Alain de Botton is a writer who, at least for me, defies easy description. Although he has written novels, I think of him more as an essayist or public thinker. He might be described as a philosopher, but he doesn't seem to fit the traditional category of philosophy. Suffice it to say that his writing is a pleasure to read, thoughtful and though-provoking, timeless and relevant.
His recent book, How to Think More About Sex, places the emphasis on think much more than on sex, as you might expect from a writer of his caliber. This is not a book of titillation, nor is it a sex manual, or a biological study. De Botton takes this usually unmentionable subject and presents reflections that build appreciation for our relationships.
The book is filled with passages that made me smile and think, that's true, but I never thought of it like that before. For instance, the attractive/revolting nature of the act itself. "At the precise juncture where disgust could be at its height, we find only welcome and permission. The privileged nature of the union between two people is sealed by an act that, with someone else, would have horrified them both." He continues, "Lovemaking purifies us by engaging the most apparently polluted sides of ourselves in the procedures and thereby anointing them as newly worthy. This is never more true than when we press our faces, the most public and respectable aspects of ourselves, eagerly against our lovers' most private and 'contaminated' parts . . . thus symbolically lending our approval to their entire selves."
Of course the subject of sex lends itself to humor, which he has plenty of, but it's more understated and observational than bawdy or tasteless. "One of the difficulties of sex is that it doesn't--in the grander scheme of things--last terribly long. Even at its extreme, we are talking of an activity that might only rarely occupy two hours, or approximately the length of a Catholic Mass." And the sex act itself is not merely about physical intimacy; "rather, it is an ecstasy we feel at encountering someone who may be able to put to rest certain of our greatest fears, and whom we may home to build a shared life based upon common values."
Despite his non-religious perspective (he is an atheist who has an admiration for religious culture and values), his writing has sparks of religious themes and Christian morality. He admires the monogamist impulse of religious ethics. Against the temptation to stray, both physically and mentally (as with pornography), "we should be able to see for ourselves that untrammeled liberty can paradoxically trap us, and that . . . we might be doing ourselves a favor if we willingly consented to cede certain of our privileges to a benign supervisory entity."
Regarding adultery, he recognizes that "few marriages . . . perfectly fuse together the three golden strands of fulfillment--romantic, erotic, and familial," but that even in an imperfect or incomplete marriage, "it is impossible to sleep with someone outside of marriage and not spoil the things we care about inside it. . . . That a couple should be willing to watch their lives go by from within the cage of marriage, without acting on outside sexual impulses, is a miracle of civilization and kindness for which they ought both to feel grateful on a daily basis."
Don't get me wrong; de Botton's sexual ethic may not pass muster for a Sunday school curriculum. But, as he intended, we can all learn a bit more about ourselves and our relationships, thinking more about sex. If nothing else, de Botton will help us not take sex, and our sexual partners, for granted. I love his advice for the bored or complacent: "We might learn to effect on our spouse much the same imaginative transformation that Manet performed on his vegetables. We should try to locate the good and the beautiful beneath the layers of habit and routine. . . . [We may] have forgotten that dimension in him or her that remains adventurous, impetuous, cheeky, intelligent and, above all else, alive." The way I read that is treasure your spouse, view her with eyes that see her as no one else does. Sounds like good advice to me.
Thanks to NetGalley and the publisher for the complimentary electronic review copy.
on October 6, 2012
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.
on December 25, 2012
[Let me preface this review by saying I've been reading Alain de Botton for more than a decade and have typically enjoyed his work. When I saw this new release, I was so excited that I preordered it on Kindle months ago and was surprised when it arrived the morning of Christmas Eve]
I have to say, I'm a bit disappointed with the views presented in "How To Think More About Sex". Initially, de Botton presents some stark and sobering realities of sex within long-term relationships and offers up several dilemmas that he intends to explore. However, his idea of exploration is more like flip-flopping on specific issues (e.g. Adultery). First we get the cons, then the pros and then... he just settles somewhere in the middle. Even his Conclusion section feels limp, ending on a "sex is what it is" sort of note.
While this approach technically makes good on the title's promise, it doesn't seem to realize the full potential of the topic of sex, instead remaining rather timidly within the conventions of everyday life and stereotypical relationships. Where are the daring challenges to accepted conventions, the bold analysis of how society's relationship with sex changes as society (and to some extent humanity) also change?
We see just how constricted de Botton's thinking is when he talks about pornography. He states that only those "whose logical selves have never been obliterated by the full force of sex" can remain 'modern' on the subject of porn, going on to promote censorship of such materials as "necessary both for mental health of our species and for the adequate functioning of a decently ordered and loving society". According to de Botton:
"Pornography asks that we leave behind our ethics, our aesthetic aense and our intelligence when we contemplate it, in order that we give ourselves over wholly to the most mindless sort of lust. The plots are daft, the lines of dialogue absurd, the actors exploited, the interiors ugly and the photographs voyeuristic."
de Botton's remarks are technophobic and, along with the entire 'Pornography' chapter, read like the heavy-handed generalizations of someone who has little breadth of experience of the subject at hand. Pornography can be found in a multitude of media, with vastly differing degrees of absurdity, aesthetics and intelligence. The fact that de Botton failed to discover more holistically engaging forms of porn is no excuse for his backwards views.
Furthermore, de Botton seems to be unable to conceive of a world where regular pornography viewing might benefit an individual, single or otherwise. Sure, there are those who may abuse pornography and may lead a "lesser" life (quotes for subjectivity on de Botton's part), but who is he to suggest censorship? And once we adopt his--or anyone else's--subjective morality, where we do we stop?
3.5 out 5 stars, with serious points off for de Botton pushing his own morality without even a cursory attempt to explore how society might embrace change rather than run away from it
on September 14, 2013
The passages quoted from the book are beautifully written and sound like a refreshing take on thinking about sex. de Botton is clearly an excellent writer, and the beginning of the book is so very promising. For example: "Ultimately, sex is a grounding mechanism that reminds us of our own imperfect humanity, and in that imperfection lies the messy richness of being human" and "We are granted an extraordinary opportunity to feel comfortable in our own skin wen a willing and generous lover invites us to say or do the very worst things we can imagine."
Beautiful, yes? Selectively quote a book and you can make anything sound wonderful, even to the extent of giving the impression that it is about the exact opposite of its actual content. In this case, the content is primarily that we should feel shame about sex, and focus on it LESS. I still haven't figured out why the book is titled "How to Think More About Sex."
To start, an amped-up version of Freudianism appears when the author insists that the reason the amount of sex had in a relationship diminishes over time because we start to see our partners as our parents, and sex with our parents is icky. Since this is normal and inevitable, we should resign ourselves to this state and disregard our sexual impulses. But don't go assuming that you're in the clear if you just give up on expecting to have sex with your partner. Want to watch porn? Congratulations. You are destroying society.
"The associated waste of time is naturally horrific. Financial analysts put the value of the online pornography industry at $10 billion a year, but this figure doesn't begin to evoke its true cost in terms of squandered human energy: perhaps as many as two hundred million man-hours annually that might otherwise have been devoted to starting companies, raising children, curing cancer, writing masterpieces or sorting out the attic, are instead spent ogling the mesmerizing pages of [porn] sites."
You could be curing cancer! How selfish to spend that time and energy on porn. Besides, you really should have known since "how deeply contrary pornography is to the rest of our plans and inclinations becomes clear only after orgasm. Where just a moment before we might have sacrificed our worldly goods for one more click, now we must confront with horror and shame the temporary abandonment of our sanity." That's right, watching porn and masturbating should make you feel immediately ashamed and horrified.
If all this stress leads to some impotence, worry not. It just means you're a good and ethical human because:
"...what is often termed 'nerves' in a man, far from being a problem, is in fact an asset that should be sought out and valued as evidence of an evolved type of kindness. The fear of being disgusting, absurd or a disappointment to someone else is a first sign of morality. Impotence is an achievement of the ethical imagination - so much so that in the future, we men might learn to act out episodes of the condition as a way of signaling our depth of spirit, just as today we furtively swallow Viagra tablets in the bathroom to prove the extent of our manliness."
Perhaps we should start having Impotence Pride Day to celebrate our evolution.
Who can we turn to for guidance around our sexuality? According to de Botton, religion (specifically Judeo-Christian religions) is the answer. Without religion, we in the West would have been devoid of any sense of morality or ethics. He states, "Reason and kindness had not yet intruded upon the free flow of animal impulses - nor, in the West, would they do so convincingly for many millennia to come, until the influences of classical philosophy and Judeo-Christian ethics at last percolated through the general population in the centuries after the death of Christ." Not only are we finally kind and reasonable, we can absolutely rely on religion to dictate how we should think about sex and sexuality.
"Only religions still take sex seriously, in the sense of properly respecting its power to turn us away from our priorities. Only religions see it as something potentially dangerous and needing to be guarded against. We may not sympathize with what they would wish us to think about in the place of sex, and we may not like the way they go about trying to censor it, but we can surely - though perhaps only after killing many hours online at [porn site] - appreciate that on this one point religions have got it right: sex and sexual images can overwhelm our higher rational faculties with depressing ease."
(Who exactly does de Botton think creates and maintains religions? It's the very people he insists are unable to overcome their impulses and hormones, and who set aside all goodness for the sake of a quick orgasm.)
Religion will help us kick our porn habit by redefining pornography.
"The new pornography would combine sexual excitement with an interest in other human ideals. The usual animalistic categories and hackneyed plots, replete with stock characters seemingly incapable of coherent speech, would give way to pornographic images and scenarios based around such qualities as intelligence (showing people reading or wandering the stacks in libraries), kindness (people performing oral sex on one another with an air of sweetness and regard) or humility (people caught looking embarrassed, shy or self-conscious). No longer would we have to make a painful choice between being human and being sexual."
Can't you just imagine it? Whole shelves devoted to library porn. Perhaps we can have some really hard-core stuff like videos of people studying physics or organic chem. Mmm... I'm getting wet already.
Turning to religion will also improve our marriages, which also happens "to suit children well. It spares them anxiety over the consequences of their parents' arguments: they can feel confident that their mum and dad like each other well enough to work things out, even though they may bicker and fight every day, as kids themselves do in the playground." Staying together for the kids, even if you're fighting all the time, is just so beneficial! de Botton also insists that any sexual exploration outside of a marriage, consensual or not, will destroy the relationship and that staying faithful necessarily means that you will miss out on "some of life's greatest and most important sensory pleasures along the way." But since we're slaves to our urges and hormones, it's pretty likely that we will stray, in which case de Botton has some counterintuitive advice for us:
"Rather than ask their 'betrayers' to say they are sorry, the 'betrayed' might begin by saying sorry themselves - sorry for being themselves, sorry for getting old, sorry for being boring sometimes, sorry for forcing their partners to lie by setting the bar of truthfulness forbiddingly high and (while we are at it), sorry for being human."
Yeah. That'll fix it.
To sum up, all relationships lead to marriage, which is important for children regardless of the health of the relationship. During the course of a marriage, we will start thinking of our spouses as our parents and stop having sex because incest is taboo. Ideally, we will just give up on our sexuality at that point, because watching porn is the equivalent of taking food from starving children and hosting book burnings. If we're lucky, our genitals will stop working entirely. Religion, however, will save us by shaming us into having as little sex as possible, to the extent that we will eventually evolve to find images of people reading erotic. And if we ever make a mistake in all this, don't worry too much. Our partners will apologize for making us do whatever bad thing it is we did.
Or, as the author says towards the end of the book: "We would be so nice without sex - nice in the way that seven-year-old boys and girls are, full of sweetness and wonder about the lives of marmosets or deer."
Never have I wanted so badly to throw a book across the room. This is the most shaming, sex-negative book I've read in ages, and it is shocking that it gets such good reviews.
on January 13, 2013
When I showed my friend this book, he said it looked like something Carrie of "Sex and the City" would read. I sneered. This book? Alain De Botton's slim volume on the philosophy of sexuality, a book so hip there's not even a picture on the cover, just a serif font and the author's name? Pfft. Yeah. Right. Screw yew, dude. This thing was written for the under-sexed, under-Benzo'd undergraduate.
So I sat down and started reading it. De Botton gets off to an obvious but well-stated start. We deal with sex in inefficient, unhealthy and conservative ways. We're clueless when it comes to the subject. Sure, Masters and Johnson can walk you through all the specifics of the "plateau" but can anyone explain concretely the existential dread you feel after hooking up with some random 21 year-old who wears Etnies sneakers and jelly bracelets from Hot Topic? De Botton would call that one of the "peculiar difficulties imposed by our unavoidable possession of a sex drive." (I'd probably agree.)
Before studying the difficulties, De Botton comments on the "pleasures of sex." This first half of the book is very enjoyable -- the author covers how sex can liberate the self, unite people, loosen conceptions of status, dazzle the senses and mind. I especially liked the commentary on how sex is a communion of the "polluted sides of our selves"--accurate, it sounds cool, and it reminds me of "Purity and Danger," the classic wherein society effectively relegates dirt and other nastiness to the outermost periphery of social reality. Sex, then, allows us to transform the profane and forbidden into the honest and the lovely. "At the precise juncture where disgust could be at its height," De Botton writes, "We find only welcome and permission."
The chapter "Can Sexiness Be Profound?" is also very illuminating. De Botton says the "inner beauty vs. outer beauty" eternal deathmatch is dumb. Pithily citing a few no-name studies, De Botton argues that the outside mimics the inside. "Getting turned on is a process that engages the whole self," he says. Who hasn't fantasized beyond the errant sexual thoughts that bubble up when you think of a crush? Who hasn't assigned a love interest the goodness of a minor deity solely on the basis of their cute bum or their nice lips? De Botton argues we are attracted to people because they offer a "promise of happiness." Captivating, encouraging and succinct, it's my favorite section in the book.
The second-half was the book my friend prophesied: a bright pink pop-philosophy tome Carrie Bradshaw would be proud to tote around in her clutch. Focusing more on sexual issues within established relationships, the forecast is grimmer here -- adultery is inevitable, the institution of family is a running joke, sexual rejections are apt at sending one into an "epicentre of suffering." Yikes. o_O De Botton also begins to offer some bizarre advice, culminating in the chapter on adultery, suggesting people enjoy some infidelity or achieve a "colossal failure of the imagination."
Despite a great amount of insight littered throughout, there's an equal amount of weaknesses. Some of De Botton's ideas are just so far removed from reality. My fave: porno of the future should not only take aesthetic cues from the "sexiness" of Renaissance-era Madonnas, but should incorporate "people performing oral sex on one another with an air of sweetness and regard." Excuse me? Does that scene come before or after the gangbang in the "former Soviet Union" De Botton described 20 pages prior? Because, see, any porn industry wherein such films exist ain't ready for "witty" porn stars or "people caught looking embarrassed." (Well, the latter actually exists; it's called "Gay-for-Pay" and I don't think it's the aloofness De Botton had in mind.)
The book ends with a bibliography (annoyingly titled "Homework") in which De Botton claims, "I have learnt about pornography from Pornhub .com," before going on to recommend Natalie Merchant's album "Ophelia." Hmm. At the end of journey, you can't help thinking that maybe De Botton is not the best tour guide for the caverns of human desire. His prose is comfortably sparky, and he expresses his ideas thoughtfully. He makes an impact with big, initial concepts about sex and self, shame and kink. But De Botton leaves the fire unkindled after the first half. He flings some intriguing ideas around before settling into a series of so-so cultural criticisms. (Jane Austen inspired the myth of a perfect marriage! Porn abandons aesthetics! Impotence is a sign of respect! etc. etc.) His chapters on porn and Natalie Portman (separate chapters fyi) are amusing(ly strange) in their own right.
So does De Botton succeed? Does one walk away from "How To Think About Sex" empowered and virile, ready to tame the wild "problem" of sex? No, not really. In his conclusion, De Botton somewhat cops out. "We would be so much better off if we didn't have a sex drive," he writes. Really? 170 pages to glean that gem? De Botton then chalks up sex as just one of those cah-razy things we have to deal with as human beings. Great. Awesome. Now what?
Da Takeaway: De Botton thinks sex is a desirous monster we must approach cautiously. If we win its favor, we're treated to physical bliss, an escape from self, possibly even a completion of self. Still, De Botton reminds us throughout: sex is a force of nature, not some domesticated impulse. Sex is, and will always be, 100-percent cray.
on September 13, 2014
Really enjoyed this book full of grounded and funny insights. I love reading other's thoughts on human nature, especially those who manage to be real, humorous, compassionate and not preachy and this book was all of these. Writers who dare to put their ideas out there, crafted with clarity and love, seem to help me get my own chaos more in order. Not all of the book applied to me but that was okay. I thought the author hit the high points for a wide range of sexuality and that's part of what we might all need to keep in mind - that there is just such a range and we'll all be better for it if we interact with compassion along with a loving acceptance and knowledge of our own truths.
I'm reading a second School of Life book now (How to Stay Sane) and enjoying that as well.
on February 2, 2013
The School of Life, the author's London-based institution of popular learning, "is dedicated to exploring life's big questions." No question about this title, it takes on the biggest one of all. And we get it wrong virtually from the age of puberty on, not because we think too much about it, but because we're "thinking about it the wrong way." So De Botton has his work cut out for him. Five stars. The man makes good on his claim not only to address the question, but to provide answers that readers will find helpful.
He divides the subject into two parts: "The Pleasures of Sex" and "The Problems of Sex". In fact, problems pop up in the pleasures section too. E.g. "One of the difficulties of sex is that it doesn't - in the grander scheme of things - last terribly long." He goes on to point out the consequences. Afterward "One partner or both may have an impulse to fall asleep, read the newspaper or to run away." The problem, he points out, "is typically not the sex itself so much as the contrast" with "the more mundane aspects of the rest of our lives, the external tedium, restraint, difficulty and coldness."
What happens when he wants sex and she wants love is one of the issues he deals with in the problems section. The resulting standoff is likely to leave both him and her unhappy. How do we get to a better outcome? "First, by recognizing that neither need has the moral advantage: Wanting love more than sex, or even instead of it, isn't 'better' or 'worse' than the reverse. Both needs have their place in our human repertoire of feelings and desires. Second, as a society, we have to make sure that these two needs can be freely claimed, without fear of blame or moral condemnation."
His treatment of lack of desire may be the most helpful section of the book, although his discussion of adultery and of pornography have a great deal to offer as well. "The paucity of sex within established relatuonships typically has to do with the difficulty of shifting registers between the everyday and exotic." So what to do? "The solution to long-term sexual stagnation is to learn to see our lover as if we had never laid eyes on him or her before." Change the scenery, he suggests, check into a hotel for a night. "There is no limit to what a shared dip in an alien bath tub may help us achieve."
That gives you a sense of how he tackles the issues sex raises. He writes in straight forward manner, often with a light touch, and always with something useful to say.
End note. My attention was drawn to "How to Think More About Sex" by the description of it in a recent New York Times book review as a "wonderful" example of the recent raft of books of pop psychology and pop philosophy. De Botton's School of Life and its books ranging from "Essays in Love" to "Religion for Atheists" bring to mind the enterprise established by E. Haleman-Julis and his wife Marcel in 1919. Their Little Blue Books dealing with socialism, atheism, and the frank treatment of sexuality among its other offerings (nearly 2000 all told) sold over 100,00,000 million copies in the 1920s. They may not have invented the genre, but they certainly popularized it.
on June 19, 2014
I love the writing style of this book, and there are lots of cool facts about the way our society has viewed sex and love historically. It does not, however, instruct anyone on "how to think more about sex."
on January 21, 2016
Botton shares some strong ideas, but he doesn't do a great job of providing any direction with his insights. Sure, we should have more perspective on everyone's differences, so we aren't so in our own feelings. But what are some ways we can begin to right the ship. Botton tells of a world that is more understanding. How is that to happen? It's a quick and dirty read (no pun intended), which I liked. I'll give his other books a whirl due to this.
on June 14, 2015
One of the best short-form introductions to discussing sex and sexuality in an educated way. I think de Botton's writing is fluid and easy, capable and informed, with an uncanny ability to unite thoughts together while playing with the reader's "co-authorship" of ideas.