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COMMITMENTS : Private Lessons : Things are getting easier for couples seeking a better sex life. Instructional books and videos seem to be everywhere. And lovers can check them out at home.


There was a time when a couple looking for instruction in the art of lovemaking might dip into D.H. Law rence's "Lady Chatterley's Lover." Or John Updike's "Couples." Or Henry Miller or Harold Robbins or Jacqueline Susann.

Then "The Joy of Sex," by Alex Comfort, took us from literature to lessons.

But all that seems Dark Ages ago.

Today, the couple in a coital quandary has a bewildering array of choices. Books have proliferated, as have instructional videotapes, which can range from a tame textbook approach to the practically pornographic. Page through certain magazines or comb the racks of video stores and there they are--limb-locked couples offering to explain the secrets to a better sex life.

What explains the explosion of explicit sex-education materials? Some of it may just be a natural progression from the so-called sexual revolution of the '60s and '70s.

"I think the book 'The Joy of Sex' paved the way," says Mark Schoen, a sex educator who through his company, Focus International, in Huntington, N.Y., has been producing and distributing sexually instructive films and videos for more than 20 years. "Another major factor, Masters and Johnson, they invented sex therapy. . . . I see Comfort, Masters and Johnson as pioneers who paved the way for people like me."

"There's much less guilt about sex today, much less shame," says Helen Singer Kaplan, founder and director of the human sexuality program at the New York Hospital-Cornell Medical Center in New York City. "Now, really, people are quite casual about sex."

But fear of AIDS is another factor.

"People are afraid to go out swinging," says Kaplan, who has written a number of books, including "The Illustrated Manual of Sex Therapy: Techniques That Have Helped Thousands of Couples Achieve a More Rewarding Sexual Relationship" (Brunner Mazel, 1987). "It's much safer to be with your one partner and have hotter sex by introducing fantasy and erotic stimulation into the monogamous relationship. I have called this trend the hot monogamy in the '90s. And I think it's healthy. It's good."

Schoen recalls a time when sexually instructive videotapes were available only in an academic or clinical setting. A person might see such a film in a human-sexuality course, in therapy, or in training to be a therapist.

"Now, with home video, we started making them available to the consumer. Technology has helped, the fact that you can watch a movie in the privacy of your home."

Without the help of a sex therapist or educator, how can the average person assess the usefulness of a particular book or tape?

It's important to be aware that tapes can serve either of two purposes, the experts say. They can offer information, clearing up misconceptions and myths. Or they can offer erotic stimulation.

"If you're using it for education, you're not supposed to get aroused," Kaplan says. "You're supposed to learn."

"Don't expect to be turned on by ones meant to be purely self-help, not erotic," says Judy Kuriansky, a New York City psychologist and sex therapist. "They're meant to give you permission and be instructional. In clinical experience, you really have to prepare someone for what they're watching."

If, however, a couple chooses an erotic tape to stimulate desire, Kuriansky says, "watching together can be highly helpful."

In her experience, couples will often "watch it for five minutes, and then it runs while they're busy."

Kaplan has seen good results with erotic materials for a variety of complaints, from lack of desire to performance anxiety. "It depends on the couple's individual needs," she says.

But Kaplan cautions that the use of erotica can sometimes serve "to distance people so they don't need a partner, or you can be alone even with a partner, never really connect. That's not a good use of it. When it's used mutually and shared, it can actually increase intimacy and that's how I like to use it."

Much depends on the individuals involved and what each is looking for or is comfortable with. If both partners enjoy graphic illustrations, fine, but if not, the selection of books or tapes has to be tailored to each partner's tastes. A person expecting information only might be unsettled by graphic images just as someone expecting an erotic experience will be disappointed, even bored, by a strictly informational one.

"You have to be careful," Kaplan says. "You could turn off your partner completely."


Where to Find Information on Sexuality

The Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States offers an annotated bibliography of books on sexuality; the cost is $2. Write to the Publications Department, SIECUS, 130 W. 42nd St., Suite 350, New York, N.Y. 10036-7802, or call (212) 819-9770. A free catalogue of publications published and distributed by SIECUS is available upon request.

A catalogue of sexually explicit instructional tapes is available free from Focus International by calling (800) 843-0305, Monday through Friday, 6 a.m. to 2 p.m. Pacific time. Computer owners with access to the World Wide Web can retrieve the catalogue by typing The company can be e-mailed at

Catalogues of self-help sex books and instructional videotapes are also available from Good Vibrations, a San Francisco-based distributor. Call (800) 289-8423.

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