Alain de Botton (2012) How to Think More About Sex Macmillan, London; 160 pp.; ISBN 978-0-2307-6612-9
The stated aim of this book is to make us feel less ‘painfully strange’ about sex by being more thoughtful about it and treating it with greater respect. It’s an admirable goal, even if the decidedly un-sexy Alain de Botton is a painfully strange choice to be writing on the subject.
de Botton is a multimedia star of pop philosophy and at times has managed to convey in clear and simple language some interesting ideas. Books such as How Proust Can Change Your Life and The Art of Travel, along with his television appearances, made some old topics fresh and accessible to a wide public – no mean feat. But in this book the register has moved from simple to simplistic, even if the writing remains clear and reader friendly.
In the section on The Pleasures of Sex, he says that adult sex allows us to overcome the physical and emotional loneliness that we have experienced as we shifted from a physically nurturing childhood to the solitary and shameful years of adolescence. Sex is a re-discovery of unconditional acceptance from a partner. Orgasm, he tells us, is the moment when loneliness and alienation are overcome. It’s a bleak view of the teenage years and an overly romantic view of childhood, but the idea that our adult partners offer unconditional acceptance of our individual weirdness is a large claim indeed.
He also makes the important point that while as a species we find specific facial and corporal characteristics attractive – symmetry and signs of good health top the list – in fact our individual choices are far more varied and largely inexplicable. Some people are put off by an overly attractive partner as a long-term mate, however exciting the short term prospect might be. We can’t fathom other people’s choices, let alone our own, and wisely de Botton tells us we shouldn’t try. We just have to accept them and realise it’s not a reflection on us or them.
In the section on The Problems of Sex he looks at honesty in relationships (most definitely a double-edged sword), the pain of sexual rejection and how much greater that is when you are inside a relationship, and how to cope when desire fails us. On the latter issue he comes up with some frankly silly ideas, such as posting photos of your naked partner on the web to appreciate how others view them. Yes, my partner and the rolling pin would be thrilled. More sensibly he notes that disappointment is part and parcel of our sex lives and that we need to get used to that. That should be lesson number one in sex education classes.
He suggests at one point that impotence could be re-framed as a mark of respect for our partner, but the line ‘I know you have a headache so I’ve lost all physical desire for you as a mark of my respect’ is hardly likely to lead to a warm and friendly chat over the breakfast table the following morning. I began to get the feeling that de Botton was just making things up for the hell of it in order to fill the pages.
His discussion of pornography is dated and unadventurous. Yes, it remains a major industry, but the commercial manufacture of pornography is rapidly being challenged by internet sites offering amateur photos and videos of a mind-boggling variety. Like the music and film industries, new technology is undermining the old business models and de Botton fails to tackle this. He also ignores how pornography is produced and how that might influence whether we want to, or should, look at it. In the end, bereft of ideas, he suggests that in order to resist being swamped by pornography we should allow censorship by a ‘benign supervisory entity’. A benign big brother? He really needs to get out more.
de Botton’s overview of adultery tries to have it both ways. On the one hand it’s a logical course of action because one partner cannot be everything to us, but on the other hand it is a worthy sacrifice that we should recognise and celebrate. Earlier in the book he suggests that weekly psychotherapy might be beneficial for couples, but his equivocation on a number of issues, including adultery, suggests that weekly visits by each partner to their own spin doctor might be more productive.
The focus throughout this book is very much on heterosexual couples engaged in long term relationships. Everyone else is short changed. A life built around other forms of sexuality or behaviour patterns doesn’t even rate a mention. The references to ‘modern society’ only refer to modern Anglophone societies. There is no exploration of physical intimacy and relationships across different cultures or historical periods. Yet we know there is much, much greater diversity than de Botton is either interested in or aware of.
It is true that his aim is not to produce a detailed historical or psychological account, and certainly the evidence such as it is in this book would not stand up to investigation by the Serious Freud Office, but even so his imaginative vision is so constrained, his view of sex so narrow, that it is hard to see who will be interested in the ideas presented here. Those hoping for voluptuous and provocative bed time reading will find this companion of a book both thin and dull. In the end I had to roll over and sob silently into the sheets.