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  • Alain de Botton On 'How To Think More About Sex'

    Alain de Botton's latest book How To Think More About Sex has an eye-catching title, and is an intelligent discussion of society's greatest obsession. "We don’t think too much about sex," he says. "We’re merely thinking about it in the wrong way."

    We interviewed the British writer and public intellectual via email about how none of us are 'normal', why sex will always be difficult, and what the ultimate point of sex is for us all.

    Why did you choose to write about sex?
    I wrote it because it's rare for anyone to get through this life without feeling – generally with a degree of secret agony, perhaps at the end of a relationship, or as we lie in bed frustrated next to our partner, unable to go to sleep – that we are somehow a bit odd about sex.

    It is an area in which most of us have a painful impression, in our heart of hearts, that we are quite unusual. Despite being one of the most private of activities, sex is nonetheless surrounded by ideas about how normal people are meant to feel about and deal with the matter.

    In truth, however, few of us are remotely normal sexually. 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. So it's time to accept the strangeness of sex with good humour and courage - and start to talk about it with honesty and compassion.

    This is what my book is about: an invitation to think more about a subject we mistakenly think we know all about already.


    What are the advantages and disadvantages about society's obsession with sex?
    The problem lies in the feeling that we live at a time where we're very advanced about sex. We look back at the 19th century, or pre 1960s and think, 'Now they had a problem. Whereas we...' Well, it's not so simple. Whatever discomfort we do feel around sex is aggravated by the idea that we belong to a liberated age – and ought by now, as a result, to be finding sex a straightforward and untroubling matter.

    Despite our best efforts to clean it of its peculiarities, sex will never be either simple in the ways we might like it to be. It can die out; it refuses to sit neatly on top of love, as it should. Tame it though we may try, sex has a recurring tendency to wreak havoc across our lives. Sex remains in absurd, and perhaps irreconcilable, conflict with some of our highest commitments and values. Perhaps ultimately we should accept that sex is inherently rather weird instead of blaming ourselves for not responding in more normal ways to its confusing impulses.

    This is not to say that we cannot take steps to grow wiser about sex. We should simply realise that we will never entirely surmount the difficulties it throws our way.

    What are the biggest issues we face as a society about sex?
    It is very rare to have a lot of sex. Very few people do. There are good and bad reasons for this. Here are some of the worse one: we may not be having too much sex because our partner is angry with us - or we with them. The common conception of anger posits red faces, raised voices and slammed doors, but only too often, it takes on a different form, for when it doesn’t understand or acknowledge itself, anger just curdles into numbness, into a blank 'I'm not in the mood...'

    There are two reasons we tend to forget we are angry with our partner, and hence become anaesthetized, melancholic and unable to have sex with him.

    Firstly, because the specific incidents that anger us happen so quickly and so invisibly, in such fast-moving and chaotic settings (at breakfast time, before the school run, or during a conversation on mobile phones in a windy plaza at lunchtime) that we can’t recognise the offence well enough to mount any sort of coherent protest against it. The arrow is fired, it wounds us, but we lack the resources or context to see how and where, exactly, it has pierced our armour.

    And second, we frequently don’t articulate our anger even when we do understand it, because the things that offend us can seem so trivial, finicky or odd that they would sound ridiculous if spoken aloud. Even rehearsing them to ourselves can be embarrassing.

    We may, for example, be deeply wounded when our partner fails to notice our new haircut or doesn’t use a breadboard while cutting a bit of baguette, thus scattering crumbs everywhere, or goes straight upstairs to watch television without stopping to ask about our day. These hardly seem matters worth lodging formal complaints over. To announce, ‘I am angry with you because you’re cutting the baguette in the wrong way’, is to risk sounding at once immature and insane. But we may need to spell our complaints in order to get in the vulnerable, trusting honest mood that makes sex possible.
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