After reading and liking Alain de Botton’s Manifesto for Atheists (also known as the “Atheist 10 Commandments”), I found out he had written a book about sex and society entitled How to Think More About Sex.
My first impression was “My, these are oddly specific examples. I wonder if they come from his personal experience?” That made me uncomfortable, as if I were reading the diary of some middle aged, balding man. His tone is academic, but his examples give too much unnecessary detail. A search for porn included phrases like “slutty teenagers fucking” and he gives strange details, as evident in the following:
… all he wanted was to stay home in his room with the curtains drawn masturbating to the memory of a woman’s profile that he had glimpsed on the way out of the newsagent’s.
The writing was distracting, and most of the example stories unnecessary (we know that people can type all manner of filthy things into google to search for porn without these things being listed for us), but I forced myself to finish and found he had a few worthwhile points.
On art and attraction
He attempts to answer the question “why are we attracted to certain people but not others?” After controlling for reasons evolutionary biologists would give (health, symmetry, etc), that is. Here he mentions the work of German art historian Wilhelm Worringer, who argues that we grow up missing certain things in our environment (or ourselves), and what we find beautiful in art reflects these deficits. For example, someone who is hopelessly purposeless and whimsical might revel in the beauty of Dutch still lives in their photo-realism and rigid rules, while someone who is realistic and responsible may love the dreamy work of the Impressionists.
He goes on to say that perhaps being attracted to beauty isn’t shallow and meaningless — that the face, like art, reflects something we are missing. I like the way this idea excuses our inclination to equate beauty with goodness, but there doesn’t seem to be much evidence to these claims.
On sex vs love
Here he expounds on Freud, who he quotes
Where they love, they have no desire, and where they desire they cannot love.
We learn about love from people we are forbidden to have sex with. And from people who put all of the work into maintaining that love. We focus on the wrong thing:
By overwhelming consensus, our culture locates the primary difficulty of relationships in finding the ‘right’ person rather than in knowing how to love a real — that is necessarily unright — human being.
Apparently, we have only expected that sex and love be merged in one person since the mid 18th century, and we have the bourgeoisie to blame for it. Prior to that it was accepted that there might be specialization. He mentions the troubadours of 12th century Italy as an example of people in love with romantic love who didn’t necessarily desire sex, and the libertines of early 18th century Paris as people who cared only for sex. That there should be specialization seems obvious to me — I even wrote an childish essay in high school claiming this.
His treatment of pornography was laughably heavy-handed. While I agree that it’s a huge waste of time and resources, I’m not sure there is a good way to channel those urges into something more productive. We’re agreed that it should be a goal. He seems to be in favor of internet censorship, saying dramatically “the wrong pictures may send us down a fatal track”. Unless he’s talking about auto-erotic asphyxiation, fatal may be a bit dramatic. What would he suggest as a replacement? Porn that is more like art. Or perhaps, masturbating to religious artworks. Yes, he does call the virgin Mary (as depicted in some paintings) “sexy”. I’m unsure whether using Boticelli’s The Madonna of the Book for this purpose would make people more or less disgusted with themselves after the fact.
He takes the interesting tack that we shouldn’t make such a big deal when our spouses cheat. That on the contrary, maybe it’s the wronged spouse who should apologize for being boring, ill-tempered or “simply failing to evolve and enchant.” Reflecting on wedding vows and basic expectations of monogamous relationships — it seems strange that there is so much emphasis put on faithfulness, and so little put on helping one another learn and grow. Sexual jealousy is an evolved trait that is all but useless now. Unfortunately, it still seems to figure large in most relationships.
To end this too-long book report/review, I’d like to share a wedding vow he proposes:
I promise to be disappointed by you and you alone. I promise to make you the sole repository of my regrets…. I have surveyed the different options for unhappiness, and it is you I have chosen to commit myself to.
Not terribly romantic, but it is charming in its honesty.