“The Joy Of Gay Sex” Turns 40

"The essential crime against gay people was they were prevented from getting information. Not just about sex—but about what it meant to be gay."

1972 was a heady time in America: The sexual revolution was in full swing, the Pill was readily available, and The Joy of Sex was at the top of the New York Times bestseller list.

The new openness about sex and sexuality extended (to some degree, at least) to homosexuality. Five years after The Joy of Sex, came The Joy of Gay Sex by psychologist Charles Silverstein and novelist Edmund White.

Crown Publishers

In 1977, White had yet to blossom into a preeminent voice in gay lit, but Silverstein was already publishing The Journal of Homosexuality and his 1973 presentation to the American Psychiatric Association led that organization to eliminate homosexuality as a mental disorder. He was the perfect person to speak to gay men frankly about their sexual practices, but also their relationships, their fears and fantasies, the wholeness of their identity.

It’s been 40 years since the first edition of The Joy of Gay Sex was published by Crown and so much has changed: AIDS, Don’t Ask Don’t Tell, marriage equality, hookup apps, PrEP. How does the book fit into our community’s history? Into our future?

Dan Avery

I spoke with Silverstein in his Upper West Side apartment (the same one he wrote Joy in) about how this groundbreaking tome came together and what its legacy is for future generations of gay men.

What made you decide to write The Joy of Gay Sex?

It wasn’t our idea, actually. The publishers of The Joy of Sex made a killing financially and, since some of them were gay—and they all had dollar signs for eyeballs—they thought that they might make the same amount of money publishing a book for gays.

Although Alex Comfort, who wrote the Joy of Sex, was against the idea of this being written.

Why did they come to you?

I had been out for years, I was a director of a gay counseling center. The editor in New York had enlisted me to write a book called the Parent’s Guide to Homosexuality, so he knew about me. And there simply weren’t very many openly gay psychologists at the time, so I was a natural for them to come to.

I said, “I’d be happy to write it, but I don’t think I can do it alone.” I told them I needed a co-writer and they choose Edmund White.

And you knew Ed White already.

Yes. The two of us, you know, we were a great team. He needed money, and that never hurts. He questioned at the time—and he’s written about this—whether the book was the right thing to do.

Ulf Andersen/Getty Images

But he needed to pay his rent. [Laughs] And as it turned out, it only added to his reputation.

How did the collaboration work?

We made a list of entries, things we wanted to have in the book, and we divided them up. Ed would write his, and I would write mine, and then we’d switch. Everything was on sheets of paper and onion skin—no computers back then.

He lived on 85th Street, which was pretty close by. So we actually met to correct each other’s work. In the end, for the sake of style, Ed rewrote everything so it would be more in his writing style.

Did you have to fight the publishers about anything in the book?

Absolutely. You’re not just writing about sex—you’re using words that aren’t used often in books—and you have pictures. There were lawyers on both sides of the Atlantic reading the text and objecting to various things.

The publishers, both Mitchell Beazley and Crown, were afraid of censorship—and with good reason. But some of it was a little silly: They objected to us using the word “shit.” Once I was called in to the top editor at Crown, who asked me, “You used this word, cock.” And I said, “Yes…?” And he said, “Well, why can’t you use the word ‘penis’ instead?”

Crown Publishers

Now, he was actually a very nice fellow, and he was worried about the book getting destroyed. But I said, “Your cock is different than your penis.” And I really trapped him. Because when asked how it was different, I said, “Your penis is part of your anatomy, but your cock is what you fuck your wife with.” And I won.

On the other hand, he absolutely went bonkers over the six masturbation stories in the book. On both sides of the Atlantic, they went bonkers over it. They would have none of it. We thought, you know, if you have a sex manual, why shouldn’t you have a masturbation manual? It’s for guys, what the hell? Well, there was no way they were gonna hear it.

The publishers, mainly in England, objected to our having anything about S&M. Ed and I were pretty good about fighting that but sometimes we had to compromise. And you’ll see in the entries in the original edition, any mention of S&M sex is very brief.

You’ll also notice that there was no entry about teenagers: They wanted Ed and I to write that anyone who has sex with a teenager is sick. We refused to do that; Ed said when he was a teenager he was looking to have sex with men. We fought them, rather vehemently. But in the end, Ed and I decided it would be better to have no entry about teenagers at all than to tell some lie.

You have a great story about dealing with an editor who was particularly condescending.

Well, the English editor of the book was a fellow named Roger. Every few months the Brits would come to New York, and Roger was a very proper Englishman. One day at dinner, he said, “I would like to see homosexuals.” Which was so strange since he was, forgive me, in the presence of two rather notable homosexuals.

At that point, Ed kicked me under the table. He knew how I was going to respond–with righteous anger—and he had an another idea. Ed said, “I know exactly where you can see them,” and sent Roger to a place called The Toilet. Do you know it? It was literally a toilet.

But Roger went, he walked into this really filthy place. And he found himself in front of a bathtub with a guy in there and people pissing on him. At one point, Roger had to take a leak himself, so he asked, “Where’s the toilet?” not understanding that the whole place was a toilet.

He did find the bathroom finally, and when he walked in, all the seats were occupied with men with their mouths open. He went over to piss in the sink, and some guy put his mouth under it and the urine went everywhere. Roger told us the story the next day, and Ed was absolutely delighted that he’d done this. I couldn’t have—I would’ve read Roger the riot act about his arrogance and condescension. Ed, he had this Midwestern way about him. Still does.

What was the reaction when the book came out?

It was hard. Many bookstores refused to carry it. And a lot of those that did carry it kept it behind the counter and you had to ask for it. The feeling was, “You shouldn’t let children see something like that.” Quite a few libraries that bought copies were attacked. It was, for a while, the most stolen book from college libraries.

There was one library where some right-wingers had taken the book hostage and refused to give it back. I sent them a new copy, and I got a response thanking me and telling me they’d already gotten two more!

There was a bookstore where some woman claimed she had wanted the book The Joy of Cooking and got the The Joy of Gay Sex instead. Can you believe that? And she went to the police, and they arrested the bookstore owner.

What other legal battles did you face?

Well Canada had a very peculiar set of laws at the time. When the book came out, homosexuality was legal but the customs office had a law against importing [pornography]. So it was not published in Canada. But copies were bought by Glad Day bookstore in Toronto and when they came to the border, the inspectors confiscated them. Glad Day said the government had no right to do that, and it actually went to court. I testified for them and, I must say, the judge, Judge Hawkins, was incredibly liberal.

In the end, he said, “To write a book about gay sex and to omit sexual intercourse would be like writing a history of music and omitting Mozart.” Which was just absolutely great. The books were released.

Were things easier with later editions?

By the time the second edition came out, in 1992 I think, there was no real censorship. The only request we got was about a drawing of an erect penis around with barbed wire around it. The editor asked whether we could change that picture. We felt that he had been so generous to us in other ways so we asked the artist to do another drawing. For the third edition, nothing—anything we wanted was okay.

Keystone-France/Gamma-Keystone via Getty Images

You were a practicing psychologist in 1977. Did having your name on The Joy of Gay Sex hurt your career?

I was already very active in gay liberation when it came out. I was the director of a gay counseling center. All of my patients at the time were gay, everybody knew I was gay—my family knew. I never had the slightest reservation. I wasn’t worried about being out because I was on television, on the radio, I was quite public already.

Beyond the mainstream, how did gay men respond?

Guys would tell me that the book saved their lives, how important it was to them. It was the only place they could get certain kinds of information in those days. There was no Internet, no websites, no social media. The essential crime against gay people was they were prevented from getting information. Not just about sex—but about what it meant to be gay.

Tell me about the artwork, which is kind of iconic.

In the original edition, an art director got some models to pretend to have sex and they photographed them. The images were turned into artwork and then they would come to New York and ask us to pick out the ones we liked. Looking at the photos it was very obvious that all the models were straight. We objected to the fact that they were supposed to be having sex, and it was obvious they weren’t.

In every case, there’d be some very butch-looking guy pretending to fuck this thin, blonde, slight kid. And we objected to that: We had a hard time with the stereotype that if you’re butch, you’re the top, and if you’re fey, a little girly, you’re a bottom. We thought that was offensive.

Crown Publisherrs

At one point, we threatened to withdraw from the book if they didn’t change the artist. We had some very bitter fights about it about the drawings. Now, maybe the artists were following the publishers’ instructions, I don’t know.

The first edition came out just a few years before the beginning of the AIDS crisis. Did that change future editions?

The second edition, the one I did with Felice Picano, addressed the AIDS crisis, but it didn’t change the book. It was still sex-positive, but we also said there are some dangers out there, and we tried to define what they were and how to deal with them.

In the first edition with Ed, the publishers didn’t want us to have anything about STDs at all. They said it was a turn-off. We took a stand on that—there is a section about STDs. The second edition, of course, there was a section about STDs, and we obviously had to talk about AIDS. We had to talk about safe sex, and we did that, while still being sex-positive.

What’s changed the most in gay culture since 1977?

I think first of all, younger generations are much more willing to talk about sex and their sexual experiences, than the older generation. Now, when I say “older generation,” you don’t have to be my generation—even men in their 30s and 40s. Its this current group of people in their 20s and teens who are more likely to use the words of sex, more willing to experiment, and just feel better about sex.

Crown Publishers

Many younger people who are gay, they don’t know what the fuss was about. It’s like, “You’re gay, so what?” They can’t imagine being hung up on it. I’m not criticizing—it’s just the heterosexuals they meet are mostly sympathetic. If they were getting the shit kicked out of them, they might feel differently. I do think that people should know about that extreme, though. That people would kill themselves when they were exposed as homosexuals, or would lose jobs. If you had a boyfriend, you had to hide him.

Today, I don’t hear that stuff as much in this country. And virtually everybody that I see in my practice is out at work. I mean, people show up at company events with same-sex husbands and wives. That would never happen before. It would be a scandal.

Are gay men in a better place in 2017 than 1977?

When I was offered the opportunity to write this book, my lover, William, was against it. His point of view was, “It’s none of their fucking business what we do.” He meant straight people—Why would you publish a book that straight people could read?

Allan Tannenbaum/Getty Images

What he was expressing was something that happens with the process of assimilation: It’s true with all minority groups, all ethnic groups, that when there is assimilation, you lose something in the culture.

So you ask me, “Are we better off?” Well, how can I say that we’re not better off now that people aren’t burning us, people aren’t killing us, they’re not firing us from jobs or throwing us out of houses? I can’t say that. But on the other hand, in this desire to assimilate, gay people have become as boring as straight people.

Charles Silverstein is a practicing psychologist in New York City. His memoir For the Ferryman: A Personal History is out on Chelsea Station Editions.

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