Number One

Everything you always wanted to know about sex*…*but were afraid to ask

by David Reuben M.D.
David McKay, 342 pp., $6.95

The Hand-Reared Boy

by Brain W. Aldiss
McCall, 189 pp., $5.95

Everything you always wanted to know about sex explained by David Reuben, M.D., but were afraid to ask. The title of the current number-one nonfiction best seller is cute as a bug’s ear, and we know what Freud thought of those who were cute about sex (“Very uptight,” Sigmund Freud, M.D.). If a jocose approach to sexual matters is a mask for unease, then David Reuben, M.D. (“currently in private psychiatric practice in San Diego, California”), is in a state of communicable panic and I would be most unwilling to have him privately practice psychiatry on me, even in San Diego, the Vatican of the John Birch Society.

David Reuben, M.D., is a relentlessly cheery, often genuinely funny writer whose essential uncertainty about sex is betrayed by a manner which shifts in a very odd way from night club comedian to reform rabbi, touching en route almost every base except the scientific. Essentially he is a moralist, expressing the hang-ups of today’s middle-aged, middle-class urban American Jews, hang-ups which are not (as I shall attempt to show) necessarily those of the gentile population or, for that matter, of the rising generation of American Jews.

Yes, I am going to talk about class and race-religion, two unmentionables in our free land, and I am going to make a case that Jewish family patterns, sexual taboos, and superstitions are often very different from those of the rest of the population, black, white, and yellow, Roman Catholic, Protestant, and Moslem. For gentile readers much of the charm of Portnoy’s Complaint was its exoticism. And despite those ecumenical reviewers who insist that everyone’s mother is a Jewish mother, the truth is that Mrs. Portnoy was the result of a specific set of historical circumstances, not applicable to anyone else, including the next generation of American Jews, if we are to believe in her child Alexander’s rebellion. Certainly his son (assuming he has not entirely wasted his posterity) will probably resemble next-door neighbor George Apley II rather more than father or grandfather.

I mention Alexander Portnoy because David Reuben, M.D., is his contemporary and they have a good deal in common. But where 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 (a single reference to the New Testament is inaccurate); surprisingly, the only mental therapist he mentions is Freud—in order to set him straight.

But then Dr. Reuben seems not to have been affected at all by the discipline of science. He explodes with snappy generalities (“All children at the time of puberty develop pimples”) and opinions (“All prostitutes hate men”) and statistics which he seems to have made up (“Seventy to eighty percent of Americans engage in fellatio and cunnilingus”). He makes no attempt to prove…

This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!

View Offer

Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.

If you are already a subscriber, please be sure you are logged in to your account.