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This book is one of several published by the relatively new organization, the School of Life, which, according to its website, "is devoted to developing emotional intelligence through the help of culture. We address such issues as how to find fulfilling work, how to master the art of relationships, how to understand one's past, how to achieve calm and how better to understand and, where necessary change, the world." The books in the series are written by various authors although all are edited by de Botton. Though I can't speak of other books in the series, How to Think More About Sex is like much of his previous work in that it offers us a mix of philosophical analysis and therapeutic self-help.
The therapy offered, however, is not typical since de Botton believes that "there are really no solutions to the majority of the dilemmas sex creates for us" (8). Thus, the best we can hope for is "the management of pain rather than its outright elimination; we should hope to find a literary version of a hospice, not a hospital .... [where we can] discover a communal confirmation of our woes..." (8-9).
It's hard to pinpoint exactly why de Botton takes such a pessimistic stance, but part of it stems from his belief that we tend to think "that we are somehow a bit odd about sex" (3). Because of this, we also think that we fail to live up to our perception of what we consider sexual normality. "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" (3).
de Botton clearly has a point here, but if our problems with sex all emanated from our misconceptions about it, then we ought to be able to overcome these problems by re-conceptualizing 'healthy' sexual desire and sexual deviance. There is some of that in How to Think More About Sex, but de Botton seems also to think that some of our difficulties with sex are irresolvable and lay within the very nature of sex and of human beings. The reasons for his thoughts here are somewhat opaque but we do get hints in the second half of the book, which deals with "The Problems of Sex."
Before that, however, we get de Botton's thoughts on "The Pleasures of Sex." Sex, he maintains, can offer us at least a temporary escape from our loneliness where another accepts us into the boundaries they ordinarily keep firmly in place against the outside, public world. Here, we can overcome the shame we typically feel at our naked, atavistic self. Indeed, de Botton goes so far as to suggest that fetishes -- say for Manolo Blahniks shoes or antique watches (his examples) -- can be thought of as instances of physical beauty that can lead, like the ladder of love presented in Socrates' speech in Plato's Symposium, to the Good itself (29-33).
Here, I think, we can see why some find de Botton so frustrating. The point about escaping loneliness through sex seems cogent enough: indeed, it was presented over two millennia ago in Aristophanes' speech in Plato's Symposium. But the links he tries to draw between fetishism and the Form of Beauty seem clearly off base, both as historical exegesis and as an explanation of current thinking about fetishes. In the Symposium, individual physical beauty leads to something transcendent only (1) through discourse with someone fluent in the 'mysteries of love' and (2) through the recognition that beauty is the same wherever it occurs physically because Beauty is an abstract concept or definition -- a Form as Plato sees it. The recognition addressed in point (2) is what will require philosophical discussion between teacher and student. Where is the analogy to this in fetishism? Moreover, it is important to note that in Plato's ladder, as one climbs each rung, one sees what lies below as insignificant at best and contemptible at worst. The whole point of Plato's ladder of love is to become a philosopher -- that is, a lover of wisdom -- rather than a sexual being in love with a physical body. Thus, Socrates, the paradigmatic philosopher, is always portrayed as sexually uninterested, even though he has many pursuers, including the handsome (and infamous) Alcibiades who disrupts the gathering at the end of the Symposium. Again, the analogy de Botton tries to draw disappears unless de Botton's notion of fetishism is that fetishists will come to loathe their fetishistic desires and replace them with a love of a non-material, universal idea of Beauty. But this can't be the case because the fetish object -- that particular, physical thing -- is defined in part as something required (or at least strongly preferred) in order for the person with the fetish to attain sexual excitement.
Another example of a rather obvious error de Botton makes occurs when he claims that a woman's vaginal lubrication or a man's erection cannot be 'faked', as it were, and are thus "unambiguous agents of sincerity" and an "honest indication of interest" (23). Whether this was ever true of adult men, it certainly isn't true anymore in the post-Viagra world, and never was true of adolescent and young adult males who can, notoriously, attain erections at almost anything, including people (and other things) that they have no sexual interest in. Moreover, there has been considerable research indicating that women can often lubricate without feeling any sexual desire (see, e.g., M. Chivers et al., 2007, "Gender and Sexual Orientation Differences in Sexual Response to Sexual Activities Versus Gender of Actors in Sexual Films," Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 93:6: 1108-1121; M Chivers et al., 2005, "A Sex Difference in the Specificity of Sexual Arousal," Psychological Science 15:11: 736-744; L. Diamond, 2008, Sexual Fluidity, Harvard UP). The mistake de Botton makes here is to think of sexual desire and dysfunction in purely (or mostly) physical terms. But outside of some sociobiologists and pharmaceutical companies (looking to sell drugs to 'fix' our physical, sexual 'dysfunctions') no one thinks that this is true, including the (oftentimes) Freudian inspired de Botton. Sexual desire is more nuanced than that and requires that we do not conflate bodily reaction with sexual desire.
In "The Problems of Sex," de Botton addresses sexual rejection, lack of desire, pornography, adultery and the tricky relationship between sex and love. On this last issue, he claims that we should grant our need for sex and our need for love an equal standing. "Both may be independently felt and are of comparable value and validity. Both shouldn't require us to lie in order to claim them" (62). This has been the mantra of the sexual liberation movement since the 1960s, and while it has much to be said for it, some critics of the view maintain it is inherently a male view that has less appeal to women. Research done on the 'hooking up' era, for example, indicates that while some young women in their late teens and very early twenties find uncommitted sex with a variety of partners appealing, they are ready to move on to a different, more committed type of relationship much sooner than men (See, e.g., K. Bogle, Hooking Up: Sex, Dating, and Relationships on Campus, New York: NYU Press, 2008).
de Botton says some interesting and intelligent things about adultery -- both its allure and its stupidity -- and relates it in part to the unrealistic expectations and demands we place on modern marriage. "The three things we want [in marriage] ... love, sex and family -- each affects and harms the other in devilish ways. Loving a person may inhibit our ability to have sex with him or her. Having a secret tryst with someone we don't love but do find attractive can endanger our relationship with the spouse we love but are no longer turned on by. Having children can imperil both love and sex, and yet neglecting the kids in order to focus on our marriage or our sexual thrills may threaten the health and mental stability of the next generation" (123-124). However, his claim about how we should feel about adultery would take much more argument than de Botton provides: "In a well-judged marriage, spouses should not blame each other for occasional infidelities; instead they should feel proud that they have for the most part managed to remain committed to their union" (129).
One final example of frustrating unevenness in How to Think More About Sex occurs in his discussion of pornography. His useful remarks about what is wrong with pornography is tainted by his claims about how we might make pornography better. We can, he says, reimagine a new pornography that would take its lead from Medieval and Renaissance religious painting, which "understood that sexual desire did not necessarily have to be the enemy of goodness, and could even, if properly marshalled, lend energy and intensity to it. In altarpieces by Fra Filiippo Lippi or Sandro Botticelli, not only is the Madonna beautifully dressed and set against an enchanting background, she is good-looking -- indeed, in many cases, indisputably sexy.... The advantage of having sexual fantasies while looking at a Botticelli Madonna rather than at a stereotypical product of the modern porn industry is that the former doesn't compel us to make an uncomfortable choice between our sexuality and other qualities we aspire towards. It allows us to give free rein to our physical impulses while remaining aesthetically sensitive and morally aware. It gives us a chance, in short, to bridge the gap between sex and virtue" (107, 108). I leave it to readers to assess the plausibility of de Botton's claim that while typical porn makes us feel guilty and ashamed that we have devolved into something beastly, masturbating to Botticelli's The Madonna of the Book (where she is holding the baby Jesus in her lap) is supposed to make us feel clean and virtuous.
Alain de Botton has managed to do something very rare in the modern Anglo-American world: he has sold millions of books about philosophy. This is indeed a major achievement for which he should be heartily congratulated. That academic philosophers, particularly those with an expertise in the subject about which de Botton is writing, find his work uneven should not be surprising. This is especially true about a book such as this, which is only 140 (very small) pages long. But then this book is not aimed at the professional philosopher; it is, rather, meant for the educated but nonacademic layperson. And his book sales say far much more about his appeal for that group than any review of this sort could ever do.
© 2013 Robert Scott Stewart
Robert Scott Stewart, Ph.D., is a Professor of Philosophy and Chair of Philosophy and Religious Studies at Cape Breton University on the east coast of Canada. He is editor of and a contributor to Talk About Sex: A Multidisciplinary Discussion (2013) and, with Laurie Shrage, is currently finishing Philosophizing About Sex, due to be published in 2014.