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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.


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.

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