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How to Think More About Sex (School of Life)

by

How to Think More About Sex (School of Life) Cover

ISBN13: 9781250030658
ISBN10: 125003065x
Condition: Standard
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Excerpt

Introduction

It is rare to get through this life without feeling­ generally with a degree of secret agony, perhaps at the end of a relationship, or as we lie in bed frustrated next to our partner, unable to go to sleep­ that we are somehow a bit odd about sex. It is an area in which most of us have a painful impression, in our heart of hearts, that we are quite unusual. Despite being one of the most private of activities, sex is nonetheless surrounded by a range of powerful socially sanctioned ideas that codify how normal people are meant to feel about and deal with the matter.

In truth, however, few of us are remotely normal sexually. We are almost all haunted by guilt and neuroses, by phobias and disruptive desires, by indifference and disgust. None of us approaches sex as we are meant to, with the cheerful, sporting, non-obsessive, constant, well-adjusted outlook that we torture ourselves by believing that other people are endowed with. We are universally deviant - but only in relation to some highly distorted ideals of normality.

Given how common it is to be strange, it is regrettable how seldom the realities of sexual life make it into the public realm. Most of what we are sexually remains impossible to communicate with anyone whom we would want to think well of us. Men and women in love will instinctively hold back from sharing more than a fraction of their desires out of a fear, usually accurate, of generating intolerable disgust in their partners. We may find it easier to die without having had certain conversations.

The priority of a philosophical book about sex seems evident: not to teach us how to have more intense or more frequent sex, but rather to suggest how, through a shared language, we might begin to feel a little less painfully strange about the sex we are either longing to have or struggling to avoid.

 

2.

Whatever discomfort we do feel around sex is commonly aggravated by the idea that we belong to a liberated age - and ought by now, as a result, to be finding sex a straightforward and untroubling matter.

The standard narrative of our release from our shackles goes something like this: for thousands of years across the globe, due to a devilish combination of religious bigotry and pedantic social custom, people were afflicted by a gratuitous sense of confusion and guilt around sex. They thought their hands would fall off if they masturbated. They believed they might be burned in a vat of oil because they had ogled someone's ankle. They had no clue about erections or clitorises. They were ridiculous.

Then, sometime between the First World War and the launch of Sputnik 1, things changed for the better. Finally, people started wearing bikinis, admitted to masturbating, grew able to mention cunnilingus in social contexts, started to watch porn films and became deeply comfortable with a topic that had, almost unaccountably, been the source of needless neurotic frustration for most of human history. Being able to enter into sexual relations with confidence and joy became as common an expectation for the modern era as feeling trepidation and guilt had been for previous ages. Sex came to be perceived as a useful, refreshing and physically reviving pastime, a little like tennis - something that everyone should have as often as possible in order to relieve the stresses of modern life.

This narrative of enlightenment and progress, however flattering it may be to our powers of reason and our pagan sensibilities, conveniently skirts an unbudging fact: sex is not something that we can ever expect to feel easily liberated from. It was not by mere coincidence that sex so disturbed us for thousands of years: repressive religious dictates and social taboos grew out of aspects of our nature that cannot now just be wished away. We were bothered by sex because it is a fundamentally disruptive, overwhelming and demented force, strongly at odds with the majority of our ambitions and all but incapable of being discreetly integrated within civilized society.

Despite our best efforts to clean it of its peculiarities, sex will never be either simple or nice in the ways we might like it to be. It is not fundamentally democratic or kind; it is bound up with cruelty, transgression and the desire for subjugation and humiliation. It refuses to sit neatly on top of love, as it should. Tame it though we may try, sex has a recurring tendency to wreak havoc across our lives: it leads us to destroy our relationships, threatens our productivity and compels us to stay up too late in nightclubs talking to people whom we don't like but whose exposed midriffs we nevertheless strongly wish to touch. Sex remains in absurd, and perhaps irreconcilable, conflict with some of our highest commitments and values. Unsurprisingly, we have no option but to repress its demands most of the time. We should accept that sex is inherently rather weird instead of blaming ourselves for not responding in more normal ways to its confusing impulses.

This is not to say that we cannot take steps to grow wiser about sex. We should simply realize that we will never entirely surmount the difficulties it throws our way. Our best hope should be for a respectful accommodation with an anarchic and reckless power.

 

 

HOW TO THINK MORE ABOUT SEX. Copyright © 2012 by The School of Life. All rights reserved. Used with permission of Picador USA.

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KinkyAnnamarie, September 14, 2013 (view all comments by KinkyAnnamarie)
The passages quoted from the book are beautifully written and sound like a refreshing take on thinking about sex. de Botton is clearly an excellent writer, and the beginning of the book is so very promising. For example: "Ultimately, sex is a grounding mechanism that reminds us of our own imperfect humanity, and in that imperfection lies the messy richness of being human" and "We are granted an extraordinary opportunity to feel comfortable in our own skin wen a willing and generous lover invites us to say or do the very worst things we can imagine."

Beautiful, yes? Selectively quote a book and you can make anything sound wonderful, even to the extent of giving the impression that it is about the exact opposite of its actual content. In this case, the content is primarily that we should feel shame about sex, and focus on it LESS. I still haven't figured out why the book is titled "How to Think More About Sex."

To start, an amped-up version of Freudianism appears when the author insists that the reason the amount of sex had in a relationship diminishes over time because we start to see our partners as our parents, and sex with our parents is icky. Since this is normal and inevitable, we should resign ourselves to this state and disregard our sexual impulses. But don't go assuming that you're in the clear if you just give up on expecting to have sex with your partner. Want to watch porn? Congratulations. You are destroying society.

"The associated waste of time is naturally horrific. Financial analysts put the value of the online pornography industry at $10 billion a year, but this figure doesn't begin to evoke its true cost in terms of squandered human energy: perhaps as many as two hundred million man-hours annually that might otherwise have been devoted to starting companies, raising children, curing cancer, writing masterpieces or sorting out the attic, are instead spent ogling the mesmerizing pages of [porn] sites."

You could be curing cancer! How selfish to spend that time and energy on porn. Besides, you really should have known since "how deeply contrary pornography is to the rest of our plans and inclinations becomes clear only after orgasm. Where just a moment before we might have sacrificed our worldly goods for one more click, now we must confront with horror and shame the temporary abandonment of our sanity." That's right, watching porn and masturbating should make you feel immediately ashamed and horrified.

If all this stress leads to some impotence, worry not. It just means you're a good and ethical human because:

"...what is often termed 'nerves' in a man, far from being a problem, is in fact an asset that should be sought out and valued as evidence of an evolved type of kindness. The fear of being disgusting, absurd or a disappointment to someone else is a first sign of morality. Impotence is an achievement of the ethical imagination - so much so that in the future, we men might learn to act out episodes of the condition as a way of signaling our depth of spirit, just as today we furtively swallow Viagra tablets in the bathroom to prove the extent of our manliness."

Perhaps we should start having Impotence Pride Day to celebrate our evolution.

Who can we turn to for guidance around our sexuality? According to de Botton, religion (specifically Judeo-Christian religions) is the answer. Without religion, we in the West would have been devoid of any sense of morality or ethics. He states, "Reason and kindness had not yet intruded upon the free flow of animal impulses - nor, in the West, would they do so convincingly for many millennia to come, until the influences of classical philosophy and Judeo-Christian ethics at last percolated through the general population in the centuries after the death of Christ." Not only are we finally kind and reasonable, we can absolutely rely on religion to dictate how we should think about sex and sexuality.

"Only religions still take sex seriously, in the sense of properly respecting its power to turn us away from our priorities. Only religions see it as something potentially dangerous and needing to be guarded against. We may not sympathize with what they would wish us to think about in the place of sex, and we may not like the way they go about trying to censor it, but we can surely - though perhaps only after killing many hours online at [porn site] - appreciate that on this one point religions have got it right: sex and sexual images can overwhelm our higher rational faculties with depressing ease."

(Who exactly does de Botton think creates and maintains religions? It's the very people he insists are unable to overcome their impulses and hormones, and who set aside all goodness for the sake of a quick orgasm.)

Religion will help us kick our porn habit by redefining pornography.

"The new pornography would combine sexual excitement with an interest in other human ideals. The usual animalistic categories and hackneyed plots, replete with stock characters seemingly incapable of coherent speech, would give way to pornographic images and scenarios based around such qualities as intelligence (showing people reading or wandering the stacks in libraries), kindness (people performing oral sex on one another with an air of sweetness and regard) or humility (people caught looking embarrassed, shy or self-conscious). No longer would we have to make a painful choice between being human and being sexual."

Can't you just imagine it? Whole shelves devoted to library porn. Perhaps we can have some really hard-core stuff like videos of people studying physics or organic chem. Mmm… I'm getting wet already.

Turning to religion will also improve our marriages, which also happens "to suit children well. It spares them anxiety over the consequences of their parents' arguments: they can feel confident that their mum and dad like each other well enough to work things out, even though they may bicker and fight every day, as kids themselves do in the playground." Staying together for the kids, even if you're fighting all the time, is just so beneficial! de Botton also insists that any sexual exploration outside of a marriage, consensual or not, will destroy the relationship and that staying faithful necessarily means that you will miss out on "some of life's greatest and most important sensory pleasures along the way." But since we're slaves to our urges and hormones, it's pretty likely that we will stray, in which case de Botton has some counterintuitive advice for us:

"Rather than ask their 'betrayers' to say they are sorry, the 'betrayed' might begin by saying sorry themselves - sorry for being themselves, sorry for getting old, sorry for being boring sometimes, sorry for forcing their partners to lie by setting the bar of truthfulness forbiddingly high and (while we are at it), sorry for being human."

Yeah. That'll fix it.

To sum up, all relationships lead to marriage, which is important for children regardless of the health of the relationship. During the course of a marriage, we will start thinking of our spouses as our parents and stop having sex because incest is taboo. Ideally, we will just give up on our sexuality at that point, because watching porn is the equivalent of taking food from starving children and hosting book burnings. If we're lucky, our genitals will stop working entirely. Religion, however, will save us by shaming us into having as little sex as possible, to the extent that we will eventually evolve to find images of people reading erotic. And if we ever make a mistake in all this, don't worry too much. Our partners will apologize for making us do whatever bad thing it is we did.

Or, as the author says towards the end of the book: "We would be so nice without sex - nice in the way that seven-year-old boys and girls are, full of sweetness and wonder about the lives of marmosets or deer."

Never have I wanted so badly to throw a book across the room. This is the most shaming, sex-negative book I've read in ages, and it is shocking that it gets such good reviews.
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QuemDixereChaos, January 30, 2013 (view all comments by QuemDixereChaos)
While reading this book, I found myself asking more questions about what role sex plays in human life, a subject which I've looked over before either because I believed that other parts of intimate relationships were more important or because I assumed that sex is merely the product of irrational desire. Botton does, in fact, introduce the evolutionary hypothesis - that sex fulfills the purpose of continuing and improving the species - but reveals that this does not explain why we may be interested in certain healthy individuals over others (who are equally healthy). He undertakes the task of explaining aesthetics as an integral part of the process of finding a mate, and explores the phenomena of fetishes and roleplaying, which are tricky to understand.

This may be listed in the self-help section, but keep in mind that it is also a work of philosophy. Like all works, it doesn't give you a particular 'guide' on how to deal with issues involving sex, but it gives very good explanations on why people behave certain ways when confronted the subject.
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Product Details

ISBN:
9781250030658
Author:
de Botton, Alain
Publisher:
Picador
Author:
Alain de Botton
Author:
Alain de Botton
Subject:
Human Sexuality
Subject:
Social Psychology
Subject:
Psychology : General
Edition Description:
Trade Paper with Flaps
Publication Date:
20121224
Binding:
Electronic book text in proprietary or open standard format
Language:
English
Pages:
192
Dimensions:
7.125 x 5 in

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Related Subjects

Featured Titles » General
Featured Titles » Spirituality and Wellness
Health and Self-Help » Health and Medicine » Sex
Health and Self-Help » Psychology » General
Health and Self-Help » Sexuality » General

How to Think More About Sex (School of Life) Used Trade Paper
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Product details 192 pages Picador - English 9781250030658 Reviews:
"Publishers Weekly Review" by , "'Few of us are remotely normal sexually,' de Botton (The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work) writes in this accessible philosophical meditation. But though 'we are universally deviant,' the author opines that we are thus 'only in relation to some highly distorted ideals of normality.' Acknowledging that feelings of aberrancy are 'aggravated by the idea that we belong to a liberated age,' de Botton goes on to explore, in two illuminating sections, 'The Pleasures' and 'The Problems of Sex.' The former addresses topics like biological and physiological reactions to sex, fetishes, fashion, and the subjectivity of beauty, while the latter deals with impotency, sexual rejection, pornography, adultery, and more. De Botton is never prescriptive, and the intellectual rigor of his investigation prevents this book from settling into a self-help reference guide. After all, his aim is to guide readers in how to think about sex in a different way, not to teach them how to have it. While he hypothesizes that the world would be far simpler if sex were taken out of the equation, the pragmatic yet optimistic de Botton concludes that 'the pain sex causes us' is worth it, 'for without it we wouldn't know art and music quite so well.' Agent: Caroline Dawnay, United Agents (U.K.)." Publishers Weekly Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved.
"Review" by , "Even if our sexual partners don't excite us, this writers piquant prose will."
"Review" by , "By encouraging readers to understand their desires and manifestations of sexuality in new and more reflective ways, de Botton's addition to the School of Life series offers a tantalizing discourse on this endlessly fascinating, and eternally misunderstood, subject."
"Review" by , "[de Botton] offers a collection of essays that, taken as a whole, serve to pull sexuality into a philosophical consideration of our drives and desires, to illuminate how we can make sense of the urges that drive us senseless....A well-rounded examination of the ways we can marry intelligent thought and physical pleasure."
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