Alain de Botton has written a book about sex! I’m almost tempted to buy it for the hilarity — de Botton is the kind of upper-class twit lampooned by Monty Python, and I’m sure it would be full of insights about how such a person could accidentally reproduce themselves.
Joking aside, de Botton goes on to extend Worringer’s [an art historian who wrote an essay in 1907] ideas to human attraction, posing that we are attracted to other people because we see in them what we are missing in ourselves. 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).”
Damn it. My mother wasn’t hypochondriacal at all. No wonder I can’t get jazzed about the thought of sex with Natalie Portman!
It’s something that he’s using an obscure source from 1907 for his ideas — citing old sources isn’t a trump card for erudition, I’m afraid — but the rest of that goes back further: it’s the 19th century fascination with physiognomy. No, the shape of your nose or your cheekbones or your earlobes may tell you something about genes and embryonic influences on development, but it isn’t an indicator of the way your mind works. What next, will de Botton cite iridology?
Actually, we get some ignorant zoology.
The early humanoids … may have had a hard time finding food, evading dangerous animals, sewing underpants and communicating with faraway relatives, but having sex was a simple matter for them, because the one question that almost certainly never ran through the minds of male hunters as they lifted themselves up on their hirsute limbs was whether their partners were going to be in the mood that night — or whether they might instead feel revolted or bored by the sight of a penis, or just keen to spend a quiet evening tending to the fire.
Uh, the fact that they’re not Homo sapiens does not imply that they didn’t have elaborate courtship procedures and complex social mores. I suspect that human ancestors, at least since they were primates, have had quite a few rules for negotiating sex, and that there has never been a phase in our evolution where you could just tap any female on the shoulder and she’d willingly spread her legs for you…and that he thinks such a condition would be a simpler state of affairs tells us a lot about his ideals. So women submitting to sex without concern for their interests or who their partner is is a simpler condition? Only for the males.
As usual, de Botton has little consideration of actual science.
In fact, according to de Botton, porn is bad for science, since it takes up the time researchers could be using to find the cure for cancer (p. 96).
Oh, so that’s why I haven’t won a Nobel!
He also has a very 19th century attitude towards common sexual practices. Masturbation is bad for you! And most interestingly, his annoying affection for religion surfaces here: all praise for the godly who favor repression. Special praise for religions that support his sexist biases.
Masturbation and fantasy are in complete opposition to virtue, he argues, and porn is the terrible catalyst. No, not just porn — the entire internet is at fault (p. 102)! The answer, de Botton suggests, is “a bit” of censorship, “if only for the sake of our own well-being and our capacity to flourish.”
If you don’t see how helpful “a bit” of censorship might be, it is because you “have never been obliterated by the full force of sex” (help! We’ve fallen into a Philip Roth novel and we can’t get out!). Religions get this, de Botton reminds us. “Only religions see [sex] as something potentially dangerous and needing to be guarded against. (p 103)” There is a paragraph somewhere in there that seems to obliquely suggest that hijabs and burkas make sense by pointing out the excitement aroused in men by “half-naked teenage girls sauntering provocatively down the beachfront.” Indeed, “a degree of repression is necessary both for the mental health of our species and for the adequate functioning of a decently ordered and loving society.”
Pause here for a moment and consider this carefully: earlier in the book, de Botton offered an example of a woman who pretended that she wanted a relationship just so she could have sex. That was a nice example because it showed that he was aware that women, too, have desires and women, too, want sex. Unfortunately, his considerations for women began and ended in the same place. While he suggests an award for impotence to applaud men’s “depth of spirit,” he completely ignores any sexual issues women face. You caught that, right? Now look at the above paragraph again. See how the discussion of censorship targets women specifically? There is no mention anywhere about men’s audacity to cavort on the beach. It is women who must be covered. It’s the female body that must be censored.
The most depressing news here is that apparently I have a shallow spirit and don’t get a prize.
Wait…a little saltpeter* and maybe I could win an award for “depth of spirit” and a Nobel prize!
*Actually, saltpeter is really ineffective. I should instead consult this list.