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. Soit'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.
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.
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.
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.
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'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
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)