This Day in Jewish History

1930: A Man Who Said He Knew Everything About Sex Is Born

'Everything You Always Wanted to Know about Sex but Were Afraid to Ask' by Dr. David R. Reuben was rejected by 23 publishers and was panned by Gore Vidal. Became a blockbuster anyway.

Gene Wilder with a sheep in Woody Allen's "Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex"
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November 29, 1930, is the birthday of David R. Reuben, the Chicago-born author of the mega-bestselling book “Everything You Always Wanted to Know about Sex but Were Afraid to Ask.”

Published in 1969, and riding the crest of the wave known as the Sexual Revolution, Reuben’s book answered questions about practically any sex-related issue one might be thinking of – or be frightened by. Writing with an inviting combination of authority and humor – although perhaps with less of an emphasis on accuracy – Reuben hit the G-spot with his book, which led the New York Times nonfiction bestseller list for 55 weeks in a row. It also spawned a film parody of the same name from Woody Allen in 1972.

Gore Vidal's complaint

David R. Reuben grew up in Chicago and attended medical school there, at the University of Illinois. He did his residency in psychiatry at Cook County Hospital and afterwards served as a medical officer in the U.S. Air Force.

At the time he wrote “Everything You Always Wanted to Know” Reuben had a private psychiatry practice in the Spring Valley section of San Diego, California, where he lived with his wife, Barbara, and their five children. The manuscript for the book was rejected by 23 publishers before it was picked up by David McKay Co.

Three decades later, Carol Anthony, who at the time had been the publicity director for McKay, told the Chicago Tribune that the book had the good fortune to receive positive reviews from The New York Times and Life magazine. "Once those two said it was okay to read it -- the rest is history. We didn't need to advertise," she said.

In a typically sardonic review of Reuben’s book in The New York Review of Books, the author Gore Vidal noted that “Everything You Always Wanted” had “a good deal in common” with Philip Roth’s 1967 novel “Portnoy’s Complaint.” However, he added, whereas “Portnoy’s creator is a highly talented artist often able to view objectively the prejudices and tribal taboos of his mother’s ghetto culture, Dr. Reuben is still very much in her thrall. Essentially he is not a man of science but a moderately swinging rabbi who buttresses his prejudices with pious quotations from the Old Testament.”   

Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex (Woody Allen, 1972) - Spermatozoon The spermatozoon scene

Fuzzy math

Vidal was particularly irritated with Reuben’s insistence that homosexual behavior was aberrant.

Yes, in 1969, homosexuality was still socially unacceptable, causing many if not most gay people to keep their identities secret (Gore Vidal was unusual in being openly bisexual). But from a psychiatrist who was trying to set aside people’s fears about being “abnormal,” one might have expected a more pluralistic understanding of sexuality.

Instead, Reuben described most gay men as promiscuous, and prone to end up in hospital emergency rooms with objects such as pencils and soda bottles having become lodged in their anuses. “One penis plus one penis equals nothing,” he wrote disparagingly, just as “one vagina plus one vagina still equals zero.” 

Reuben also claimed that Coca-Cola was "the best douche available," when in fact it could be very dangerous if used for that purpose, that “All prostitutes hate men” and that “Seventy to eighty percent of Americans engage in fellatio and cunnilingus,” statements that were presented as facts without being accompanied by any support.

Three years after its publication, Playboy magazine ran an article delineating what it said were 100 errors in the book. Yet even when Reuben published a new edition that he claimed was “96.8 percent” new, in 1999, he wasn’t willing to acknowledge errors in the original version. Instead, he explained to the Chicago Tribune, “I wrote a book on human sexuality. I wasn't running for Miss America. My goal was to tell the facts as directly as I could in a way that was interesting and entertaining and useful for the reader. It wasn't a popularity contest."

In the 1990s, with two of his children suffering from serious allergies, he said, Reuben and his family moved to Costa Rica, where he had purchased a 250-acre farm. There he has continued turning out books, most of them diet or sex manuals, although in 2014, he published a novel called “Psychiatric Hospital: Where Insanity Meets Reality... and Reality Is Insane,” which reveals “all the drama and sex and pathos of life behind the locked doors of the Psychiatric Hospital.” The book has not yet experienced the same sort of success as "Everything You Always Wanted to Know..."