Alain de Botton's latest book How To Think More About Sex has an eye-catching title, and is an intelligent discussion of society's greatest obsession. "We don’t think too much about sex," he says. "We’re merely thinking about it in the wrong way."
We interviewed the British writer and public intellectual via email about how none of us are 'normal', why sex will always be difficult, and what the ultimate point of sex is for us all.
Why did you choose to write about sex?
I wrote it because it's rare for anyone to get through this life without feeling – generally with a degree of secret agony, perhaps at the end of a relationship, or as we lie in bed frustrated next to our partner, unable to go to sleep – that we are somehow a bit odd about sex.
It is an area in which most of us have a painful impression, in our heart of hearts, that we are quite unusual. Despite being one of the most private of activities, sex is nonetheless surrounded by ideas about how normal people are meant to feel about and deal with the matter.
In truth, however, few of us are remotely normal sexually. We are almost all haunted by guilt and neuroses, by phobias and disruptive desires, by indifference and disgust. None of us approaches sex as we are meant to, with the cheerful, sporting, non-obsessive, constant, well-adjusted outlook that we torture ourselves by believing that other people are endowed with. We are universally deviant – but only in relation to some highly distorted ideals of normality. So it's time to accept the strangeness of sex with good humour and courage - and start to talk about it with honesty and compassion.
This is what my book is about: an invitation to think more about a subject we mistakenly think we know all about already.
What are the advantages and disadvantages about society's obsession with sex?
The problem lies in the feeling that we live at a time where we're very advanced about sex. We look back at the 19th century, or pre 1960s and think, 'Now they had a problem. Whereas we...' Well, it's not so simple. Whatever discomfort we do feel around sex is aggravated by the idea that we belong to a liberated age – and ought by now, as a result, to be finding sex a straightforward and untroubling matter.
Despite our best efforts to clean it of its peculiarities, sex will never be either simple in the ways we might like it to be. It can die out; it refuses to sit neatly on top of love, as it should. Tame it though we may try, sex has a recurring tendency to wreak havoc across our lives. Sex remains in absurd, and perhaps irreconcilable, conflict with some of our highest commitments and values. Perhaps ultimately we should accept that sex is inherently rather weird instead of blaming ourselves for not responding in more normal ways to its confusing impulses.
This is not to say that we cannot take steps to grow wiser about sex. We should simply realise that we will never entirely surmount the difficulties it throws our way.
What are the biggest issues we face as a society about sex?
It is very rare to have a lot of sex. Very few people do. There are good and bad reasons for this. Here are some of the worse one: we may not be having too much sex because our partner is angry with us - or we with them. The common conception of anger posits red faces, raised voices and slammed doors, but only too often, it takes on a different form, for when it doesn’t understand or acknowledge itself, anger just curdles into numbness, into a blank 'I'm not in the mood...'
There are two reasons we tend to forget we are angry with our partner, and hence become anaesthetized, melancholic and unable to have sex with him.
Firstly, because the specific incidents that anger us happen so quickly and so invisibly, in such fast-moving and chaotic settings (at breakfast time, before the school run, or during a conversation on mobile phones in a windy plaza at lunchtime) that we can’t recognise the offence well enough to mount any sort of coherent protest against it. The arrow is fired, it wounds us, but we lack the resources or context to see how and where, exactly, it has pierced our armour.
And second, we frequently don’t articulate our anger even when we do understand it, because the things that offend us can seem so trivial, finicky or odd that they would sound ridiculous if spoken aloud. Even rehearsing them to ourselves can be embarrassing.
We may, for example, be deeply wounded when our partner fails to notice our new haircut or doesn’t use a breadboard while cutting a bit of baguette, thus scattering crumbs everywhere, or goes straight upstairs to watch television without stopping to ask about our day. These hardly seem matters worth lodging formal complaints over. To announce, ‘I am angry with you because you’re cutting the baguette in the wrong way’, is to risk sounding at once immature and insane. But we may need to spell our complaints in order to get in the vulnerable, trusting honest mood that makes sex possible.
The unchanging environment in which we lead our daily lives can also affect sex negatively. We should blame the stable presence of the carpet and the living-room chairs for our failure to have more sex, because our homes guide us to perceive others according to the attitude they normally exhibit in them. The physical backdrop becomes permanently colored by the activities it hosts – vacuuming, bottle feeding, laundry hanging, the filling out of tax forms – and reflects the mood back at us, thereby subtly preventing us from evolving. The furniture insists that we can’t change because it never does.
Hence the metaphysical importance of hotels. Their walls, beds, comfortably upholstered chairs, room service menus, televisions and small, tightly wrapped soaps can do more than answer a taste for luxury; they can also encourage us to reconnect with our long-lost sexual selves. There is no limit to what a shared dip in an alien bath tub may help us to achieve. We may make love joyfully again because we have rediscovered, behind the roles we are forced to play by our domestic circumstances, the sexual identities which first drew us together – an act of fresh perception which will have been critically assisted by a pair of towelling bathrobes, a complimentary fruit basket and a view out of a window onto an unfamiliar harbour.
Why did you choose not to deal with homosexuality, bisexuality or polyamory in the book?
I had only a 100 pages and most of what I say can apply to any gender orientation, so it's not a book about heterosexuals, it's a book about anyone who has sex of any type.
How should we think about sex?
Good sex isn't about better positions or appointments, it's about thinking more about it (not less). We don't think enough about sex.
The ultimate point of sex is to escape from an otherwise depressing loneliness to which we're all prone.
What we call 'sexy' are those moments when we're accepted by someone else, leave behind the cold anonymity of the normal world and end up, for example, licking the inside of someone's mouth.
There is no answer to the tensions of marriage, if what we mean by an ‘answer’ is a settlement in which no party suffers a loss, and in which every positive element that we care about can coexist with every other, without either causing or sustaining damage.
The three things we want in this sphere - love, sex and family - each affects and harms the others in devilish ways. Loving a person may inhibit our ability to have sex with him or her. Having a secret tryst with someone we don’t love but do find attractive can endanger our relationship with the spouse we love but are no longer turned on by. Having children can imperil both love and sex, and yet neglecting the kids in order to focus on our marriage or our sexual thrills may threaten the health and mental stability of the next generation.
Periodically, frustration breeds an impulse to seek a utopian solution to this mess. Perhaps an open marriage would work, we think. Or a policy of secrets. Or a renegotiation of our contract on a yearly basis. Or more childcare. All such strategies are fated to fail, however, for the simple reason that loss is written into the rules of the situation.
If we sleep around, we will put at risk our spouse’s love and the psychological health of our children. If we don’t sleep around, we will go stale and miss out on the excitement of new relationships. If we keep an affair secret, it will corrode us inside and stunt our capacity to receive another’s love. If we confess to infidelity, our partner will panic and never get over our sexual adventures (even if they meant nothing to us). If we focus all of our energies on our children, they will eventually abandon us to pursue their own lives, leaving us wretched and lonely. But if we ignore our children in favour of our own romantic pursuits as a couple, we will scar them and earn their unending resentment.
Marriage is thus a bit like a bed sheet that can never be straightened: when we seek to perfect or ameliorate one side of it, we may succeed only in further wrinkling and disturbing the others.
Alain de Botton is the best-selling author of How Proust Can Change Your Life, The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work and Religion for Atheists, and founder of The School of Life. His most recent book, How to Think More About Sex is out now from Picador.
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