The Philosophy of Sex
The problem isn’t that we’re thinking too much about sex, it’s that we’re thinking about it in all the wrong ways. That’s the argument of philosopher Alain de Botton in his latest digestible treatise, “How to Think More About Sex,” which attempts to set us straight without neutering us. It’s a bite-sized book that applies a philosophical lens to our modern sexual reality — from infidelity to impotence, intimacy to Internet porn (and those are just the i’s).
But it’s no Human Sexuality textbook: De Botton, author of the bestseller “How Proust Can Change Your Life,” is more concerned with big ideas than hard evidence. For example, he writes, “The more closely we analyze what we consider ‘sexy,’ the more clearly we will understand that eroticism is the feeling of excitement we experience at finding another human being who shares our values and our sense of the meaning of existence.”
This seems intuitively true and wise, doesn’t it? But desire is not so easily explained. It requires great temerity to make such grand, un-footnoted generalizations given that sex researchers continue to devote their lives to finding empirical evidence to answer such big questions, and such research is often highly nuanced and not easily summarized.
Then again, some truths are better told in philosophical pronouncements than in pie charts. If you get off on intelligent generalizations about sex that are made alongside highly subjective arguments about the act, “How to Think More About Sex” is absolutely the book for you — but not so much if you have a fetish for objective, peer-reviewed fact-facts. If, like me, you’re a Kinsey three on that particular scale of science-to-philosophizing, the book is at times a total turn-on, at others disappointing. To the latter, de Botton takes creative liberties in imagining what a sexual preference for Scarlett Johansson or Natalie Portman must mean about one’s childhood. (“If we were traumatized by overly theatrical and unreliable parents, we may decide that something about Scarlett’s features suggests the she has just a little too much of a taste for excitement.”)
The book is full of brilliant maxims, worthy of only the most refined of refrigerator doors, about our misperceptions surrounding sex, like this one: “We are universally deviant — but only in relation to some highly distorted ideals of normality.” His discussion of how we seek to overcome loneliness and isolation with sex is often gorgeously poetic (“deep inside, we never quite forget the needs with which we were born: to be accepted as we are, without regard to our deeds; to be loved through the medium of our body; to be enclosed in another’s arms; to occasion delight with the smell of our skin — all of these needs inspiring our relentless and passionately idealistic quest for someone to kiss and sleep with”). De Botton’s most inspired points come when he’s dispensing advice on everything from how to keep desire alive in long-term relationships to what to do (or not do) about adultery. It’s like Cosmo meets Plato — finally!
I spoke by phone to de Botton in London, where he established The School of Life (a secular intellectual “church” of sorts), about evolving models of marriage, what evolutionary psychology gets wrong about sex and his argument for censoring pornography in the name of freedom.
What are some of the biggest lies we tell ourselves about sex?
I think one of the biggest lies that society tells us is that sex is easy and straightforward — that sex used to be complicated for our 19th century ancestors, but now we’ve come to grips with it, and now we can laugh about things that in the past were sources of shame and embarrassment. We’ve got this narrative that people were repressed before and now they’re liberated; of course, that’s not true at all. Sex is not something you can be liberated from in any kind of definitive way. It’s constitutionally problematic.
And why is it so “constitutionally problematic”?
Sex runs counter to so many of the other things that we want to do in life. The standard narrative that we tell ourselves is that sex neatly tucks in as a subset of romantic love, leading to long-term relationships. That’s the kind of beautiful fairytale that we tell ourselves, but the reality is that it’s constantly in conflict — with the project of doing work, the project of raising children and, of course, the project of living with one person in a monogamous relationship over four decades. We have these conflicts relating to sex, and that leads to self-division in a classic kind of Christian sense — that sex can become evil and people have to deny themselves sex and feel terribly guilty about sex. According to a liberated view, that’s just ridiculous — why not relax about the whole thing? But it’s not really possible to relax, given these conflicts.
Let’s talk adultery. You highlight just how unrealistic sexual monogamy can be over the course of a decades-long marriage, but you don’t advocate for open marriage. Why not?
I think the subject has been made unnecessarily simple by people saying either, “Why not just have open marriages,” or “Why not just stop being disgusting and give up on adulterous urges.” Both positions are beautifully and impossibly reductive. There are serious problems with monogamy and there are serious problems with open marriages. The ’60s were all about looking for solutions, but there really aren’t any. There’s lots of things in life to which we have no solution, the biggest one being death. I don’t want to be obtuse about this, but I think there is some benefit in playing around with the lack of solutions in one’s mind and sort of sitting around the campfire and weeping together about the difficulties. I think the tension between the desire for a committed long-term relationship and the desire for exciting sex, that’s a real tension that just can’t go away.
You detail in the book how our notions of marriage have evolved over time — it’s only very recently that we began to expect a marriage to be based on family, love and passion. What do you think of this current formulation — is it wrong? Is there a better one?
No. I think in so far as there is a solution, the solution is to be hyper-aware of the situation that we’re in. In other words, danger signs for me are people who go, “Oh great, we’re gonna get married and live happily ever after,” or, “Ah, no problem, we’ll just have a policy of open marriage and cynical secrets.” Anything that seems naive in one way or another — and I think you can be cynically naive or naive about cynicism — it’s gonna be a problem.
You don’t buy many of evolutionary psychology’s explanations regarding love and sex. Where does the evo-psych perspective fail most dramatically?
It sounds trivial, but it’s boring. The reason why it’s boring is, though it’s an explanation, it doesn’t latch onto so many of the emotions and desires that are actually going on. Imagine an evolutionary psychology explanation of why we go to a beautiful Japanese restaurant. Someone goes, “Oh, I know exactly what’s going on! This is simply to survive and then propagate the species.” You want to go, “Come on, guys. You’re right, that’s true, but that doesn’t explain why the miso soup was particularly interesting or the edamame beans were very special or whatever it is.” The reason I have a knock at these guys is they so dominate the field of discussion around sex.
And what we find sexy or the reasons why we find things sexy are two of the things that you find evolutionary psychology doesn’t explain very well, right?
It doesn’t explain why it’s really exciting to have sex with someone. It’s not like it feels fantastic simply because we’re furthering the species. The explanation is reductive; it doesn’t explain what we’re feeling. It explains why the feeling is ultimately there but not what it feels like to feel it. That’s why I’ve come up with this theory that it’s really all about loneliness — that overcoming of loneliness is sexy. That’s the reason that certain themes are sexy: they’re connected up with trust and the building of a private world between two lovers. I look at things like oral sex and I go, what is this from an evolutionary psychological perspective? It makes no sense. I think the answer is that psychologically it’s exciting because it’s trust. There’s this really dirty, private side of me, and you’re going to get involved with it, with your mouth, which is the most social and everyday sensory organ. Sexiness is psychological. It’s not bodily, and it’s not just evolutionary.
On the point of loneliness, you write about the power of exploring with a partner personal fantasies that we might worry are disgusting as a way of overcoming our sense of loneliness and isolation.
Exactly, exactly. You feel properly accepted, and that’s a very rare thing. I’m just struck by how different sex is from most of the other stuff we do. Most of the time we’re polite and restrained, and then there’s this thing that we do that’s important because the rest of life is often about a lot of renunciation and a lot of coldness.
Given that, you might expect couples to have more sex the longer they stay together, and yet that’s often not the case. How come that sexual drive to be fully known and accepted doesn’t persist in long-term relationships?
I think human beings have a need to be in the middle between closeness and distance. Too much distance and things get cold and lonely, and too much closeness and things dissolve and get oppressive. We always want to be somewhere in the middle. When a long-term relationships gets too close, the problem is that sex, which is the ultimate act of closeness, becomes in a way unnecessary and unexciting. The reason why the first time you have sex with someone it’s so exciting is because then you’re able to travel the maximum distance from loneliness to closeness, and you feel the excitement of that journey. But once you’re there, once you’ve settled with someone, the interest can wane away.
How do we solve that problem of decreasing desire?
I don’t think that there’s a magical solution. I throw up various smaller solutions, one of them is going to a hotel, changing the physical environment in which you are and trying to remember who the person was that you once desired on the first date. One of the depressing things about long-term relationships is that people forget that their partners are desirable to others. They take each other horribly for granted.
You made headlines a while back by announcing that it was time to make better pornography. What would that look like?
Pornography is a big problem in the sense that it’s here to stay, and yet many people — women, men, the parents of adolescent boys — have got problems with it. The problem is whether the good things of life, like trust and intelligence and kindness, can be part of pornography, rather than pornography being an island that is simply vulgar, exploitative, stupid, unkind. We combine some of the things that we like in the rest of life and make sure that they’re there in pornography. On the whole, that hasn’t happened; there’s been a market failure. Part of the reason is that so-called serious people do not want to get involved in this area. It’s not something that respectable people think about; it just gets abandoned. Imagine a world where eating was taken to be such a disgusting thing, something you do by yourself in a hurry — imagine if culinary art was seen as something a normal person wouldn’t get involved with — that’s where we are with pornography now. I myself am not going to make pornography — I’ve got too many other things to do — but I think someone should; there are signs of hope, and the Internet has freed things up. It’s still bizarre how bad most pornography is.
Is there something about the fact that most pornography does so contradict our carefully crafted edifice of civilization … is that part of what we like about it?
There is an argument that says, “It’s supposed to be disgusting, that’s the point.” I don’t necessarily agree with that. Pornography can be, and perhaps should be at times, violent and extreme, just as Shakespeare’s “Julius Caesar” is violent and extreme. But there’s good violence and then there’s hooliganism. This is at the level of brute violence rather than beautifully artistic violence such as you might see in “Julius Caesar.”
At one point in the book you write, “perhaps we can come to see the point of censoring the Internet and applaud any government attempts to reduce the ready and unchecked flow of pornography.” How serious are you, what sort of attempts do you mean?
I think it’s a very tricky and sensitive topic, but I think it’s worth talking about it. It goes right to the heart of what we mean by freedom in a society. You can run the same argument through gun laws: Some people go, “It is my freedom to own a gun. And you are infringing my freedom if you don’t allow me to own a submachine gun.” And other people will go, “Hold on a minute, that is not a freedom. It’s not a freedom to kill someone.” It’s the same argument with pornography: Some people will go, “Look, it is my freedom to watch people be excruciatingly treated in pornographic films at the click of a button.” Many people with gun laws and pornography would probably say that, actually, freedom doesn’t just mean being allowed to do anything, that there has to be some kind of qualitative criteria of freedom.
Is it possible to resolve the conflict between our sexual desires and our desire to be civilized and ordered?
No, it’s not. These things will always be in conflict within human beings. Which is why we really need to laugh, actually, and forgive ourselves and forgive others and be aware of the craziness that having a sex drive generates. It’s not a subject which we’re going to be able to neatly file away. It’s permanent chaos.