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.