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Review: How to Think More About Sex by Alain de Botton

Review: How to Think More About Sex by Alain de Botton. New York: Picador Press, 2012; 185 pp. 

Alain de Botton is a modern-day version of Nietzsche as stand-up comic. He is a practitioner of the hermeneutics of suspicion and he manages to be funny in doing so. The title itself is funny, for sex is not something we usually want to think more  about. Either we cannot stop thinking about it or we want to stop thinking and start performing it (the sex act, that is). 

If one stops and considers the matter, for the most part, it is sex that is thinking us, not us actively thinking about it in a reflective way. However, the latter (think about sex in a reflective way) is precisely what de Botton proposes to do and he does an excellent job of it. 

The first thought is some direct talk about managing expectations. The expectation that we live in a liberated age (which we do) and therefore we should be comfortable with sex (we are not) is an illusion. We human beings are not wired to be comfortable with sex. Sex is an enormously powerful force “all but incapable of being discretely integrated within civilized society” (p. 6). “Our best hope should be for a respectful accommodation with an anarchic and reckless power” (p. 7). 

The pleasures of sex are explored in the initial chapters. In a description of an initial kiss that goes in the direction of soft-core porn and then becomes thoughtfully and alienatingly clinical, de Botton makes the point that what is great about a kiss “stems from the simple realization that someone else likes us quite a lot, a message that would enchant us even if it delivered via another medium” (p. 23). When sex goes just right it represents a reversal of the fall from paradise where Adam and Eve were punished by experiencing shame. The naked, loving couple have a breakthrough in the acceptance of themselves and each other than nakedness makes present. 

Eroticism is defined as “the feeling of excitement we experience at finding another human being who shares our values and our sense of the meaning of existence” (p. 44). De Botton notes that sex usually does not last longer than two hours “about the length of the Catholic mass.” This is not quite accurate, but funny. 

Regarding physical attraction (“sexiness”), the thinking gets going. We are not supposed to like people based on superficial appearances, but we do. Evolutionary psychology tells us that sexual attraction means we see a healthy parent for our children in the other person as a prospective mate. De Botton prefers Stendhal: “Beauty is the promise of happiness.” Then he imaginatively elaborates, associating physical features with personality states and traits. This person’s cheeks express determination; eyebrows, integrity; lips, intelligence. 

For me, one of the high points of this work is de Botton’s invoking Empathy and Abstraction  (1907) by Wilhelm Worringer, one of the defining works of the aesthetic application of empathy. The beautiful is that which we need to complete us, and we project aspects of our emotions and personality onto the environment as symbols of totality. We humans need both art and sex to make us whole (p 72). 

Since this is not a softball review, I note that de Botton properly pushes back against the overly scrupulous conscience of the sexually inhibited (most of society) when he asserts: “It’s time for the need for love and the need for sex to be granted equal standing, without the need for moral gloss [judgment]” (p. 79). He is absolutely on point in asserting that neither sex nor love should require us to lie in order to get them. Definitely tell the truth – including to yourself. Yet the way sex and love (affection) fall apart is concerning. How does when bring them together?

Here is the debate: Freud pointed out in one of his most powerful and least well known essays (probably because of its obscure title) on “The Most Prevalent Form of Degradation in Erotic Life” (1912) that some men cannot love where/when they desire (sex) and cannot desire where/when the love. They are unable to bring together sexual desire and affection for the other as a person, which unification is a mark of being a psychologically mature adult. 

This is the “whore / Madonna” complex (and mostly, but not exclusively, a guy issue) – that he says he loves the mother of his children, but she does not excite him sexually and he can get sexually excited over what is today called a [sexual] “hook up” with someone he does not know. As noted, today this is a phenomenon that is still mostly male but is expanding its occurrence among woman who aspire to use sex to get power in relationships. Note whether this tactic is effective is a further point of debate.

In the middle section under problems, de Botton covers some of the same ground as Ester Perel in Mating in Captivity (2006) including libido dampening circumstances: Marriage tends to involve “[…] the running of a household and the raising of children, tasks that often feel akin to the administration of a small business and that draw upon many of the same bureaucratic and procedural skills, including time management, self-discipline, the exercising of authority and the imposition of rules upon recalcitrant others” (p. 90). Here de Botton explicitly invokes the above-cited split between desire and affection: “Sex may sometimes be just too private an activity to engage in with someone we know well and have to see all the time” (p 92). 

The recommendation? Since most people would not be comfortable getting a third party to have sex with the spouse while they watched – the idea literally to witness about the spouse what the other finds stimulating – de Botton recommends a stay at a fancy hotel. More substantially, the recommendation is there to do to the spouse what Manet did to a lowly bunch of asparagus – see the bundle in a new way, overlooking its commonness, and making it into a work of art. Love is sublimated sexuality; sex as art. As Bob Dylan wrote, love is another four-letter word. This is hormones all the way down. 

As someone who has published extensively on empathy, this reviewer swallowed hard to read de Botton associate empathy with impotence: “Impotence had its origins in the increase in empathy attendant on the promotion of the Golden Rule (p. 109). “Impotence is at base, then, a symptom of respect, a fear of causing displeasure through the imposition of our own desires […]”  (p. 111). The solution according to de Botton? Don’t be unempathic. Don’t be unkind. Employ a psychopharm intervention. Take the Viagra, even if you have furtively to swallow it in the bathroom. You can’t make this stuff up. 

I have to acknowledge that the caveman approach to sex has significant limitations. For my part, de Botton, who rarely misses a beat, fails to mention that the real turn on is turning on one’s partner. We desire the other’s desire. I want you to want me. And for that one needs empathy. 

If the molten cauldron of libido needed to have really great sex is siphoned off by kindness, for others, the opposite is the case. Partners hurt one another’s feelings in relatively minor ways, grievances and resentments, build up, of which the individuals are barely aware. People are aggrieved at not getting the recognition, acknowledgement, dignity, respect, or empathy they deserve. No empathy; no sex. Too much empathy? Not enough empathy? Sometimes we humans just can’t get a break. Finding a balance is challenging. 

Therefore, I propose an alternative point of view to de Botton. You know how gray is the new black in fashion? Well, empathy is the new love. It is what people are really hungry for – another person who “gets you” as the possibility you authentically are. That is the ultimate turn on. Still, a wide spectrum exists between tenderness and Tarzan, between empathy and ejaculation. Therefore, if that involves putting on an animal skin loin cloth (only to take it off at the right time), definitely consider the possibility. Never was it truer, “when you’re hot, you’re hot; when you’re not, you’re not.”

The recommendation? “In a perfect world, all couples would be visited by a psychotherapist on a weekly basis […]” (p. 119). The therapy? Here we get to the title of How to Think More About Sex: “The idea persists that too much thinking might make it impossible for us to feel – as if it weren’t already quite plainly apparent that a large and constant amount of thinking may be the only thing that can keep us from destroying each other (p. 121). 

And what indeed should we be thinking? “[…] Our culture locates the primary difficulty of relationships in finding the ‘right’ person rather than in knowing how to love a real – that is, a necessarily rather unright – human being” (p, 121). 

De Botton raises the point that failure to have regular sex may not be pathological (p. 105). He Botton has little use for internet porn, and his position is clear. “The entire internet is in a sense pornographic, a deliverer of a constant excitement that we have no innate capacity to resist, a seducer that leads us down paths that for the most part do nothing to answer our real needs” (p. 133). He considers internet porn in the same category as alcohol and street drugs, undermining “our ability to endure certain kinds of suffering which we have to experience if we are to direct our lives properly” (p. 130).

Regarding adultery, de Botton tries to illuminate this blind spot of hypocrisy and broken word through a mixture of cynicism, resignation, and reverse psychology. In so many words, he says people who are able to be faithful over the long term should get a major award or at least a medal. It is a high bar, faithfulness, involving significant sacrifice for their love and for their children. Keeping one’s word is rarely easy. He does not mention that lack of real opportunity saves most people from slipping up. The fervent prayer “Lord, lead me into temptation” remains unanswered. He counsels forgiveness for those who stray from the path of faithfulness, also acknowledging how hard it can be to get to forgiveness. 

Alain de Botton’s How to Think More About Sex is a concise book of a modest 179 pages, and a quick read. It is fully buzzword compliant, covering evolutionary psychology, which gets cited as accurate enough but not that helpful interpersonally, fetishes (with reference to Richard Krafft-Ebing Psychopathia Sexualis (1886)), evolutionary psychology, Michelangelo Caravaggio’s “Judith beheading Holofernes” (1599), Freud, Masters and Johnson on Human Sexual Inadequacy (1970) (with an illustration of a penis), and a draft of a deeply Schopenhauerian marriage contract (p. 162). (By the way, Schopenhauer never married.)

De Botton blames the bourgeois ideology that the best and only reason to get married is for love. And he counsels changing the vows: “I promise to be disappointed by you and you alone. I promise to make you the role repository of my regrets, rather than to distribute them widely through multiple affairs and a life of sexual Don Juanism [the male-centric perspective is hereby noted]. I have surveyed the different options for unhappiness, and it is you I have chosen to commit myself to” (p. 162). In case of the breakdown of adultery, the betrayed partner may justifiably complain: “I was relying on you to be loyal to the specific variety of disappointment that I represent” (p. 162).  Finally, with Alain de Botton’s How to Think More about Sex, I did. I also both laughed and cried, and you will too.  

(C) Lou Agosta, PhD and the Chicago Empathy Project