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Stop Calling Me 'Doctor Sex'

45 minutes
First broadcast:
Sunday 30 December 2012

Matthew Sweet uncovers the extraordinary career of Dr Alex Comfort, author of The Joy of Sex.

By the time of his death in 2000, Comfort's 1972 sex manual had sold over 12 million copies. It was one of the big, mainstream best-sellers that made the liberalisation of sexual mores an accepted part of British life. But at the end of his life, Comfort regretted that the success of this one book had obscured his rich range of work in other areas - from poetry to gerontology, broadcasting to anarchism. In this programme, Matthew Sweet argues that by forgetting who this man really was, we've also lost sight of the true influences that shaped his blockbuster book.

Matthew begins in the childhood garden where, aged 15, Comfort blew off four fingers making fireworks. Far from letting the accident get in his way, he resolved to become a writer, publishing the first of his many books while still in his teens. Comfort became a pacifist and, during the Second World War, he not only refused to fight but conducted a controversial campaign against the bombing of German cities. He argued publicly with George Orwell about the right thing to do if the Nazis invaded. And he was also ruled out of broadcasting on the wartime BBC - though that didn't stop him becomnig a prolific broadcaster in the 1960s.

After the war, he was a leading anti-nuclear activist, at one stage briefly going to prison over a planned protest. Yet all the time he was formulating the ideas that form the basis of The Joy of Sex, which have their roots in his anarchism. An anarchist, he argued, was not a 'bomb-thrower' but someone who resisted the power of those in authority and insisted instead on personal responsibility. His early factual writing on sex began as a talk for fellow-anarchists in the late 1940s. And all the while, Comfort was pursuing a separate scientific career as a gerontologist, helping to pioneer the study of old age. Tragically, his own last years were anything but the 'Good Age' he envisaged for others. Yet, Matthew argues, almost all Comfort's varied labours seem to stem from his drive to struggle against limits - from the loss of his fingers to the power of the wartime state, from sexual repression to the prejudice against the old.

With contributions from: Nicholas Comfort, Tom Arie, Michael Randle, Christopher Turner, David Goodway, DJ Taylor, Carissa Honeywell.

Producer: Phil Tinline.


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