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The Obstacles to Sex

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 ideas about 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 other people are endowed with. We are universally deviant — but only in relation to some highly distorted ideals of normality. So it's time to accept the strangeness of sex with good humour and courage, and start to talk about it with honesty and compassionit's time to accept the strangeness of sex with good humour and courage, and start to talk about it with honesty and compassion.

What, therefore, are some of the things that get in the way of that mythic ideal: great sex?

1. Work Stress

To begin with, and most innocently, the lack of sex within established relationships typically has to do with the difficulty of shifting registers between everyday work life and the erotic. The qualities demanded of us when we have sex stand in sharp opposition to those we employ in conducting the majority of our other daily activities at the office. Relationships tend to involve — if not immediately, then within a few years — the running of a household and often the raising of children, tasks which often feel akin to the administration of a small business and which draw upon many of the same bureaucratic and procedural skills, including time management, self-discipline, the exercising of authority, and the imposition of an agenda of renunciation upon recalcitrant others.

Sex, with its contrary emphases on expansiveness, imagination, playfulness, and a loss of control, must by its very nature interrupt this routine of regulation and self-restraint, threatening to leave us unfit or at the least uninclined to resume our administrative duties once our desire has run its course. We avoid sex not because it isn't fun but because its pleasures erode our subsequent capacity to endure the strenuous demands which life places on us.

2. Routine

Our failure to notice the erotic side of our partner can also be closely related to the unchanging environment in which we lead our daily lives. We should blame the stable presence of the carpet and the living-room chairs for our failure to have more sex, because our homes guide us to perceive others according to the attitude they normally exhibit in them. The physical backdrop becomes permanently coloured by the activities it hosts — vacuuming, bottle feeding, laundry hanging, the filling out of tax forms — and reflects the mood back at us, thereby subtly preventing us from evolving. The furniture insists that we can't change because it never does.

Hence the metaphysical importance of hotels. Their walls, beds, comfortably upholstered chairs, room-service menus, televisions, and small, tightly wrapped soaps can do more than answer a taste for luxury; they can also encourage us to reconnect with our long-lost sexual selves. There is no limit to what a shared dip in an alien bath tub may help us to achieve. We may make love joyfully again because we have rediscovered, behind the roles we are forced to play by our domestic circumstances, the sexual identities which first drew us together — an act of fresh perception which will have been critically assisted by a pair of towelling bathrobes, a complimentary fruit basket, and a view out of a window onto an unfamiliar harbour.

3. Anger

We may not be having too much sex because our partner is angry with us — or we with them. The common conception of anger posits red faces, raised voices, and slammed doors, but only too often it takes on a different form, for when it doesn't understand or acknowledge itself, anger just curdles into numbness, into a blank "I'm not in the mood..."

There are two reasons we tend to forget we are angry with our partner, and hence become anaesthetized, melancholic, and unable to have sex with him or her. Firstly, because the specific incidents that anger us happen so quickly and so invisibly, in such fast-moving and chaotic settings (at breakfast time, before the school run, or during a conversation on mobile phones in a windy plaza at lunchtime) that we can't recognise the offence well enough to mount any sort of coherent protest against it. The arrow is fired, it wounds us, but we lack the resources or context to see how and where, exactly, it has pierced our armour.

Second, we frequently don't articulate our anger even when we do understand it, because the things that offend us can seem so trivial, finicky, or odd that they would sound ridiculous if spoken aloud. Even rehearsing them to ourselves can be embarrassing.

We may, for example, be deeply wounded when our partner fails to notice our new haircut or doesn't use a breadboard while cutting a bit of baguette, thus scattering crumbs everywhere, or goes straight upstairs to watch television without stopping to ask about our day. These hardly seem matters worth lodging formal complaints over. To announce, "I am angry with you because you're cutting the baguette in the wrong way," is to risk sounding at once immature and insane. But we may need to spell out our complaints in order to get in the vulnerable, trusting, honest mood that makes sex possible.

4. Porn

The rise in Internet porn has damaged a lot of sex lives. Women may find, to their alarm, that their man's libido has mysteriously vanished. It hasn't; it's just been given over to the computer. An unwitting alliance between Cisco, Dell, Oracle, and Microsoft on the one hand and thousands of pornographic content providers on the other has exploited a design flaw of the male gender. A mind originally designed to cope with little more sexual temptation than the occasional sight of a tribeswoman across the savannah is rendered helpless when bombarded by continual invitations to participate in erotic scenarios far exceeding any dreamt up by the diseased mind of the Marquis de Sade. There is nothing robust enough in our psychological makeup to compensate for developments in our technological capacities, nothing to arrest our passionate desire to renounce all other priorities for the sake of a few more minutes (which might turn out to be four hours) in the darker recesses of the Web. Porn is so immediate and intense, it destroys our capacity to engage in the far more human and low-key business of actual sex.

The best solution may simply be to lock away the computer — and to discuss the temptations with honesty. Porn shouldn't be spoken of as simply "revolting"; it's nice for men, but nice in a way that destroys things that are more than simply nice — that are essential to life.

5. Children

It's paradoxical that children are created by sex — but have a nasty habit of also killing off sex.It's paradoxical that children are created by sex — but have a nasty habit of also killing off sex. Their presence is both delightful and entirely unconducive to the sort of erotic feelings that (way back when) made sex possible. Part of the problem is that our partners have a habit of turning into our parent figures rather than equals once we've got kids. We cease to look at partners as erotic figures when we spend the greater part of every day acting in the roles of "Mummy" and "Daddy." Even though we are not each other's intended audience for these performances, we must nevertheless be constant witnesses to them. Once the children have been put to bed, it may not be uncommon for one partner — in one of those slips of meaning Sigmund Freud so enjoyed — to refer to the other as "Mum" or "Dad," a confusion which may be compounded by the use of the same sort of exasperated-disciplinarian tone that has served all day long to keep the young ones in line.

It can be hard for both parties to hold on to the obvious yet elusive truth that they are in fact each other's friends and partners, not colleagues at a nursery. The way out of this sterility is not, of course, to begin all over again with a different partner, for, if we're not careful, fresh candidates will themselves end up morphing into sexless figures too, once the relationship has taken root. It is not a new person we require but a new way of perceiving a familiar one. The issue is one of perception, a matter of how we look at our partner. To keep our sex lives alight, we need imagination. We should try to locate the good and the beautiful beneath the layers of habit and routine. We may so often have seen our partner pushing a buggy, arguing with a toddler, crossly berating the electricity company, and returning home defeated from the workplace that we have forgotten that dimension in him or her which remains adventurous, impetuous, cheeky, intelligent, and, above all else, alive.

÷ ÷ ÷

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.

Despite our best efforts to clean it of its peculiarities, sex will never be simple in the ways we might like it to be. It can die out; 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. Sex remains in absurd, and perhaps irreconcilable, conflict with some of our highest commitments and values. Perhaps ultimately, 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 realise that we will never entirely surmount the difficulties it throws our way.

÷ ÷ ÷

Alain de Botton is the bestselling author of How Proust Can Change Your Life, The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work, and Religion for Atheists, among other works of fiction and essays. De Botton founded The School of Life, a series of lectures in London that aim to make academic learning applicable to real life. How to Think More about Sex is the first book based on The School of Life. De Botton lives and works in London. You can follow him on Twitter at @alaindebotton.

Books mentioned in this post

Alain de Botton is the author of How to Think More About Sex (School of Life)

7 Responses to "The Obstacles to Sex"

    katherine January 4th, 2013 at 1:13 pm

    porn is "nice for men"? i think that's a little bit oversimplified to suggest that watching porn is an action solely undertaken by men.

    XYZ1 January 4th, 2013 at 1:56 pm

    I think porn has a more insidious role than we think. Porn gives us a world where women are utterly willing--and if they are not willing, well, they want it anyway. It gives us a twisted world where women are urging men on and on and on...which we may find quite different in the real world. It gives us the experience of women whose bodies are extraordinarily hot, whose legs are always smoothly shaved, who are waxed and done up to perfection, who never have bad breath...which can make our wives seem quite bland by comparison.

    So, in a nutshell, it is not just that porn takes our time--it is that it is often PREFERRED over real sex. After all, the "Cinderella" encounter, even if make-believe, is often as much or more satisfying than the relatively plain, vanilla version of real-life sex. We have been told of caviar and foie gras...and it makes the chicken and potatoes on our plates seem less desirable. Reminds me of the lyrics of "Desperado": "It seems to me some fine things have been laid upon your table, but you always want the things you can't get."

    Mark January 4th, 2013 at 8:16 pm

    A very good article with an excellent analysis on the obstacles of sex. The only flaw I find in this analysis is that it seems to assume that a sexual relationship should be monogamous. And that is the painful conflict that humanity has had to wrestle with ever since his nomadic roots were foregone and he settled for a civilized urban life. As soon as are schooled and get hold of our mental faculties , we are bombarded and conditioned by society , culture and religious authorities that love is more important sex , that love will reign forever when we find the one. We come to believe that monogamy is natural and the best way for society's reproduction. When in truth our sexual instincts, imagination, fantasies and desires know no bound and are by nature promiscuous and polygamous. It is the reason I believe we ultimately fall for porn, for flirting, for adultery, for prostitution. Others not enough fortunate might easily yield to the dark side of sex. Although Mr de Botton in his book which I read does not offer any solution to this painful conflict we dare not speak about, we must take heed of his message to think more about sex if we want to reduce the problems that afflict human sexuality. And not just think but think outside the walls of prejudice and religious and cultural confines.

    Chelsea January 5th, 2013 at 2:38 am

    Excellent article! Just a quibble withthe section on poem which youpresent as a distinctly male activity, which if simply not true. Aside from the recent rise of erotic which is commonly targeted at a female audience, yes i'm talking about that so horribly named "mummy porn" that is Fifty Shades of Grey, all porn so Tess have a section dedicated to .female friendly porn.
    What is somewhat amusing, but probably mostly bending, is th he way this is presented as effecting relationships; whereas men watching porn is often viewed as corrosive to a couples sex life and ultimately the relationship, female erotica has been linked to a rise in the sales of lingerie, sex toys amen according to one hilarious daily mail article, a potential boom.

    John January 7th, 2013 at 1:44 am

    @ XYZ1
    How right you are when you say that porn takes our rime because it is preferred over real sex.

    I think that one of the reason we humans suffer more than animals is that we have the power to unleash our imagination. It can be postive when it is creative but it can have negative consequences when we use it a means to escape reality.

    Teresa January 17th, 2013 at 6:04 am

    Interesting points, but I too am going to respond to the "loaded" topic of pornography. I believe watching it on the internet rewires the brain, or if you wish the male brain...in much the same way that video games rewire the brains of our youth (again, it seems, mostly boys).

    My ex-husband developed what appeared to be an addiction to internet porn. To the extent that he was secretive, obsessed, and ashamed. A therapist suggested--and I think correctly--that this habit, if you will, gave a man who perceived himself as powerless back some power. The panting women on the screen always wanted him. Meanwhile, back in the real world, he was failing at his career and frightened about that, and carrying a lot of buried anger towards in particular his father. Sex with me, willing though I might be, was too fraught, too real. He found sanctuary and safety in the flickering glow of the computer screen and its titillating images.

    I remember confronting him about this habit. He looked stricken. He agreed to throw away all his videos and to stop viewing online porn. But he could not sustain this and eventually returned to it all. In retrospect, my demands did not address his true problems and thus did not help our sex life nor save our marriage.

    Evidently a whole industry has built up around a book called Every Heart Restored (it's got a Christian foundation, which didn't work for me but still it contained useful information and insights). Some women attend intensive weekend workshops built around this book (what about the guys??).

    D El. May 15th, 2013 at 5:33 pm

    This is a very homogenous and hetero-normative approach. It's sort of like a Cathy cartoon. From 1957.

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