Alain de Botton on Sex – Free Ebook

(APPLAUSE) Thank you very much. What I want to talk to you about tonight is how to have a better sex life. Now there’s good and bad news. The bad news is it’s not simply going to be a physical exercise. I’m not going to be able to recommend any creams, lotions or special positions. (LAUGHTER) I don’t believe that bad sex starts with a lack of ointments. I think unfortunately it starts in your head. And even though we think that we think a lot about sex, we perhaps don’t think about it enough, or not in the right ways. I want to start by asking, what makes something sexy? As it were. Before we’re looking at the problems that sex gives us, let’s consider what makes something sexy. Why are certain moments, situations, positions, especially sexy? I think it has to do with loneliness. For most of our lives we are isolated, alienated, lonely creatures who do not find an echo to some of our deepest needs in the people around us. We inhabit large, anonymous cities and then suddenly, sometimes something miraculous happens. Someone allows you deep into their mouth You can put your tongue right at the top of their upper molars (LAUGHTER) You can sniff around and it’s wonderful! Now, it’s revolting as well when we talk about it. Nothing that is sexy is not also, with the wrong person, revolting. That’s the point. (LAUGHTER) It’s sexy precisely because it’s private, because it’s a miniature utopia that you’re creating with someone. Think of oral sex. In oral sex, the dirty, poisoned, soiled side of you is, as it were, welcomed by another person. You are no longer just dirty. The dirty becomes clean. Sex symbolically cleanses us Another person accepts us, the whole of us and that is a miraculously exciting thing. It’s exciting. We call it, “It’s a turn-on.” It’s sexy, but it’s deeper than that. It’s psychologically enriching, it makes us feel fully human. Think of violence within relationships. Within loving relationships people will hit each other, scratch each other’s backs, call each other names, pull each other’s hair. What’s going on there? Trust. Weirdly it’s trust. It takes a lot of trust within a loving relationship to allow one person to hit another Violence, sexual games, all of these things they’re not signs of depravity. They’re precisely signs of our more aggressive impulses. Being accepted within a social arena. And there’s a tremendous sense of well being that comes from that. I want to ask why some people turn us on. What is a sexy person? Now, evolutionary biologists have got an answer to this question. They tell us that a sexy person is a healthy person. What we colloquially call ‘sexy’ is somebody who is symmetrical, their face is symmetrical. Evolutionary biologists have studied diseases in the womb and in the early years of life and have concluded that people who have facial deformities in later life are almost all the subject of some kind of attack, biological attack in early life. So the person we call beautiful is someone who shows a healthy lineage and we’re deeply attracted to that, the biologists tell us. Here’s the work of a guy in St. Andrew’s Who looked at pictures of lots and lots of pretty women and then distorted some of them and asked his students to rate on a scale which ones he thought, er, they thought were attractive, or not. So here are a couple from St. Andrew’s. Now, I think that most of you should find this lady more attractive. She’s a version of this one but this one’s got a nostril. Something’s gone slightly wrong with her nostril and slightly wrong with that eye and that’s why we don’t want to ask her out on a date. (LAUGHTER) We want to ask this one out on a date ‘cos she’s dead symmetrical and we are really turned on by symmetry ‘cos we want to have a child with her and that child will stand a better chance of having a long and happy life. Now, the problem with an evolutionary biological analysis of life is not that it’s wrong. It’s right. Sure it’s right. The problem is, it’s very boring. It’s very boring. Ok, so what if this is the case. That doesn’t really explain the richness of why certain people turn us on. Check out this lady. I think she’s a bit of a turn on. She was painted by Ingres in the 19th century. She’s called Madame Duvaucey She is absolutely symmetrical. Beautiful face. Researcher from St. Andrew’s would find her totally healthy from a biological point of view. But she’s much more interesting than that. When she turns us on, it’s not just that that’s turning us on. It’s the fact that we can read psychological traits in her face. She shows a certain humour, a tolerance, a dignity She’s open minded and yet strong. And when we say this woman is a turn on, we’re turned on not just by signs of her health, but by a whole person. We live in a culture where we’re often very suspicious of the body, of the surface. We hear that phrase, “She only liked me for my body.” “He only liked me for the outside of me.” and that’s taken as an insult. I want to argue that a lot of us is present in the physical envelope. It isn’t an insult to say to someone, “You turn me on.” That can be a deep analysis of who a person is, rather than just a shallow one. Now let’s think, why are we not all turned on by the same person. It’s because we all had different backgrounds. It’s because, if you’re a heterosexual male, we had very different mothers and according to who our mothers were, we might get a stronger or weaker impulse to take one of these ladies out on a date. Now, let’s imagine that your mother was a kindly soul, very reliable, very nice, but a little bit dull. Indeed on a bad day, a bit oppressive, a bit rigid. Now who would we want to take out, of course, we’d want to take out Scarlet. ‘Cos she’s a lot wilder. There wouldn’t be such a problem of rigidity with Scarlet. She’s more on the chaotic end, as Phillipa would say. So we need a little bit of that if we’re inclining toward the rigid. However, if you’ve had a very chaotic mother, she was dynamic, she was attractive, but she was all over the place. Your own real needs were not taken care of. Well, then, Natalie might come to seem a lot more attractive. So, in other words, when trying to analyse what turns us on, ask, “What’s missing in us?” The person who turns us on, is going to contain within them, all sorts of psychological traits which we’re attracted to, but slightly short of. So, what I’m trying to say is, don’t dismiss the notion of sexiness as merely a superficial category. It’s a very deep one. There’s an awful lot of human psychology in the surface analysis. Now, let’s think of the problems of sex. What are the problems of sex. Well there are really two big problems with sex. Either, we’re having too little sex. Who here is having too little sex? (LAUGHTER) Yep. Er, any? Well. Well, amazingly well sexed audience here! (LAUGHTER) Erm… Er, and some of us are having too much sex. Who’s having too much sex here? (LAUGHTER) Who’s in the grip of a sexual obsession? Come to this later. We’ll t… I’ll talk in the bar. Erm… now. Why do some of us have too little sex? Part of the problem is, that the person that we have sex with, generally, is someone we’re trying to do an awful lot of other things with. You know in some cultures and certain periods of history, people split out roles. You know, “this person I’m just gonna do the accounts with,” “this person I’m gonna raise the children with and this person I’m gonna have great sex with.” Now we’ve rolled it all into one. “This person’s going to be this person called my wife or husband,” “and I’m gonna do everything with them.” “I’m going to put out the bin bags with them,” “I’m gonna raise the children with them,” “I’m gonna have sex with them,” “I’m gonna do the accounts with them and I’m gonna plan the interior decoration of our home.” Problem is that sex gets very squashed among all these different priorities. It means that if there’s problem with any of those targets, sex takes a hit. So in order to get back to having a bit more sex, what you need to try and do, is remember what it was like to see that person when all you were trying to do was have sex with them. (LAUGHTER) Erm. Now. There’s a website. There’s a website that tries to encourage you to do that. Don’t go on it immediately – later tonight. It’s called, it’s called “postyourpartner.com” and on postyourpartner.com you take a picture of your partner naked and you stick them on and you get aroused and masturbate to the sound, to the notion, that other people are watching your spouse or your, er, your special friend, and that’s erotic. Now, what’s going on there? (LAUGHTER) What’s going on there – gotta keep a straight face! What’s going on there is that you’re using the libido of others to remind you of what it was like to fancy your partner before you started putting the bin bags out with them. You’re using them as a guide to remembering what’s a turn on. Erm, now, for those of you not into that, into postyourpartner.com there is an alternative. This is the Park Hyatt in Tokyo, it’s gonna cost you about $400 a night, but it’s perhaps more noble than the postyourpartner, but the same thing’s going on. A hotel separates out the functions and reminds you yet again of who that person was before they became so confused with other things. Incidentally, what we’re being asked to do is re-appreciate something which was always around and which we’re not looking at properly. In other words the problem with not having enough sex, is not knowing how to look properly. We should take a leaf from the eyes of painters. Painters do this all the time. Take Edouard Manet, who painted some asparagus in the 19th century and the thing was, we’ve all eaten asparagus thousands of times and don’t think about it twice, but Manet made one of the great works of the 19th century by looking at them properly, looking at them carefully. My suggestion to you is look at your partner as Manet looked at asparagus. (LAUGHTER) Bring them to life! With the same degree of repect and complexity. Now, let’s think about the other problem, which is having too much sex, or rather being in the grip of a sexual obsession. The problem with sex is that we often use it not to think about stuff that’s quite painful. Sex comes along and fills a vacuum. You know? When you don’t want to think and you’ve got something pressing. All sorts of difficult things to do and you’re in front of a computer. What might you do? Guys? Guys, what might you do? You know what you’re gonna do. Right? You know what you’re gonna do. You’re gonna… you’re gonna put something in the internet, right? And you might become grip, er, fall prey to a sexual obsession, because you’re using sex to divert you from anxiety. That anxiety’s important and you’re running away from it, to sex. Don’t. Now, some people in history have tried to tell us, not to have too much sex, not to think about too much sex. They’ve been aware of the power of sex and they’ve got us to try and do various things not to think too much about sex. and when we think about these people, we think, “Oh my goodness! How repressed they were.” “Dressing head to toe in gear.” You know, “Getting too turned on by the sight of an ankle.” This seems ridiculous. We think in the modern world that we are liberated, right? And that we don’t need to worry too much about the physical and about the erotic and about sex because it doesn’t really matter what you’re looking at. You can be thinking about, you know, micro-biology or the fate of human beings. You’re not gonna be distracted by certain visual images. These things are not gonna put you off. They’re not gonna, you’re not gonna change your priorities just ‘cos there’s somebody sunbathing, semi-naked next to you. Grow up! Now my think… my analysis is, “Yes we will.” Very many of us, very sensible people, get very, very, very affected by these sort of things. Now I’m not necessarily recommending this, but I’m thinking, let’s think about the power of sex sometimes, to draw us away from things that are very important. Let’s not let sex be used as a distraction from very necessary, internal processes. Let’s sometimes admit that a certain amount of censorship and repression is not just for the Victorians, it’s not just for the religious, it’s for all of us. If we’re trying to have a good life. Part of that good life will involve some censorship, some repression. To conclude, we’d be awfully sensible if we didn’t have a sex drive. We’d be very mature, very respectable people by now. We could take ourselves seriously, very seriously. We could almost be growing smug about the sort of people we are. How clever and wise and noble. Fortunately, we have a sex drive and that sex drive doesn’t allow us very long to think of ourselves as sensible beings, ‘cos we know what’s going on in our minds. We know every day as we ride the tube, as we walk the streets there’s stuff in our minds that if a video camera was put in there we would just look absolutely absurd. And that absurdity is rather nice, in a way. Let’s respect how ridiculous sex makes us. It gives us enormous amounts of pain. But it also gives us that vital, psychological, philosophical lesson to remind us not to take ourselves too seriously. Thank you very much. (APPLAUSE)

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