Friday, 18 May 2012

Let's talk about sex, baby

To promote his new book How to think more about sex Alain de Botton took part in a live Q&A on the Guardian website.

I’m no porn evangelist. I’m well aware of the darker side both for people who make it and consumers. But de Botton is being far too paternalistic, simplistic and over-general both about porn and about sex. He makes too many assumptions both about porn users and people who work in porn. Even in the restrictive format of a Q&A, there are some serious flaws in his thinking.

The ultimate point of sex is to escape from an otherwise depressing loneliness to which we're all prone. 
What we call 'sexy' are those moments when we're accepted by someone else, leave behind the cold anonymity of the normal world and end up, for example, licking the inside of someone's mouth.

The ultimate point of sex is reproduction. Even leaving aside the biological/evolutionary motivation, the point of sex for most people is … to have sex. Because it’s fun, not as some sort of salvation or escape. Maybe occasionally, but not always, not ultimately. He may find the ‘normal world’ cold and anonymous, but most people have friends, family and other social networks. And what is the ‘normal’ world? That’s a very loaded term. Many of us would say that sex is a normal part of our world. As for ‘licking the inside of someone's mouth’ – he must be a rubbish snog.

We avoid sex not because it isn’t fun but because its pleasures erode our subsequent capacity to endure the strenuous demands which life places on us.

Who avoids sex for those reasons? He provides no evidence, even anecdotal, for any of his assertions. He’s verging on the moral preaching here – life is about earnest toil and struggle and any distraction from it is to be avoided. Most of us can manage to balance putting the bins out and having sex and we don’t neglect our children or our jobs for sex.

We shouldn't have to choose between being human and being sexual (the Ancient Greeks knew this very well).

The Greeks may not be the best role model, given their treatment of women as second class citizens. He doesn't make any distinction between male and female attitudes to porn or even touch on the serious issue of gender politics and porn/sex/sexuality.

Ideally, porn would excite our lust in contexts which also presented other, elevated sides of human nature – in which people were being witty, for instance, or showing kindness, or working hard or being clever – so that our sexual excitement could bleed into, and enhance our respect for these other elements of a good life.

Something like an episode of Frasier, perhaps. He gives no examples of how we might achieve this. He seems to be suggesting a porn scenario where a kind gentleman helps an old lady across the road on his way to do brain surgery on a small child, then some lovely lady or gentleman (or both) sees him, is inspired by his deeds and they have sex while making sparkling conversation about Proust.

Or perhaps a woman delivers a stirring speech at the UN about human rights and then gets her kit off backstage. Or has sex while making a stirring speech at the UN. And there would be kittens.

For BDSM fans, a domme disciplines a sub while reading from improving literature – something by Monsieur Alain, perhaps.

No longer would sexuality have to be lumped together with stupidity, brutishness, earnestness and exploitation; it could instead be harnessed to what is noblest in us.

Who is doing this apparently obligatory lumping? What is stupid sexuality?

He’s conflating porn and sexuality here, especially by mentioning exploitation, which is a serious flaw. It’s true that there is an exploitative element to some porn but he proposes no solution to that. Someone would still have to make his ideal porn. Or is he proposing that it is made by people with high moral ideals and exquisite good taste who want to inspire us to noble acts? Vicars, maybe? Or philosophers? What is noblest in us, anyway?

As currently constituted, pornography asks that we leave behind our ethics, our aesthetic sense and our intelligence when we contemplate it. Yet it is possible to conceive of a version of pornography which wouldn't force us to make such a stark choice between sex and virtue – a pornography in which sexual desire would be invited to support, rather than permitted to undermine, our higher values.

Do we 'contemplate' porn? His language throughout is prissy and even a bit snooty.

Has he never seen any porn that is aesthetically pleasing? He’s been looking at the wrong sort. And who is he to decide what other people consider aesthetic? How does he think our intelligence might be engaged by porn? Perhaps by having a pop-up with a crossword in it.

Sometimes all we want is down and dirty sex – does that make us bad or inferior people? He veering too close to telling us what is good sex and bad sex and not just setting himself up as a moral authority but also an intellectual and aesthetic judge. Besides, do we really care if the lighting lies like dawn on the hills of Umbria?

Does porn force us to make a choice between sex and virtue? Do we suppress our ‘higher values’ while we watch it or is it just another facet of our lives? Not everyone is deadened or brutalised by using it. He is making far too sweeping a generalization here, implying that the effect of porn is the same on everyone and that we are all at risk of becoming brutish beasts.

What are his higher values? Is it impossible to hold them while also being purely physical for a short time? There’s almost a duality being suggested here between our physical, sexual selves and our ‘better’ selves. Or, as some religious thinkers have put it, our low animal selves and our spiritual selves. The brutish self is to be suppressed or, if possible, destroyed.

Philosophies of sexual liberation appeal mostly to people who don't have anything too destructive or weird that that they wish to do once they have been liberated.

He doesn’t say what he considers destructive or weird but he is assuming too much – does he know what every campaigner or liberation philosopher thinks? It’s only when people feel liberated that they can explore their sexuality and discover what he may consider their weird side.

Pornography, like alcohol and drugs, weakens our ability to endure the kinds of suffering that are necessary for us to direct our lives properly.

He doesn’t appear to think that porn can be part of a balanced life and implies that it’s something we turn to as an escape or a distraction rather than engaging with our problems. Alcohol and drugs may be used as an escape but so may curling up on the sofa with a book and a pack of Jaffa cakes. We’re not children who need to be told how to run our lives, prevented from stuffing ourselves with sweeties rather than eating dull but healthy vegetables. He doesn't talk about weakening our moral fibre but he might as well have.

Some people use porn to enhance their relationships. Some people use it because they can’t have sex, for a whole range of reasons.

In particular, it reduces our capacity to tolerate those two ambiguous goods, anxiety and boredom. Furthermore, pornography weakens our tolerance for the kind of boredom which is vital to give our minds the space in which good ideas can emerge, the sort of creative boredom we experience in a bath or on a long train journey.

People are watching porn in the bath when they could be contemplating their existence? Thinking about life and watching porn, even a lot of porn, are not mutually exclusive. For all he knows, if someone isn’t watching porn they could be playing on their PS3. Why single out porn as a way of avoiding Big Issues?

It is at moments when we feel an irresistible desire to escape from ourselves that we can be sure that there is something important we need to bring to consciousness – and yet it is precisely at such pregnant moments that internet pornography has a habit of exerting its maddening pull, thereby helping us to destroy our future.

Yes, we really should be writing a symphony or a book telling other people how to live their lives to give ourselves a rich future.

His criticism of the easy availability of online porn is close to the wailings and warnings of other people that the internet is destroying our minds/children/civilization.

I would like to see porn that he approves of. He really should put his money where his mouth is and make some rather than just handing down moral imperatives from on high. Show us your money shot, Alain.


  1. ha ha! :-) I couldn't think of anything else to add, so i just laughed. My only gripe about most porn is that it's predictable and formula, but I guess sex is often predicatable and formula too - its just the circumstances and personalities that change the experience. I have a feeling that morally 'right-on' porn wouldn't be quite, just like christian rock bands are shit. I think i could make good porn. I also think i'd make a good DJ. And Prime Minister. But I'll stick with the day job and just look at someone elses porn offerings, when the need arises. One more thing; Men need to be stimulated to orgasm frequently to protect against prostate cancer - now that is something worth mentioning! Excellent blog TK :-D

  2. Nice work. I come away from your review feeling rather sorry for Botton. Apparently sex (and especially masturbation) is scary for him and leaves him worn out and disgusted. It never seems to be energising or uplifting.

    Do women figure in his sexual philosophy other than as objects to be classified as madonnas or whores?

    - pipsqueak