneath cabbage leaves. We no longer send women and girls to “laundries” for any perceived sexual misconduct, and teenagers no longer die giving birth in fields. We have faced up to our sexual past and are taking action against the widespread sexual abuse of children by priests.
Not that all of us stuck around to witness this glacially slow change in Ireland’s attitude to sex. I left in 1987, the year of the second ban on Joy of Sex, to discover that in cities like London and Barcelona, the joy of sex was just that — joyful and sexual. That sex, in all its myriad forms, was something to be celebrated, and enjoyed. That outside of Ireland, other Western European countries were rather more open and relaxed about sex, and as a result, its citizens seemed not to drink quite so much quite so often, as they had less sexual energy to drown.
These days, we are all sexualised to the hilt. You’re nobody until you have had a sex tape uploaded online, and sex has taken on a sort of Olympian athleticism of overshare — yet despite such overt pornification, and its deadening effect on our sexual psyches, it is still better than an era which banned the Joy of Sex.
A legacy of censorship
The Joy of Sex isn’t the only book to have fought its way in to Irish bookshops. We tend to think of censorship as something from a bygone era. However, a small number of books remain banned in Ireland to this day, including How To Drive Your Man Wild In Bed by Graham Masterton, Abortion: Right Or Wrong, and Abortion: Our Struggle For Control.
Historically, of course, countless books were prohibited by the Censorship of Publications Board, though, despite the wildly-held belief to the contrary, Joyce's explicit and experimental Ulysses was never outlawed here (a fate it suffered in the United States and Britain). Sexually explicit content was the most common reason books were banned. Those were the grounds on which Edna O’Brien's The Country Girl was deemed unsuitable for public delectation in 1960; O'Brien's follow-up novel The Lonely Girl was also prohibited, after Archbishop John Charles McQuaid made a personal complaint to then justice minister Charles Haughey. Brendan Behan's Borstal Boy was banned in 1958 for reasons not given, though its criticism of Irish republicanism and Catholicism can't have helped.
And In 1961 John McGahern's The Dark was banned on publication for implying that the protagonist's father may have sexual abused him.
References to drug taking and promiscuity were enough to see a similar interdiction slapped on Aldous Huxley's Brave New World in 1932. Extraordinarily JD Salinger's Catcher In The Rye, later a staple of the Leaving Certificate syllabus, suffered the same fate in 1951. Books were still being banned as recently as the 1990s, with Sex by Madonna regarded as inappropriate on publication in 1992 (by the time the ban was introduced on foot of a complaint the entire Irish print run had sold out). However, the book became legal 12 years later after the initial period of prohibition elapsed and no further complaints were made.
Other authors to be banned across the decades included Frank O'Connor, Francis Stuart, Seán Ó Faoláin, and Eric Cross, whose account of the life of storyteller Timothy Buckley and wife Anastasia, The Tailor and Ansty, was condemned in the Seanad as “moral leprosy” in 1942. Local clergy confronted Buckley at his home near Gougane Barra in West Cork, forcing him to burn copies of the book.
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