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How To Think More About Sex

Alain de Botton

Almost nobody is sexually 'normal' - in relation to some highly distorted ideals of normalcy. Despite being the most private of activities, sex is surrounded by a range of powerful social ideas and expectations.

For centuries religion and society combined to convince people their hands would fall off if they masturbated or they would be burned in boiling oil if they glimpsed a maiden's ankle. We are supposed to be liberated from these neuroses, but they can't just be wished away.

Tame it though we may try, sex has a recurring tendency to wreak havoc across our lives: it leads us to destroy relationships, threatens productivity and compels us to stay up too late in nightclubs talking to people we don't like but whose exposed midriffs we nevertheless strongly wish to touch.

Various manuals want to 'fix' our sex problems by various improvements in technique. But for most people the problem of sex is related to mutual resentments over money and kids, or about addiction to online pron, or whether a brief office affair has forever broken our partner's trust.

Part of the reason why male erection and female lubrication are so emotionally satisfying is that they are beyond rational (but obviously not chemical) manipulation. In a world where fake enthusiasm is rife, and when it's hard to tell if people really like or are just being kind/dutiful, the wet vagina and the stiff penis are agents of sincerity.

We have no easy way to express our frequently divergent needs for love and sex. We tend to tiptoe around the subject, cloaking our needs with evasions, and, in the process, we lie, break hearts and suffer through evenings filled with frustration and guilt.

Sexual rejection is hurtful. Yet we have little control over who we find sexually attractive, so rationally we should just consider it a bit of bad luck if the object of your desire doesn't fancy you. The problem is that we tend to view it as a moral judgement. Author brings in the weather to help explain. In almost all primitive societies, people began by interpreting natural disasters as punishments by the relevant god. Gradually the science of meteorology has freed us from these superstitions. We are not to blame for the rain or the snow; it's just the end result of random interplay of atmospheric conditions.

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A lot of submerged anger in relationships. So many petty annoyances, which cannot be articulated because would make the person sound immature and, well, petty. When fall in love with someone, you endow them with all sorts of near-perfect attributes. But in real life we are constantly reminded that he falls short of these ideals. During the course of a week each partner fires, and is hit by, dozens of tiny arrows of irritation, barely consciously registered, but added to the score. Sex is a gift, and it's not easy to hand over a gift when you are annoyed, particularly when the would-be recipient seems oblivious to your unhappiness.

It is generally easier for a man to admit to a prison record than to admit to impotence. main problem is the blow to the self-esteem of both parties. Author blames society for part of the problem - men have been conditioned to be extremely polite and empathic when asking for sex.

(Extract) Should married people deny themselves illicit trysts? A new book asks whether long-term monogamy is an impossible ideal

We are unlikely to be able to get a grip on the notorious subject of adultery if we don't first allow ourselves to acknowledge just how tempting and exhilarating it can be, especially after a few years of marriage and a couple of children. Before we can begin to call it wrong, we have to concede that it is also very often - for a time, at least - profoundly thrilling.

So let us imagine a scenario. Jim is in his office, interviewing candidates for a freelance graphic design job. He has already spent a few hours meeting a succession of young, goatee-bearded men when the final prospect arrives. Named Rachel, she's 25 (Jim is almost 40) and is wearing a pair of jeans, trainers and a dark-green V-neck jumper over nothing much else, calling attention to her androgynous upper body. They talk of printing costs and fonts - but, of course, Jim's thoughts are elsewhere. We would have to fear for the state of mind of the man who did not respond to this picture of youth, health and energy.

To describe what Jim wants as sex is severely to foreshorten the roots of his excitement. The old English synonym for the noun is unusually apt in this case for, in essence, Rachel is provoking in Jim a longing to know her; know her thighs and ankles and neck, naturally, but also her wardrobe, the titles of the books she has on her shelf, the smell of her hair after a shower, the nature of her character when she was a girl and the confidences she exchanges with her friends. Several months after Rachel's project with his firm is finished, he is asked to go on an overnight trip to Bristol with one of his clients, staying at a Holiday Inn off the M4. Rachel, he discovers, happens to be there too. Like a first-time murderer who intuitively knows how to distribute stones in a body bag, Jim sends an e-mail to his wife, wishing her and their two children good night and warning that he may not have a chance to call her later because the evening threatens to drag on.

Rachel and Jim have a glass of wine together in the otherwise-deserted bar around midnight. Jim's flirtation is precise and to the point. The boldness displayed by middle-aged married men when they are trying to seduce other women should never be confused with confidence; it is just the fear of death, which breeds an awareness of just how infrequently they are ever going to have the opportunity to sample such moments again. It is this that gives Jim the energy to press on in ways he never would have dared when he was young and single, when life seemed like a limitless expanse stretching out before him and he could still afford the luxury of feeling shy and self-conscious.

Their first kiss takes place in the corridor leading to the lifts. He presses her up against the wall, next to a poster advertising a discounted rate for a family stay with a free brunch for the kids on Sunday. Her tongue greets his eagerly; her body pushes rhythmically against his. This quickly enters the pantheon of the greatest moments of Jim's life.

After he returns home from Bristol, everything continues as it was. Of course, Jim lies about the whole thing. We live in moralistic times. Our age allows most things to happen before marriage but accepts nothing much thereafter. The newspapers publish a rolling succession of stories about the sexual indiscretions of footballers and politicians, and readers' comments on these reflect the kind of response Jim's activity could be expected to provoke from most fellow citizens. He would be branded a cheat, a scumbag, a dog and a rat.

Let's take the view, for a moment, that what happened between Jim and Rachel was not especially wrong. For that matter, let's go even farther and venture that, contrary to all public verdicts on adultery, the real fault might consist in the obverse - that is, in the lack of any wish whatsoever to stray. This might be considered not only weird but wrong in the deepest sense of the word, because it is against nature. A blanket refusal to entertain adulterous possibilities would seem to represent a colossal failure of the imagination, a heedless disregard for the glorious fleshy reality of our bodies, a denial of the power that should rightly be wielded over our more rational selves by such erotic triggers as the surreptitious pressing-together of knees at the end of a restaurant meal, by high-heeled shoes and crisp blue shirts, by grey cotton underwear and Lycra shorts, by smooth thighs and muscular calves - each a sensory high point as worthy of reverence as the tiles of the Alhambra or Bach"s Mass in B minor. Wouldn't the rejection of these temptations be itself tantamount to a sort of betrayal? Would it really be possible to trust anyone who never showed any interest at all in being unfaithful?

Society holds that married people who discover that their spouses are having affairs have every right to be furious with them and throw them out of the house, cut up their clothes and massacre their reputations in front of their friends. Adultery is seen as providing ample grounds for the cheated-upon party to feel incensed and outraged, as well as abundant cause for the cheating party to apologise in extreme ways for his or her horrid actions.

But here again, might we not suggest that, however hurt the betrayed party may feel, fury at the news of the other's infidelity is not entirely warranted. The fact that the straying spouse has had the temerity to imagine, let alone act on, the idea that it might be of interest to push a hand inside an unfamiliar skirt or pair of trousers should not truly come as such a surprise after a decade or more of marriage. Should there really be a need to apologise for a desire that could hardly be more understandable or ordinary?

If we flip the coin, seeing marriage as the perfect answer to all our hopes for love, sex and family is naive and misguided, as is believing adultery can be an effective antidote to the disappointments of marriage. What is ultimately 'wrong' with the idea of adultery, as with a certain idea of marriage, is its idealism. While it may look at first sight like a cynical and unhopeful activity to engage in, adultery in fact suggests a conviction that we might somehow magically rearrange the shortcomings of our marriage through an adventure on the side. Yet it is impossible to sleep with someone outside of marriage and not spoil the things that we care about inside it - just as it is impossible to remain faithful in a marriage and not miss out on some of life's greatest and most important sensory pleasures.

There is no answer to the tensions of marriage, if what we mean by an 'answer' is a settlement in which no party suffers a loss. Each of the three things we want in this sphere - love, sex and family - affects and harms the others 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 to focus on our marriage or our sexual thrills may threaten the health and mental stability of the next generation. Periodically, frustration breeds an impulse to seek a utopian solution to this mess. Perhaps an open marriage would work, we think.

Or a policy of secrets. Or a renegotiation of our contract on a yearly basis. Or more childcare. All such strategies are fated to fail, however, for the simple reason that loss is written into the rules of the situation. If we sleep around, we will put at risk our spouse's love and the psychological health of our children. If we don't sleep around, we will go stale and miss out on the excitement of new relationships.

If we keep an affair secret, it will corrode us inside and stunt our capacity to receive another's love. If we confess to infidelity, our partner will panic and never get over our sexual adventures (even if they meant nothing to us). If we focus all our energies on our children, they will eventually abandon us to pursue their own lives, leaving us wretched and lonely. But if we ignore our children in favour of our own romantic pursuits, we will scar them and earn their unending resentment. Marriage is thus like a bed sheet that can never be straightened: when we seek to perfect or ameliorate one side of it, we may succeed only in wrinkling and disturbing the others.

What more realistic mindset, then, might we take with us into a marriage? What kinds of vows might we need? Certainly something far more cautionary and downbeat than the usual platitudes would be in order, such as: "I promise to be disappointed by you and you alone. I promise to make you the sole repository of my regrets, rather than to distribute them widely through multiple affairs and a life of sexual Don Juanism. I have surveyed the different options for unhappiness, and it is you I have chosen to commit myself to." These are the sorts of generously pessimistic and kindly unromantic promises that couples should make to each other at the altar. Thereafter, an affair would be a betrayal only of a reciprocal pledge to be disappointed in a particular way, not of an unrealistic hope.

When the idea of a love-based marriage took hold in the 18th century, it replaced an older and more prosaic rationale for betrothal, whereby couples got married because they had both reached the proper age, found they could stand the sight of each other, were keen not to offend both sets of parents and their neighbours, had a few assets to protect and wished to raise a family. The bourgeoisie's new philosophy, by contrast, legitimated only one reason for marriage: deep love. This condition was understood to comprise a variety of hazy but totemic sensations and sentiments, including the lovers' being unable to bear being out of each other's sight, their each being physically aroused by the other's appearance, their being certain that their minds were in perfect tune with each other, their wanting to read poetry to each other by moonlight and their desiring to fuse their souls together into one. In other words, marriage shifted from being an institution to being the consecration of a feeling, from being an externally sanctioned rite of passage to being an internally motivated response to an emotional state.

Justifying the shift in the eyes of its modern defenders was a newly intense dread of 'inauthenticity', a psychological phenomenon whereby a person's inner feelings differed from those expected of him or her by the outer world. What the old school would have respectfully called 'putting on a show' was now recategorised as lying, while 'faking things to be polite' was more melodramatically recast as 'betraying oneself'. This emphasis on achieving congruence between inner and outer selves required strict new qualifications about what a decent marriage would have to entail. To feel only intermittent affection for a spouse, to have mediocre sex six times a year, to keep a marriage going for the wellbeing of the children - such compromises were considered abdications of any claim to be fully human.

As young adults, most of us start out by feeling an intuitive respect for the idea of a love-based marriage. Yet as we get older, we will usually begin to wonder whether the whole thing might not be just a fantasy dreamt up by a group of adolescent-minded authors and poets a few hundred years ago. Such a re-evaluation may be prompted by an awareness of how chaotic and misleading our feelings can be. There are times when we feel sufficiently angry with our spouse that we would be happy to see him or her knocked down by a car; but ten minutes later, we may be reminded that we would die rather than go on alone. The defenders of feeling-based marriage venerate emotions for their sincerity and authenticity, but they are able to do so only because they avoid looking too closely at what actually floats through most people's emotional kaleidoscopes in any given period: all the contradictory, sentimental and hormonal forces that pull us in a hundred often crazed and inconclusive directions. To honour every one of our emotions would be to annul any chance of leading a coherent life. We are chaotic chemical propositions, in dire need of basic principles that we can adhere to during our brief rational spells. We should feel grateful for, and protected by, the knowledge that our external circumstances are often out of line with what we feel; it is a sign that we are probably on the right course.

In a well-judged marriage, spouses should not blame each other for occasional infidelities; instead they should feel proud that, for the most part, they have managed to remain committed to their union. Too many people start off in relationships by putting the moral emphasis in the wrong place, smugly mocking the urge to stray as if it were something disgusting and unthinkable. But in truth, it is the ability to stay that is both wondrous and worthy of honour, though it is too often simply taken for granted and deemed the normal state of affairs. That a couple should be willing to watch their lives go by from within the cage of marriage, without acting on outside sexual impulses, is a miracle of civilisation and kindness for which both ought to feel grateful every day. Spouses who remain faithful to each other should recognise the scale of the sacrifice they are making for their love and for their children, and should feel proud of their valour. There is nothing normal or particularly pleasant about sexual enunciation. Fidelity deserves to be considered an achievement and constantly praised - ideally with some medals and the sounding of a public gong -rather than discounted as an unremarkable norm whose undermining by an affair should provoke spousal rage. A loyal marriage ought to retain within it an awareness of the immense forbearance and generosity that the two parties are mutually showing in managing not to sleep around (and, for that matter, in refraining from killing each other). If one partner should happen to slip, the other might forgo fury in favour of a certain bemused amazement at the stretches of fidelity and calm that the two of them have otherwise succeeded in maintaining against such great odds.

©Alain de Botton 2012.This is an abridged extract from How to Think More About Sex by Alain de Botton

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