Wise Counsel

Is ‘The Guide to Getting It On’ the Best Sex Ed Book Ever?

Teenagers’ ignorance and inexperience about sex is matched only by the mountains of misinformation they contend with. Lucky for them, Paul Joannides is here to help.

Roman Maerzinger/Getty

Like many young men of the suburbs who grew up in the ’90s without a strong cohort of friends, I spent large portions of my youth at the cafe in my local Barnes and Noble. Mine was on Old York Road in Jenkintown, Pennsylvania, kitty-corner to a Saturn dealership and next to a Chili’s. I remember a few things from those hours: the sense of accomplishment at naming all the writers on the mural, the dense chocolate texture of the brownie, the loneliness, and learning about handjobs. The last of those came from a thick paperback book called The Guide to Getting It On, by Paul Joannides, Psy D. which was my book of common prayer.

The book, which I gather now was then in its second edition, had on its cover a man and a woman kissing in the style that I can only describe “hair salon art.” You know, the kind of images that adorn the walls of the salons where your mother went and that smelled like cigarettes and burnt hair. The women in those pictures always seemed like down-to-party waitresses and the men were as handsome as they were dopey.

At 671 pages with chapters like “Balls, Balls, Balls,” “Sunsets, Orgasms, and Hand Grenades,” and Birth Control & Gnarly Sex Terms,” the Guide was the secular and sexy version of the Talmud I studied on Saturdays. Well before my bar mitzvah and before I had ever seen a naked woman—let alone been invited to touch one—I was well-versed in the techniques of kissing, cunnilingus, the ideal angles of blowjobs, and the soapy pleasure of shower masturbation. Many were the sunny afternoons wiled away with brownies, iced tea, and Paul Joannides’s book.

It’s hard to describe the impact of the book, but it was deep and vast. Most saliently of course was the sex. Obviously when you’re uninitiated, the mysteries of coitus seem profound and alluring and even more confusing than after one has it. The mechanics of masturbation, the parts of the vagina, an incipient interest in prostate massage, the idea one could like boys and girls, these were subjects and matters obscured by befuddlement. That they could be knowable gave rise to great epistemological hope.

But there was something else too. Joannides’s factual yet casual tone, the idea that sex is something to enjoy, stripped away any weirdo sense of shame in my curiosity. Here is Joannides from the “Intercourse: Horizontal Jogging” chapter, under the subsection “Battering Ram or Pleasure Wand? Mosh Pit or Symphony?”: “Some men use a penis as a battering ram, believe women enjoy being slammed during intercourse. Other men, perhaps a bit more sensitive or experienced, realize there are different thrusting rhythms that can make intercourse feel more symphonic than Screamo. Maybe she will like it slow at the start but strong at the end. An excellent way to find out what works best during intercourse is when the woman is on top.”

The illustrations, by Daerick Grosse Sr., showed happy couples copulating. The All-American guys had their hats on backwards and often no pants on at all. They were muscled but not too much. The women had about the same BMI as the men and Grosse spent, one reflects, an inordinate amount of time imbuing each with a contemporary and mussed up hair style. (Grosse had drawn early X-men comics for Marvel.)

But more than any of that, Joannides wrote a lot about how couples should be able to tell each other what they want and what makes them happy. And this was the kernel of my attraction. During my peak Barnes & Noble years, my family life was disintegrating. My mother was embroiled in a bitter divorce with my father, and my father, who had figured out how to weaponize custody, was carrying on with a young woman not much older than me or my sister. In what dustbunny memories I have of them together, there was no talking, just yelling. So, the idea that couples could talk and please each other was extraordinarily encouraging.

Then the years passed. As has happened with so many things from that time, I had assumed the book had disappeared. The Barnes and Noble is now a CVS. Saturn is Toyota. But after a cursory search, I was gratified to find that the book is still around. In fact, the ninth edition—Guide to Getting It On: Unzipped—was just released last week. The book isn’t quite as thick as I remember. But according to Joannides, it depends on which edition you’re talking about: “For a few years, it was out of control. The 7th edition got up to 1,200 pages. The 8th is 1,162.”

Joannides, 65, lives with his wife and daughter on a llama farm in a small Oregon town. The Guide to Getting It On is his life’s work. He estimates that at least one million copies have sold since the book first appeared in 1998, and it’s been translated into 15 languages. But it almost didn’t appear at all. In the mid ’90s, Joannides was living in Los Angeles and working as a research psychoanalyst. He wanted to create a series of science books for kids. But his first attempt, about the wonders of urethane, didn’t go well. So he decided to skip to the second in the series: sex. Here the opposite problem proved nearly fatal. “The problem,” as Joannides saw it, “is a book that parents would buy for teenagers is not a book that a teenager wouldn’t want to read.”

Joannides spent five years on the manuscript, researching and refining the tone. But when he tried to sell it, no publishers would touch it. “All the editors said they loved it but that no one would ever buy a book about sex.” The only publisher that did show interest was Barricade Books, best known for The Anarchist Cookbook. So Joannides hocked everything he owned and published the book himself. “I put too much of my life into the book,” he said, “to let some morons from publishing houses ruin it.” Through his own press—Goofy Foot Publishing—he remains the writer and publisher. For the latest edition, a woman from Germany offered to copy edit the text for free. She is listed as the “Queen of Copy Editing.”

Today, the book is taught in hundreds of colleges. Joannides has won the Professional Standard of Excellence Award by the American Association of Sex Educators, Counselors and Therapists, and he sits on a number of stuffy sounding editorial boards.

As the times have evolved, so too has the book. At 35, I’m among the last known males in America in my demographic not to have high definition hardcore porn at my fingertips. I am a relic who still thinks of a horn-nosed Muppet when I hear the word Gonzo and director of photography when I hear the word DP. The most pornography I ever consumed as a kid was a stash of rained-on Playboys someone had discarded in the bird sanctuary behind my house. The paper, thin to begin with but weathered to dissolution, disintegrated with every touch. Spreads could be seen only once. It was an early lesson in impermanence. But over the years, Joannides has seen pornography’s bizarre aesthetics befuddle generations of already hopeless boys. “I try to write from a point from someone who doesn’t remember the world before hard core porn,” says Joannides, who devotes a lot of space explaining that sex in real life is as close to sex in porn as romanesco is to a fire hydrant.

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Another recent addition is the chapter on consent. “No one wants to see himself as a rapist,” he writes, “but if you have pressured a woman to have sex when she didn’t want to have sex, it could be rape.” Joannides, who addresses this chapter almost entirely to straight males, always thought about consent but in the last four or five editions, began to express it explicitly. “The two-headed monster of sex education is porn and abstinence,” he complains, “and neither address consent at all.”

Acknowledging that perhaps books are a thing of the past—“With the competition now being free porn, kick-ass video games, and Netflix, I’m not so sure books stand a chance!”—he’s been teaching himself Adobe After Effects and creating a YouTube channel that will feature weekly sex ed videos with a talking llama named Bob. Other than that, he’s constantly revising his book, preparing a 10th edition, updating his website, watching the elk move across his land, feeding his llamas, walking his dogs, and living by his own advice, namely, “Enjoy the shit outta yourself.”