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The Philosophy of Sex

In a new book, philosopher Alain de Botton urges us to consider the act more often -- but also more intelligently.

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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.



Tracy Clark-Flory is a staff writer at Salon. Follow @tracyclarkflory on Twitter and Facebook.

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