Let's talk about sex

Time to radically rethink sex? ... Alain de Botton thinks so.
Time to radically rethink sex? ... Alain de Botton thinks so.

Many men are told they think too much about sex. Many women are told they don't think about it enough. Alain de Botton, philosopher and provocateur, believes both sexes simply need to think about it differently.

Instead of being binary or reductionist, he encourages us to reframe our relationship with sex and open our minds to alternative attitudes.

In his latest book, How to Think More About Sex, he discusses the inherent complexities of being human and having a body. A body that has urges and desires that aren't always helpful.

"Sex is not fundamentally democratic or kind. It refuses to sit neatly on top of love," he says. In fact, he says, they sit side by side. "Neither has the moral advantage... Both needs have their place in our human repertoire of feelings and desire."

But, the need for sex, he explains, is one that creates an internal conflict within us. This is because we have flesh that craves contact with other flesh, often flesh we shouldn't crave contact with. Born out of this conflict is a simultaneous desire for deviance and disgust at our deviance. It leads us to lie, to cheat, to suppress and suffer.

"Tame it though we might try, it tends to wreak havoc across our lives; it leads us to destroy our relationships, threatens our productivity, and compels us to stay up too late in nightclubs talking to people whom we don't like but whose exposed midriffs we wish to touch," he says.

"Our best hope should be for a respectful accommodation with an anarchic and reckless power."

Accommodating this 'anarchic and reckless power' involves a realisation that there is nothing 'wrong' with us.

"It is rare to go through life without feeling that we are somehow a bit odd about sex," he says.

"Despite being one of the most private activities, sex is nevertheless surrounded by a range of powerfully socially sanctioned ideas that codify how normal people are meant to feel about and deal with the matter...

"We are universally deviant - but only in relation to some highly distorted ideals of normality."

Of these so-called norms, he challenges, among other things, our stance on impotence. Instead of being viewed as some sort of masculine failing, he says it should be seen as an asset.

"Impotence is at base… a symptom of respect, a fear of causing displeasure through the imposition of our own desires or the inability to satisfy our partner's needs - a civilised worry that we will disappoint or upset others. It is an asset that should be valued as evidence of an achievement of the ethical imagination."

Another societal standpoint he challenges is our attitude towards adultery, which he says, is overrated. The action of it and the reaction to it.

"No one can be everything to another person. The real fault lies in the ethos of modern marriage, with its insane ambitions and its insistence that our most pressing needs might be solved with the help of only one other person."

Besides, he says "adultery grabs headlines, but there are lesser, though no less powerful, ways to betray a partner, including not talking to him or her enough, seeming distracted, being ill-tempered or simply failing to evolve and enchant."

On the flip side, "it is impossible to sleep with someone outside of marriage and not spoil the things we care about inside it," he says. "Spouses who remain faithful to each other should recognise the scale of the sacrifice they are making for their love… fidelity deserves to be considered an achievement and constantly praised… rather than discounted as an unremarkable norm."

This is because, he asserts, marriage tend to ruin desire, due to "the difficulty of shifting registers between the everyday and the erotic".

There are various ways of rekindling the flame though, he says, one of which is the hotel room.

In our homes, "the furniture insists that we can't change because it never does." In the sensory difference of a hotel room, however "we may make love joyfully again because we have rediscovered, behind the roles we are forced to play by our domestic circumstances, the sexual identities that first drew us together."

It is messy, rich, complex territory that de Botton is tackling. But, ultimately, he says, it is this same messy complexity that makes sex and love rewarding.

"Think of two tongues exploring the deeply private realm of the mouth—that dark, moist cavity that no one but our dentist usually enters. The privileged nature of the union between two people is sealed by an act that, with someone else, would horrify them both.

"What unfolds between a couple in the bedroom is an act of mutual reconciliation between two secret sexual selves emerging at last from sinful solitude."

This story Let's talk about sex first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.