Review published on June 14, 2012. Reviewed by Mike Stafford
Of all genres of book, self-help books must surely be the most maligned, and with good reason. The most revered book of the field suggests that men and women come from differing corners of the solar system, and the worst are little better than disingenuous, saccharine trash. Add sexual subject matter to the mix, and you might reasonably expect the book’s buyers to request it in a brown paper bag.
This is a reality Alain de Botton and The School of Life are well aware of, and their book series is an educated attempt to redress the balance. Founded on a belief that we are all far less well-equipped than we think we are to navigate the trials and pitfalls of modern life, The School of Life series addresses mental health, finance, activism, and in How to Think More About Sex, sex and relationships.
The title perhaps reflects a choice of salaciousness over accuracy, because de Botton recognises that the frequency of thought about sex is hardly a problem in our culture. Instead, it is the quality of thought. Even for those of us who do not consume vast quantities of pornography, sex is one of the most abundant motifs in modern life. Indeed, this is a key part of what de Botton sees as the problem. We live in an apparently liberated, enlightened age, from which sexual hang-ups should have long since been expunged. In fact, the opposite is the case; sexual imagery and discussions are often profoundly dishonest, characterised by a desire to be seen to conform. Against this backdrop, it can be easy to see oneself as somehow abnormal.
The book is divided into two contrasting sections – first the pleasures, then the problems of sex. De Botton asks us to set aside the one-dimensional, evolutionary biological understanding of sex we have come to accept, and consider that sex is so rewarding not because it fulfils a biological imperative, but because it represents our complete acceptance by another human being, a triumph over loneliness. He also recognises the anarchic, irrational thrill of the sexual urge, and its ability to entirely demolish any other plans we may have.
In the second section, de Botton overturns several traditional lines of thinking. We should set aside a morality that forces us to inextricably link commitment with sex. Citing the example of a couple each seeking just one of these, de Botton points out that both parties will be doomed to disappointment by the current model of relationships. Temporary impotence could, de Botton argues, be considered a cause for pride or celebration, marking as it does a stage in human development where equality of enjoyment for sexual partners is actually considered, distinguishing us from our more primitive ancestors. Perhaps most controversially, de Botton contends that adultery might not be seen as a heinous, irredeemable deviation from the norm of unthinking devotion, but that fidelity is actually a heroic and unlikely achievement in itself, a masterpiece of suppressing inconvenient urges.
This is, perhaps, a pessimistic view, and the same could be said for much of How to Think More About Sex. For de Botton, improving one’s sex life is not a matter of technique or of approach, but of managing expectations. The likelihood of a few mind-blowing sexual encounters in our youth representing the pinnacle of our sexual experiences is extremely high, while the likelihood of perpetual and creative sexual athleticism with the partner with whom we set about the administration of our daily life over decades is extraordinarily low. Still, the old maxim tells us that pessimists are never disappointed, and managing one’s own expectations is a far more realistic solution on a day-to-day basis than spending three hours an evening attempting to re-enact the Kama Sutra while the children are asleep next door.
The School of Life have set out to create self-help books which are intelligent, realistic and concise, and How to Think More About Sex is a resounding success on all counts. While de Botton’s upper-middle class cultural references occasionally leave one feeling like sexual inadequacy is a by-product of shopping at Waitrose, this is a thought-provoking essay, witty, easy to internalise, and well-grounded. It appears “self-help” need be an intellectual swear-word no longer.
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