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The original intention was to use the same approach as such cook books as The Joy of Cooking, hence section titles include "starters" and "main courses". The book features sexual practices such as oral sex and various sex positions as well as bringing "further out" practices such as sexual bondage and swinging to the attention of the general public.
The original version was illustrated with a mixture of classical Indian and Japanese erotica and specially commissioned illustrations by Chris Foss (black-and-white line drawings) and Charles Raymond (colour paintings). These two artists based their work on photographs taken by Chris Foss, of Charles Raymond and his wife. The illustrations have become somewhat dated, mainly because of changes in hairstyles. Both the illustrations and text are titillating as well as illustrative, in contrast to the bland, clinical style of earlier books about sex. More recent editions feature new artwork, and added text emphasizing safer sex.
Newer versions have reversed previously-supportive positions on topics such as swinging, due to extensive textual changes made at the height of the 1980s AIDS panic.
A pocket book version entitled, The Joy of Sex, the Pocket Edition was also published. The book won the Bookseller/Diagram Prize for Oddest Title of the Year in 1997.
The Joy of Sex did not address homosexual sex beyond a definitional level. Though there was a careful (for the day) treatment of bondage, other BDSM activities received definitional coverage at best. The book played a part in what is often called the sexual revolution.
There has been controversy over The Joy of Sex in the United States. Religious groups have fought to keep it out of public libraries. In March 2008, the Nampa, Idaho public library board ruled in favor of removing The Joy of Sex and The Joy of Gay Sex from the libraries' shelves, making them only available upon request in the library director's office. The books were restored to shelves in September 2008 in response to ACLU threats of litigation.
Publisher Mitchell Beazley released an updated edition of the book in September 2008. The new edition was rewritten and reinvented by relationship psychologist Susan Quilliam and approved by Nicholas Comfort, the original author's son.
More material has been added to the book, and the remaining text has been rewritten from both a factual and psychological viewpoint to take into account social shifts since 1972. The new edition presents a more balanced female/male perspective and also contains 120 completely re-shot photographs and re-drawn illustrations.
The quirky style—and the message of the book, that sex is fun—remain the same. Mitchell Beazley has marketed the New Joy with the subtitle "a thinking person's guide to sex".