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Naked in Print

There is something deeply personal in writing about sex, even in an academic sense. You can’t do it with your clothes on, not your metaphorical clothes anyway.

You don’t necessarily have to reveal your own desires, but you do reveal your prejudices. They are right there in what you chooe to write about sex. What do you take for granted? What is unusual enough to need an explanation? What is weird enough that a cause must be discovered and shared?

Sex and the 405 has a lovely essay up about Alain de Botton’s new book, How to Think More About Sex that tells us more about how de Botton thinks about sex than I ever wanted to know. I had heard the book wasn’t very good, mainly in that it assumed sex all happened from a male perspective, but the problems appear to run far deeper. The essay is appropriately titled “Alain de Botton Tries Hand at Sex, Fails“.

Not content to reinforce the unhealthy (if slightly romantic) notion that we need another human to be “complete,” de Botton pens an ode to the virgin/whore construct by comparing Scarlett Johansson’s features to those of Natalie Portman, giving each a completely subjective meaning (“her cheeknoes indicate a capacity for self-involvement,” he says of Johansson). “We end up favoring Natalie, who is objectively no more beautiful than Scarlett, because her eyes reflect just the sort of calm that we long for and never got enough of from our hypochondriacal mother (p. 56).”

That unfortunate dichotomy comes up again later when de Botton accuses women of also engaging in it (via the “nice guy/bastard complex” p. 71) as part of a discussion on why it is difficult to keep passion alive in long-term relationships. Unfortunately, before we can really understand what he is trying to say, we’re back to Freud, this time to visit “On the Universal Tendency to Debasement in the Sphere of Love.” Those who are familiar with it may take a moment to roll their eyes here.

For those of you who aren’t, let us summarize the logic of this chapter: we were denied sex with the people who taught us what love is (our parents); as a result, we seek our parents in lovers; we become weirded out by (and thus unable to have sex with) our long-term partners as they begin to age and we recognize our parents in them; and this is why some are so likely to run off with a younger lover. This is not a pathetic search for lost youth! This is poignant! “The parental ghosts have subsumed their partners and, as a result, rendered impossible any sexual intimacy with them (p. 74).”

There are a lot of utterly fascinating explanations like these in this book.

I find myself wondering just how it is that someone’s whose thinking on sexual theory is a century out of date and whose knowledge about sexual science is four decades behind can possibly get a book contract for something like this. Well, no, there is plenty of audience for outdated facts and mores, so I get that. Perhaps a better question would be why someone who makes their living on their reputation as a thinker would publish this.

I now know far too much about how de Botton thinks about sex. I still have no idea what he was thinking letting it all hang out in public like this.

Comments

  1. D. C. Sessions says

    Is it really so hard to grasp what are arguably the two most basic facts of being a human being in a society of other human beings:

    1) Other people are not like me
    2) That is, on balance, a good thing

    It’s hard for me to imagine people getting along in society without those two, but I bow to the observed reality. My own limitations are obviously not binding on the rest of y’all.

  2. says

    “her cheeknoes[sic] indicate a capacity for self-involvement,”

    if this isn’t phrenology yet, it’s at least really fucking close to it.

    *facepalm*

  3. Rory says

    Just that bit about Scarlett Johansson and Natalie Portman made me facepalm so hard I almost got a nosebleed. From this an observer may conclude that the somewhat flattened appearance of my nose reflects my incredulity that such an idiotic statement would be in an actual book that people might read.

  4. 'Tis Himself says

    we become weirded out by (and thus unable to have sex with) our long-term partners as they begin to age and we recognize our parents in them

    I’m 64 and the wife is mumblety years younger than me. How can I explain to her that de Botton doesn’t believe we’re able to have sex? The conversation would go something like:

    “Dear, you remember the Monty Python sketch about the “Upper Class Twit of the Year Competition”? Well, one of the contestants, an Alain de Botton, thinks we’re too old to have sex because we remind each other of our parents and so sex between us would be like incest.”

    “Oh. Okay. So when are you coming to bed? I’m feeling horny.”

  5. smrnda says

    I wish people would quit pretending that there’s some one true narrative or set-up for how people think and feel about sex.

    I get sick of the universal assumptions like ‘it’s hard to keep passion alive in a relationship’ In whose relationship? is everybody getting less sensual over time, or are some people fairly constant over a long time together? Why is anybody still doing this good girl/bad girl good guy/bad guy dichotomy still? It does say more about them than people in general if they’re still pushing this antiquated nonsense. Don’t some people also dislike their parents, and what lovers and partners that are nothing like the people they grew up around?

    Perhaps the best type of writing someone can do about sex is personal, just detailing one’s own feelings, preferences, experiences and fantasies. Many authors made a career out of this, and the best ones (in my opinion) realized that they were unusually but possibly instructive cases.

  6. David Marjanović says

    lolwut

    Looks like de Botton writes about sex the exact same way he writes about atheism: he projects, not knowing that not everyone is exactly like him in experience, knowledge, personality and so on… or anywhere near similar to him for that matter.

  7. Godless Heathen says

    The original post quoted a section where he basically implied that masturbation is wrong because it doesn’t allow you to connect with a person when you orgasm (and orgasm is the only time when we aren’t alone.

    “… de Botton assures the reader that orgasm really is the supreme moment (ugh), the only time we’re not all alone in this world, he says that analyzing what we consider sexy is ‘the only way we will understand that eroticism is the feeling of excitement we experience at finding another human being who shares our values and our sense of the meaning of existence.'”

    “In short: masturbation is not an activity that is natural and healthy or even a decent way to get to learn what we find pleasurable. Neither is it acceptable that we might have sex with people with whom we have no common purpose.”

    I really want to read this book, but don’t want him to get any money from me for it.

  8. postman says

    Objectively no more beautiful. Has the meaning of objectivity changed? Then, I will say this. Objectively, I am the most beautiful human alive.

  9. smrnda says

    Here’s something I have never understood – de Botton is spouting the usual deal that somehow, being more repressive or restrictive about sex makes it more ‘special.’ The problem is I don’t see anyone advocating for this type of policy when it comes to anything else.

    Would de Botton advocate eating bland, tasteless food day after day, so that, occasionally, on special days, we would eat tasty food and it would be so much more special since we’d be contrasting it to the bland foods we eat most of the time? Would he argue that we should spend winters outside or in drafty buildings and only occasionally enjoy warmth and heat to keep it special? Should we only bathe on occasion so the feeling of being clean would remain special, and not a dull, everyday thing?

    The worst thing is, from what I’ve read, this guy might actually think that. I think it’s a psychological issue – it’s feeling guilty about actually enjoying life, with the idea that anything good has to be dealt out in tiny, miniscule doses. He probably can’t stand the idea that other people are having more fun than him.

    As for orgasm being this ultimate moment, how many orgasms does a sexually active person have in a year? I’m sure that quite a few events are bigger and more memorable than that. Even among people with this ‘sacramental’ view of sex, can’t they admit that they’re having sex often enough that it can’t be the biggest event ever?

  10. David Marjanović says

    Objectively no more beautiful. Has the meaning of objectivity changed?

    …Oh yeah. That’s so stupid I overlooked it. Thanks for pointing it out.

  11. hexidecima says

    all I could think of even when reading the review is “wait, wut?” Botton thinks cheekbones show personality? Poor poor Botton, such hmmm, projection I guess? Can we do Freud with his proposed atheist temple too?

  12. smhll says

    It might be fun for a skeptical book group to take this book line by line and play “spot the fallacies” and “spot the assumptions”.

  13. F says

    What do you take for granted? What is unusual enough to need an explanation? What is weird enough that a cause must be discovered and shared?

    That’s goddamned surgical. A fantastically useful lens (you know, like the symbolic icon of the detective’s magnifying glass) with which to observe any subject. More interesting, in fact, than everything I’ve read about the current de Botton* flap.

    *Who is clearly in need of some sort of remedy, no doubt, and one more reason people tend to categorically mock philosophers, who are not all so lazy, awful, and self-involved.

  14. Snoof says

    I really want to read this book, but don’t want him to get any money from me for it.

    You could try a public library, if there’s one convenient for you. If they don’t have the book, they might even be able to organise an inter-library loan.

  15. mildlymagnificent says

    one more reason people tend to categorically mock philosophers, who are not all so lazy, awful, and self-involved.

    But we really should acknowledge that there’s a persistent smallish sector in philosophy (or maybe just its popularising arm) whose notion of scholarship is severely limited. They stick resolutely to a model of ‘scholarship’ that requires slavish adherence to historical ideas and prefers decades or centuries old material to that of recent years or from other disciplines.

  16. Kate from Iowa says

    I was raised by a single mother, so thank you, sir, for explaining why I’m not a lesbian! Or wait…am I supposed to be a lesbian? Just a sec, I was denied lov/sex by the family I had…does that include siblings, cause there were four of us, so I sould maybe be bi? And only as I age become not attracted to women? Or only the ones that look like my mother? And I can never masturbate at all, or I just have to stop early? And I should use calipers to measure the cheekbones of the women I’m not supposed to be able to love/sex? What about the men, do I measure thier cheekbones too? What exactly is the proper cheekbone to eye ratio?

    SO MANY QUESTIONS!!!

    This guy has issues.

  17. says

    I believe this is what’s known as letting your id show a bit too much.

    This book sounds like an excellent choice for a psychology or anthropology upper-level course. Why? Because it would be awesome to get the students to dissect a chapter and try and find every ignorant assumption, misuse of science, and generally stupid thing. It could be a contest! It would be so much fun.

    But I wouldn’t want to give him the idea that someone was using his book for a class. ::sigh:: Oh well.

  18. Sisu says

    Because it would be awesome to get the students to dissect a chapter and try and find every ignorant assumption, misuse of science, and generally stupid thing.

    My college statistics prof used The Bell Curve in her class in exactly that way! It was an awesome use of the text.

  19. Godless Heathen says

    @Snoof,

    My public library doesn’t own a copy yet. Otherwise I would have gone there right after work yesterday!

  20. says

    The bit about the ideal pornography being Christian art really kind of sums up de Botton’s whole schtick in my mind. “Masturbation is bad, but if you must, masturbate about religion.” Pretty well covers his sex and atheism 2.0 nonsense.

    Well, that and “what do you mean not everyone thinks like me? What is this ‘progress’ of which you speak?”

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