The School of Life’s How to Think More About Sex

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How to Think More About Sex (2012) by Alain de Botton
Review by Marina Buckler, Reference Librarian

How to Think More About Sex is brought to us by the London-Based (and author-founded) “The School Of Life,” a self-help center that seeks to destigmatize, redefine, and reinvigorate the self-help genre with philosophical approaches to some of our most common problems. Given that this slim volume clocks in at under 200 pages, de Botton manages to cover a lot of ground here, from why we can recount our first kiss with a new partner in such detail, to fetishism, fear of rejection, pornography, and adultery. The book is arranged into two sections (not including the introduction)–the first, titled “The Pleasures of Sex” takes up 38 pages while the second, titled “The Problems of Sex” takes up a telling 100.

In “The Pleasures of Sex,” de Botton pays close attention to ways we might be more considerate of the budding stages of attraction. Rather than spending a lot of time re-articulating the oft-cited evolutionary (and, in de Botton’s opinion at least, incredibly reductive) explanation for the pleasures of sex, de Botton posits a more humanistic idea: that the pleasure of these encounters are enhanced by “the joy we feel at emerging, however briefly, from our isolation in a cold and anonymous world.”

De Botton spends a little bit of time revelling in descriptions of the weird miracle of mutual attraction, and after that gives the reader a whole lot of Freud to sort through. Starting with ideas of how detachment feeds into yearning (“deep inside, we never quite forget the needs with which we are born: to be accepted as we are, without regards to our deeds; to be loved through the medium of our body; to be enclosed in another’s arms; to occasion delight with the smell of our skin”) to preferences formed in reaction to our parents’ failings/successes (“To explain why the man delights in his partner’s shoes, his whole past must be invoked. His mother was a successful actress who dressed in loud and immodest clothes,” “She loves the man’s watch… [which] is the same sort her father used to wear. He was a kind, playful, brilliant doctor who died when she was twelve,” etc.). His ideas are articulate, and may challenge the reader to think more critically (or to rethink more critically) about these very personal interactions, which is all in line with the mission statement of “The School of Life”. The section is quite brief, but provocative, and will appeal to a wide range of readers.

The second section of the book, “The Problems of Sex,” sees de Botton going into a little more depth. He tackles a lot of the problems associated with trying to maintain a love/sex/child-rearing relationship long-term, including boredom, fear of rejection, lack of desire, the tiny, myriad offenses that build into resentment, and the influences of outside distractions, including pornography and the ever-alluring newness promised by adultery. One of my favorite parts of this book is in the sub-section titled “Lack of Desire: Infrequency, Impotence, Resentment” where de Botton lays out some basic principles for thinking about and understanding the difficulty inherent in being vulnerable to a person you depend on. It’s one of the best chapters in the book for stating plainly some of the confusion that is seemingly inevitable–and often difficult to parse–regarding the balance necessary for finding and creating safe places within relationships to express and meet needs, an act which can involve back-tracking over insecurities, small hurts, and desires which leave us feeling ridiculous and exposed in lives in which we are often busy, tired, and disinclined to do exactly this sort of work.

De Botton does a decent job of outlining many of the presented issues, but unlike in the first section–which prompts readers to reengage with their own views and encounters with sexuality–the second section seems lacking in the sort of direct calls to action we’ve grown accustomed to in self-help manuals. Still, given the length of the book, those sorts of faults are easy enough to forgive.

All in all, How to Think More About Sex is a pretty good introduction to applied philosophy, and mixes in a variety of popular thinkers’ ideas on the topics of sex and love. While I wouldn’t recommend it for someone having real issues in their relationship, it’s a very good guide for someone considering embarking into a new relationship, who is new to relationships, or  a casual reader interested in the topic (that covers most of us, right?).

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