How to Think More About S-E-X

how to think more about

I know what you’re thinking.  “More?  How could I possibly think more?”

But Alain de Botton’s How to Think More About Sex explores a qualitative more rather than a quantitative one.  A philosophical quandary rather than a sensual meandering.  In short, he explores ideas on how to think about it generally (he uses the catchy term “sex,” but it applies to all aspects of romance, relationships, and love), but does not share specific spicy episodes.


****DISCLAIMER- It hopefully goes without saying, but I don’t necessarily agree with the vast majority of his ideas.  But I found them interesting nevertheless.****Some statements certainly make you think:

“We seem to crave sex only with people we don’t love.”

And for the literature lover:

“Books retain a role in offering us consoling reminders that we are not alone with the humiliating and peculiar difficulties imposed by our unavoidable possession of a sex drive.”

For the personal space appreciater:

“It goes almost without saying that the majority of people we encounter will be not merely uninterested in having sex with us but positively revolted by the idea.  We have no choice but to keep a minimum of sixty, or, even better, ninety centimeters’ distance between us and them at all times, to make it absolutely clear that our compromised selves have no intention of intruding into their personal spheres.”

He did propose a very curious Scarlett Johansson/Natalie Portman test.  Who do you, just off the top of your head, think more attractive?  Why?  Why do we have such pronounced individual preferences?  He goes into an interesting analysis, based on your answer.

To the discouraged, he offers hope:

“We don’t have to take sexual rejection as a sure indication that another person has looked into our soul and registered disgust at every aspect of our being.  The reality is usually much simpler and less shattering than that: for whatever reason, this particular individual just can’t get turned on by our body.  We can take comfort in the knowledge that such a verdict is automatic, preconscious, and immutable.”

He shares many of the ideas through a fictional couple, the man being named Jim.  When “frequency” lapses, he indicates that Jim develops a “madman’s memory for dates.”  I have no idea what he is talking about here.

He talks about the Freud principle- “Where they love, they have no desire, and where they desire, they cannot love.”  Is that your experience?

Of the mid-life crisis:

“When men and women abandon long-established relationships to take up with new and younger lovers, their actions are often interpreted as being motivated by a simple and rather pathetic search for lost youth.  The deeper, subconscious reason, however, may be more poignant: those who leave may be endeavouring to escape parental ghosts that seem to have subsumed their partners and, as a result, rendered impossible any sexual intimacy with them.”

On pornography- “The real question of the age is why a man might ever choose to lead his own life rather than just click on, obsessively.”  A consideration, certainly.  Especially in this all-internet-all-the-time age.


“Pornography, like alcohol and drugs, undermines our ability to endure certain kinds of suffering which we have to experience if we are to direct our lives properly.  More specifically, it reduces our capacity to tolerate our ambiguous moods of free-floating worry and boredom…The entire internet is in a sense pornographic, a deliverer of 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.”

He quotes from John Stuart Mill’s essay On Liberty (1859): “The only freedom which deserves the name, is that of pursuing our own good in our own way, so long as we do not attempt to deprive others of theirs, or impede their efforts to obtain it.  Each is the proper guardian of his own health, whether bodily, or mental and spiritual.”  Can you see the implications for one’s romantic life?

There has been a lot of talk in the media/blogosphere here lately, and I’m not saying wrongly, about modesty and the objectification of women.  He offers:

“Secular societies have no problem with bikinis or sexual provocation because, among other things, they do not believe that sexuality and beauty have such extraordinary power over people.  Men are presumed to be entirely capable of watching a group of young women cavort, whether online or in the flesh, and then getting on with their lives as though nothing out of the ordinary had just happened.”

Inevitably perhaps, he gets into the concept of balance, and what role repression plays in that:

“A portion of our libido has to be forced underground for our own good; repression is not just for Catholics, Muslims and the Victorians, but for all of us and for eternity.  Because we have to go to work, commit ourselves to relationships, care for our children and explore our own minds, we cannot allow our sexual urges to express themselves without limit, online or otherwise; left to run free, they destroy us.”

He takes some controversial stances in the books, particularly in the areas of adultery/fidelity:

“It can too easily seem as if the adulterous spouse has done everything wrong, and the sexually pure one nothing.  But this is an abbreviated understanding of what ‘wrong’ entails.  Certainly adultery grabs the headlines, but there are lesser, though no less powerful, ways to betray a partner, including not talking to him or her enough, seeming distracted, being ill-tempered or simply failing to evolve and enchant.”

And not just exceptionally romantic, he proffers:

“A spouse who gets angry at having been betrayed is evading a basic, tragic truth: that no one can be everything to one person…[T]he real fault in the situation lies in the ethos of modern marriage, with its insane ambitions and its insistence that one person can plausibly hope to embody the eternal sexual and emotional solution to another’s every need.”

Flipping the coin once more: “if seeing marriage as the perfect answer to all our hopes for love, sex and family is naive and misguided, so too is believing that adultery can be an effective antidote to the disappointments of marriage…What is ultimately ‘wrong’ with the idea of adultery, as with a certain idea of marriage, is its idealism.”

As one of the areas I specifically don’t agree with, but did find very thought-provoking:

‘The three things we want in this sphere– love, sex, and family — each affects and harms the others in devilish ways.  Loving a person may inhibit our ability to have sex with him or her.  Having a secret tryst with someone we don’t love but do find attractive can endanger our relationship with the spouse we love but are no longer turned on by.  Having children can imperil both love and sex, but yet neglecting the kids in order to focus on our marriage or our sexual thrills may threaten the health and mental stability of the next generation.”

So what’s the solution?  Brutal honesty?  Open marriage?  No marriage?  The wedding vows he proposes in the new enlightened/open ideal, not for their romance, but their “generously pessimistic” and “kindly unromanntic” honesty/realistic-ness:

“I promise to be disappointed by you and you alone.  I promise to male you the sole repository of my regrets, rather than to distribute them widely through multiple affairs and a life of sexual Don Juanism.  I have surveyed the different options for unhappiness, and it is you I have chosen to commit myself to.”

“Thereafter,” he continues, “an affair would be a betrayal only of the reciprocal pledge to be disappointed in a particular way, not of an unrealistic hope.  Spouses who had been cheated upon would no longer furiously complain that they had expected their partner to be happy with them per se.  Instead they could more poignantly and justly cry, ‘I was relying on you to be loyal to the specific variety of disappointment that I represent.”

Charming, right?

It gets better:

“To honour every one of our emotions would be to annul any chance of leading a coherent life.  We could not be fulfilling if we weren’t inauthentic some of the time, perhaps even a lot of it — inauthentic, that is, in relation to such things as our passing desires to throttle our children, poison our spouse or end our marriage over a dispute about changing a light bulb.”


“Too many people start off in relationships by putting the moral emphasis in the wrong place, smugly mocking the urge to stray as if it were something disgusting and unthinkable.  But in truth, it is the ability to stay that is both wondrous and worthy of honour, though it is too often simply taken for granted and deemed the normal state of affairs.  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.”

Do you think so?

I can’t help but wonder what his growing up was like when I read:

“We might be so much better off if we didn’t have a sex drive; for most of our lives, it causes us nothing but trouble and distress.  In its name, we do revolting things with people we don’t really like, only to feel disgusting and sinful afterwards.  Those we desire usually dismiss us for being too ugly or not their type; the cute ones have always got a boyfriend or girlfriend; most of our adult life is a continuous round of rejection, sad music and bad pornography.”

Can we relate to some or any of this?  Is there any truth here?  Is he right?  Of course we’re not going to admit it here; it’s a delicate topic.  Not exactly a romantic or hopeful outlook.  But certainly lots to think about.

Towards the end, by way of solution/explanation, he recommends Ingar Bergman’s “Scenes from a Marriage.”  I’ll check it out, and get back to you.

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