Alain de Botton Tries Hand at Sex, Fails

Jul 30, 2012 • Books, Culture

Alain de Botton's How To Think More About Sex

We have heard about Alain de Botton’s book How To Think More About Sex from so many people, we decided we had to read it. Their reviews were excellent — “It’s like hearing David Attenborough narrate various sexual situations and philosophize about them at the same time!” one of them said. As you have correctly intuited looking at this page, we enjoy sex. If you’re a long-time reader, you might know we dig philosophy. What you don’t know is that we’re huge fans of nature documentaries, especially those narrated or presented by the aforementioned British broadcaster — so how could we possibly resist? We finally picked up the little book. Indeed, de Botton is such a charmer, we refused to put the book down, and when company arrived shortly after, we took to reading out loud rather than stopping to make polite conversation. And then we got to page 15.

This section, like all the others, is relatively short. Unlike the others, which up until this point are heavier on amusing human experience than theory, this one seeks to make sense of our inherent sense of alienation. In his explanation, de Botton takes us on a journey back through time to our childhoods. The trip is a little Freudian, but we waved our discomfort away. He wasn’t saying anything outright Freudian, after all. He was just saying we’d gone from being adored for no seemingly good reason to having to prove ourselves through our achievements. It’s not like he was suggesting our sexual destinies had any relation to our parents!

We pressed on, heartened by de Botton’s assurances that fetishes are nowhere near as abnormal as they’re made out to be. And then, it happened. Our worst fears were realized: “The precise origins of our enthusiasms may be obscure, but they can almost always be traced back to some meaningful aspect of our childhood: we will be drawn to specific things either because they recall appealing qualities of a beloved parental figure or else, conversely, because they somehow cancel out, or otherwise help us escape, a memory of an early humiliation or terror (p. 30).”

Freud’s name makes an appearance in the next paragraph and the paragraphs following relate the story of a man who becomes excited when he discovers his date is wearing flats (by Marni, a label de Botton likes enough to mention more than he does Freud in this book). The man likes the flats because his mother was a promiscuous actress who always wore very high heels. “Although the man is not aware of it, his psychological history is the omnipresent filter through which he looks at shoes, and by extension at the women wearing them (p. 31),” de Botton writes.

The woman, for her part, is jazzed that her date is wearing an old-fashioned watch because it reminds her of her father (Jung incoming!). The sight of it makes her nipples harden, as she subconsciously recalls her doctor father. She won’t take her eyes off that watch as she and her date have sex. Later, she squeezes his arm between her legs, just to feel the glass against her thighs.

Shortly thereafter, there is a bizarre justification of fetishes via Plato’s Ladder of Love (p.33). It’s not that sexual desire is a natural drive that makes itself manifest in a variety of ways, it’s that fetishes are the first step up a ladder that will lead us to transcendence. Instead of desiring sex like the base little creatures we are, the fetish will send us on a journey, the climax of which involves cloistering ourselves in an ivory tower. Hurrah! Problem solved. Thanks, dude!

If that’s not judgy enough for the casual reader, note the very next page. Shortly after de Botton assures the reader that orgasm really is the supreme moment (ugh), the only time we’re not all alone in this world, he says that analyzing what we consider sexy is “the only way 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.”

Anyone who has experienced chemistry with another person knows that this attraction often has nothing to do with having encountered someone who shares our values or “sense of the meaning of existence,” whatever that is. But apparently those people don’t exist. No, we take that back, they do exist, it says so right on the next page — they’re just doing it wrong (p. 34). Per de Botton:

There are of course ways to have an orgasm that have very little to do with finding common purpose with another person, but these must be thought of as a greater or lesser betrayal of what sex should really be about.

In short: masturbation is not an activity that is natural and healthy or even a decent way to get to learn what we find pleasurable. Neither is it acceptable that we might have sex with people with whom we have no common purpose. After all, if we’re to take to heart the previous paragraph about the importance of sharing values, then what kind of people are we if we commune with individuals who don’t share these values and therefore our purpose?

The next sections jump into “evolutionary-biological interpretation,” which we took to mean science, and which gave us the distinct impression that the author’s research of sex stopped at the work of William H. Masters and Virginia E. Johnson instead of starting there. That’s not surprising, though. To accept studies that suggest that what we find attractive may change (as frequently as the place that a woman finds herself in her menstrual cycle, for instance) or that it may be related to our immune systems, would compromise the theory that our parents define our sexuality, which is central to this work.

So instead of giving us information, de Botton assures us that science has no compelling answer as to why our tastes are so varied. Lacking that and in order to help us better understand why we prefer some people over others, he brings us a 1907 essay by the German art historian Wilhem Worringer titled Abstraction and Empathy (because who is an expert on sex if not an art historian?). “Worringer argued that we all grow up with something missing inside us (p. 50),” de Botton summarizes. “Our parents and our environment fail us in distinctive ways, and our characters hence take shape with certain areas of vulnerability and imbalance in them. And crucially, these deficits and flaws determine what is going to appeal to us and repel us in art.”

Art, which possesses “a particular psychological and moral atmosphere” speaks to our “psychological histories,” and as a result, we like the pieces that compensate for what is missing in our lives. Essentially, if you like vivid art, you are a desiccated and sterile soul. Surely you suspected. And God help our editrix, who is ever so fond of the hyper-structured Composition A by Piet Mondrian. Clearly she’s a sociopath (and surely in love with her father!).

Joking aside, de Botton goes on to extend Worringer’s ideas to human attraction, posing that we are attracted to other people because we see in them what we are missing in ourselves. Not content to reinforce the unhealthy (if slightly romantic) notion that we need another human to be “complete,” de Botton pens an ode to the virgin/whore construct by comparing Scarlett Johansson’s features to those of Natalie Portman, giving each a completely subjective meaning (“her cheeknoes indicate a capacity for self-involvement,” he says of Johansson). “We end up favoring Natalie, who is objectively no more beautiful than Scarlett, because her eyes reflect just the sort of calm that we long for and never got enough of from our hypochondriacal mother (p. 56).”

That unfortunate dichotomy comes up again later when de Botton accuses women of also engaging in it (via the “nice guy/bastard complex” p. 71) as part of a discussion on why it is difficult to keep passion alive in long-term relationships. Unfortunately, before we can really understand what he is trying to say, we’re back to Freud, this time to visit “On the Universal Tendency to Debasement in the Sphere of Love.” Those who are familiar with it may take a moment to roll their eyes here.

For those of you who aren’t, let us summarize the logic of this chapter: we were denied sex with the people who taught us what love is (our parents); as a result, we seek our parents in lovers; we become weirded out by (and thus unable to have sex with) our long-term partners as they begin to age and we recognize our parents in them; and this is why some are so likely to run off with a younger lover. This is not a pathetic search for lost youth! This is poignant! “The parental ghosts have subsumed their partners and, as a result, rendered impossible any sexual intimacy with them (p. 74).”

There are a lot of utterly fascinating explanations like these in this book. The next whopper suggests that impotence is a problem of civility (p. 84). If men didn’t care so much about their partner’s desire, pleasure, comfort and well-being, psychological impotence would not exist. The author points at caveman times as an ideal. He writes:

The early humanoids … may have had a hard time finding food, evading dangerous animals, sewing underpants and communicating with faraway relatives, but having sex was a simple matter for them, because the one question that almost certainly never ran through the minds of male hunters as they lifted themselves up on their hirsute limbs was whether their partners were going to be in the mood that night — or whether they might instead feel revolted or bored by the sight of a penis, or just keen to spend a quiet evening tending to the fire.

[…] The greater our power of imagination, the more acute and amplified will be our apprehension about giving offense — to the extent that when sex is a legitimate possibility, our doubts may prove impossible to cast aside, with fatal consequence, if we are male, for our ability to maintain an erection. It is civilization itself, with its faith in human rights, its respect for kindness and its moral sophistication, which has unwittingly generated an inestimable increase in occasions of sexual fiasco.”

We have heard similar, if less eloquent, arguments about this before. Usually they just go “FEMINISM RUINED EVERYTHING.” We’re not sorry.

And while there are conversations that should be had about the way men are oppressed via modern and vestigial constructs of “masculinity,” we’re really not crazy about the idea that — instead of continuing to explore and attempt to rectify impotence scientifically — we ought to award impotent men, as de Botton suggests. We wouldn’t award impotent men for their “depth of spirit” any more than we would award women suffering from vaginismus. Demystify and destigmatize? Yes. Award? Come on, really? (And isn’t it funny how the award idea starts to break down when you swap impotence with vaginismus?)

This book really should have been titled It’s Not Our Fault. From the first chapter, readers are told our childhoods and parents are at fault or somehow responsible for our desires. Our choices — in art and sex and beyond — are shaped by the subsequent deficiencies within our “psychological histories.” Sex is kind of a base thing, but it might lead to something good, and anyway, it’s not our fault, so, we should have it. And since we’re having it, we might as well get married. And since we’re married and sex is getting boring, we might get a third person and watch them have sex with our spouses, or take pictures of our spouses and put them online to see how the world reacts to their bodies, or have sex in hotel rooms instead of at home to try to spice things up. Those are de Botton’s suggestions, half-assedly jotted down, like a slight nod to the fact that some other configuration of sex might exist. His real suggestion, hidden under all those progressive ideas, is actually quite conventional: weekly psychotherapy.

We have no self-awareness, de Botton assures us. We can’t be expected to understand ourselves — what’s the point of talking to our partners? Even if we did take matters into our own hands, we would fail! Enter the psychotherapist, who would ask the couple to arrive every week with a list of complaints to go over and make vague threats about what happens to a long-term union when you don’t have sex at least once a week. “This therapist would belong to a new kind of priesthood,” de Botton muses.

The book could have ended there, but no book about sex is complete without a chapter on pornography. The way this one reads, you’d think pornography was a fairly recent thing in the history of humanity. Pornography, de Botton tells us, is to be blamed for the fact that sales of “serious literature” are down. He mocks people who call it “unthreatening.” Clearly, they have only ever peeked inside an old issue of Playboy or run across crap porn on the adult channel while staying at a hotel. But porn is actually very dangerous, he says — nevermind that modern science suggests otherwise! Science has no real place in the imagination of Alain de Botton. In fact, according to de Botton, porn is bad for science, since it takes up the time researchers could be using to find the cure for cancer (p. 96). Good thing there’s free porn online or imagine how many grants would go up in smoke, folks!

Masturbation and fantasy are in complete opposition to virtue, he argues, and porn is the terrible catalyst. No, not just porn — the entire internet is at fault (p. 102)! The answer, de Botton suggests, is “a bit” of censorship, “if only for the sake of our own well-being and our capacity to flourish.”

If you don’t see how helpful “a bit” of censorship might be, it is because you “have never been obliterated by the full force of sex” (help! We’ve fallen into a Philip Roth novel and we can’t get out!). Religions get this, de Botton reminds us. “Only religions see [sex] as something potentially dangerous and needing to be guarded against. (p 103)” There is a paragraph somewhere in there that seems to obliquely suggest that hijabs and burkas make sense by pointing out the excitement aroused in men by “half-naked teenage girls sauntering provocatively down the beachfront.” Indeed, “a degree of repression is necessary both for the mental health of our species and for the adequate functioning of a decently ordered and loving society.”

Pause here for a moment and consider this carefully: earlier in the book, de Botton offered an example of a woman who pretended that she wanted a relationship just so she could have sex. That was a nice example because it showed that he was aware that women, too, have desires and women, too, want sex. Unfortunately, his considerations for women began and ended in the same place. While he suggests an award for impotence to applaud men’s “depth of spirit,” he completely ignores any sexual issues women face. You caught that, right? Now look at the above paragraph again. See how the discussion of censorship targets women specifically? There is no mention anywhere about men’s audacity to cavort on the beach. It is women who must be covered. It’s the female body that must be censored.

In short: whatever sexual issues women face, they’re not worthy of mention or award. Also, since they’re obviously only here to be desired, their freedoms must be curtailed in favor of public good. You know, since men are beasts incapable of self-control and if you do try to civilize them, you will only succeed in sentencing them to impotence.

Ready to throw the book out the window? Don’t! The next part is the best. Trust us. In a subsection of the porn chapter, de Botton spends some time considering what the ideal kind of pornography would be. This kind of porn “wouldn’t force us to make such a stark choice between sex and virtue — [it would be] a pornography in which sexual desire would be invited to support, rather than permitted to undermine, our higher values.”

Now, never mind that this kind of pornography already exists, that there are a lot of independent directors who already focus on capturing real pleasure, sharing true intimacy between real partners, exploring sex to foster a couple’s bond during pregnancy, etc. It’s highly likely that even if de Botton knew about them, the choices wouldn’t satisfy him. Why? Because his notion of the ideal porn is “not dissimilar” to Christian art (p. 107). “The advantage of having sexual fantasies while looking at Botticelli’s Madonna rather than at a stereotypical product of the modern industry is that the former doesn’t compel us to make an uncomfortable choice between our sexuality and other qualities we aspire towards.”

Sex is the enemy of goodness. It corrupts. It distracts. It is a problem. That, essentially, is the message of Alain de Botton’s How To Think More About Sex. But wait, there’s more! When people step out on their partners, the cheater shouldn’t be abused. It’s the spurned lover who aught to apologize (p. 117): “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 or enchant.” He makes a valid point that we don’t celebrate fidelity enough, that we take it for granted and we shouldn’t, but the point is lost in the avalanche of rubbish.

There are other good points to be sure, three or four, but need to evade responsibility underlying the entire work is toxic: It’s not that I like this because I’m weird, it’s that my psychological history has a deficit; I don’t have a problem getting hard, it’s just that having to care about your feelings makes me impotent; I am not banging our daughter’s friend because there is anything wrong with me, my mother’s specter has subsumed you and now I can’t fuck you and I need someone young so I don’t think about her when I have sex; I am cheating not because I have disregarded a relationship boundary but because you are boring and anyway fidelity is not the norm, etc.

Our final word? Skip it. If you want to think more about sex or are just looking for a beach read, pick up any (or all) of the following:

Mary Roach’s Bonk (2008): This amusing and informative book tracing the development of sexual research will tell you everything we have come to understand about arousal and orgasm (up until 2008). It will even answer the age-old question: How do porcupines mate?

Sharon Maolem How Sex Works (2009): This accessible, addictive book will throw science at you in such a compelling way it will make you wonder if you went into the wrong field. Seriously. Not only does it go over the nitty-gritty of sex, it reaches far beyond it.

Carin Bondar’s The Nature of Human Nature (2010): How many times have you heard someone describe a human mating behavior as “unnatural!”? Prepare to school them the next time (and to feel less weird yourself about your preferences) with this awesomely conversational read featuring parallel examples from a bunch of other species.

Sheril Kirshenbaum’s The Science of Kissing (2011): If science and history had a quickie over lunch, this would be its end result. Don’t be misguided by the title — a kiss is not just a kiss, but the basis for arousal. Curious? Check out the book!

Clarisse Thorn’s The S&M Feminist (2012): Not into science as much as you are into theory? Fair enough: try The S&M Feminist. Doesn’t matter if you’re neither into BDSM or a feminist, this book will get you to think about consent, pleasure and communication in ways you’ve never considered before.

  • Paul Tudor

    A. V. thanks for this – I started reading de Botton about 10 years ago and may well have forked out $$$ for this latest book, but his constant flitting between subjects is irritating, and besides, I don’t get much from his recent stuff.
    Perhaps you should write a book in this vein?

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  • Xjpuil

    I do share a common purpose with everyone I have sex with.

    It’s to have great sex.  

  • Anthony Barcellos

    I once met an MD/PhD researcher who worked in AIDS education and tracked sexual practices in porn videos as one way of investigating the influence of campaigns for safer sex (it turned out that condoms became common in gay videos but remained rare in straight porn, setting off some major alarm bells about risk-denial among heterosexuals). He hired a college student to house-sit for him while he was on academic leave, and the student soon began to complain of writer’s cramp and other pains in his dominant arm. Apparently he was engaged in independent “research” with the professor’s data trove. De Botton would *not* have approved, I’m sure.

  • michael

    judging by this review, the book says more about De Botton than it does about sex…

  • Kcuf Uoy

    An enlightening review, Bravo!
    When you write “There is no mention anywhere about men’s audacity to cavort on the beach. It is women who must be covered. It’s the female body that must be censored.”, I am happily surprised to recognise the feminist narrative this connects to. Oddly enough I came in contact with this translating a feminist interpretation of Bakhtin’s Carneval for my gender-studying friend. I laughed my ass off in a vaguely misogynistic way during that translation, but getting to understand the discourse has lately been very helpful as I’ve come to accept feminism as a perfectly valid, or even mandatory position.

    Mr. Bottom’s book seems to engage in a lot of mental masturbation – he should be ashamed!

  • Xiphias

    So I am guessing that LGBT people don’t exist in de Botton’s world of sex? Not that I would want to hear his theories on what makes a person gay.

  • Robert

    The issue of seeking parental affection in a spouse’s sexual love struck home with me.  Both of my husbands have had personalities very similar to . .  my mother’s.  I, by contrast, turned out very much like . .  my father. Fortunately, there is very little chance that my 6’2″, dreadlocked, African-American husband will come to resemble my mother physically as he ages.  Thanks, M. de Botton!

  • Jon Jermey

    De Botton seems to me to be an atheist trying to defend Christian values, desperately scrabbling for reasons why we should all be uptight and prudish and utterly British, and coming up empty-handed every time. He has become a walking parody of accommodationism.

  • Trust Deed

    It was great to go through your post. Thanks for sharing here. Keep up the good work.

  • Bill S. Preston

    Can I just point out that de Botton is Swiss?

    • hpqp

      Your point being?

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  • Sgaile-Beairt

    Guess de Botton’s editors are riding herd on him this time….he hasnt showed up in comments threads yet!

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