REVIEW: How To Think More About Sex
I love Brain Pickings. They have introduced me to so many incredible books, videos, and more, which made it all the more surprising how very disappointing I found "How To Think More About Sex" by Alain de Botton, which was the subject of one of their articles back in February. Disappointed doesn't even come close to how I feel about this book. Recently Stephen Colbert did a skit with a rage cooler, and I feel I must have done something similar. My notes on this book had faded into a distant memory until Andrea Zanin posted a note about wanting to read it. My rage cooler opened up as I went back to my notes, and it's just as potent as before and perhaps even stronger with age.
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 sites such as www.hotincest.com and www.spanksgalore.com."
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 www.youporn.com - 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.
The rage is back. Must go find that cooler.