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Not just sex: Talking about Alex Comfort with Eric Laursen

Not just sex: Talking about Alex Comfort with Eric Laursen

When I discovered the Freedom Press collection of Alex Comfort’s anarchist and anti-militarist writings, I’d already known him for 15 years as the author of The Joy of Sex. This pioneering couples’ manual, which featured ‘aesthetic’/’tasteful’ illustrations drawn from photos, spent more than 70 weeks in the New York Times bestseller top five and 11 in the top position. Generally and for its time, the book showed a remarkably liberatory and egalitarian approach to cis/hetero/sexuality based on play and gentleness. “The Joy of Sex was the anarchist manifesto that conquered 1970s suburbia—” wrote cultural historian Matthew Sweet, “a radical text that found a place on the shelves of millions of readers who didn’t know Kropotkin from Kermit the Frog.”

Anarchism was a general background to Comfort’s thinking, like water to a fish, in his own words. He was an early founder of both the anti-nuclear movement and the field of gerontology (old age care) and a writer of poetry, fiction and cultural critique. His life has long deserved the book Eric Laursen has finally given it, and Polymath is a pleasure to read. The title refers to a person “whose knowledge embraces a wide range of complex subjects and, more importantly, often calls on several of them at once to address complex problems.” Laursen is a great storyteller who excels at balancing taking you forward through Comfort’s life while moving between his diverse pursuits and ideas. I also learnt a lot from his discussions of the political and intellectual context. 

I met up with Laursen at Whitechapel Gallery during the anarchist bookfair in London. “London and its environments were probably about 75% of Alex’s life”, he says, “he was a lecturer at London Hospital Medical College right here in Whitechapel for three years, and he was a research biologist at University College London for many years. He first conceived of The Joy of Sex in the apartment of his girlfriend in Kentish Town, so basically, this is his city. He delivered lectures frequently and was closely associated with Freedom, so it goes on and on.” 

Born in 1920 to a middle-class family and going to Cambridge on a scholarship, Comfort was already a declared pacifist during World War Two and later denounced Britain’s bombing of civilians. “For this, he got into a very public quarrel with George Orwell, who insisted that anyone who didn’t uncritically support the war effort was objectively pro-fascist. All the while, Alex was establishing a reputation as a poet and novelist and publishing scholarly studies on molluscs. After the war, he worked as a doctor and then as a physiology lecturer; by this time, he was a declared anarchist and was closely associated with Freedom Press.”

Among the first to denounce the atomic bombing of Hiroshima, Comfort published nuclear disarmament pamphlets for the Peace Pledge Union. “By the late 1950s he was one of the best known members of the direct action committee in the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament. He was sentenced to a month in prison along with Bertrand Russell and 31 other activists for promoting a mass sit-down demo against the bomb in Trafalgar Square. He was even writing protest songs for new anti-nuke activists, a couple covered by Nina Simone, and one became a pop hit in Japan in 1962”.

Comfort didn’t feel the need to stress his anarchism, but what do you think was distinctive about it?

“First, he was an important figure in the development of the politics of direct action, the kind of politics we practised today as anarchists or left libertarian socialists, not electoral politics – not through the state, but in the streets. Number two, he helped to bring anarchism and pacifism close together. #3, he developed an anthropological critique of the state that was new at the time, that explores why so many politicians and people who engage with the state are sociopaths or behave like that, and #4, he developed a distinctive way of understanding the role of sex in society that’s connected with his anarchism.”

So, was his anarchism a matter of moral conviction, collective organising, or both?

“To him, resistance had to begin with the individual taking a personal and a moral stand against a dangerous tyrannical system. He didn’t deny that anarchism had to be a collective social movement, but a social revolution couldn’t start unless individuals took a stand. The book called Art and Social Responsibility, which he published soon after the war, was widely read by a younger generation of British artists and activists. In it, he wrote that ‘the consciousness of personal responsibility is the factor which differentiates human relationships from superficially similar animal societies’ and anarchy ‘is the only ideology that insists on the privacy of individuals and their obligation to accept responsibility to each other.”

If The Joy of Sex is essentially about taking violence out of the bedroom, how do you think it has aged?

“He summed up the three elements of a healthy sexual relationship as mutual respect, mutual communication, and a strong desire to protect one another without any corresponding wish to manipulate or mould others. If you look at it today, it is not a perfect book by any means. It’s often very phallocentric, and it perpetuates old bad sexist attitudes along with the more liberating content. But it created a whole new format for detailed and explicitly illustrated sex guides and was the first such book ever to be sold in mainstream bookshops to middle class consumers. It also introduced a new kind of literary voice into the genre: relaxed, humorous, and conversational. It replaced the sleaziness of underground sex books that people had been buying through the mail for years and the boringly technical voices of medical and academic books on the subject.”

So what was that again about sociopaths?

“He thought authoritarianism has origins in individual and group psychology and that the institution of the state is needed to give it full expression. ‘The centralised power of government’, he wrote ‘, is today independent for its continued function upon a supply of individuals whose personalities and attitudes in no way differ from those of admitted psychopathic delinquents, egocentric psychopaths’. Alex argued that individuals who find themselves in positions of power come pre-spoiled because the state deliberately selects delinquents for positions. On the other hand, Alex argued that sex is one of the most basic and profoundly formative ways that we can achieve sociality in the sense of cooperation and mutual aid; it’s how humans, usually in adolescence, can accustom themselves to understand and respond to each other’s needs and desires, and importantly how they can learn to share power in relationships rather than compete for it. Unlike most forms of socialisation, sex helps achieve this not through discipline or instruction but free play.”

I walk with Eric up to the main venue; tonight, we’ll be the oldest pirates at the party. But news of the Hamas attack has already spread, and I’m thinking not just about the hostages and the Gazans but about Iran and Russia and the US and the UK. Maybe Alex Comfort was right, only that violence won. Maybe sociality and cooperation do show up in everyday life, in popular struggle and grassroots resilience, but once they threaten to exceed national and religious loyalties, then the system’s only answer is war and more war.

~ Uri Gordon

“Polymath”: The Life and Professions of Dr. Alex Comfort, Author of The Joy of Sex”, AK Press 2023, is available here.

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