Stylist’s first sex survey revealed that 65% of you want more sex. Philosopher Alain de Botton explains what’s getting in the way…
It’s rare to get through this life without feeling we are somehow a bit odd about sex – generally with a degree of secret agony, perhaps at the end of a relationship, or as we lie in bed frustrated next to our partner, unable to go to sleep. It’s an area in which most of us have a painful impression, in our heart of hearts, that we are quite unusual. Despite being one of the most private activities, sex is surrounded by ideas about how normal people are meant to feel and deal with the matter. In truth, however, few of us feel remotely ‘normal’ sexually. We are almost all haunted by guilt and neuroses; by phobias and disruptive desires; by indifference and disgust. We tell ourselves we are universally deviant, but only in relation to distorted ideals of normality.
None of us approach sex as we think we are supposed to, with the cheerful, sporting, non-obsessive outlook that we torture ourselves into believing other people are endowed with. We’re aware that good sex isn’t just fun, it keeps us sane and happy. Having sex with someone makes us feel wanted, alive and potent. It repairs our self-esteem and leaves us ready to greet the world beyond the bedroom with greater confidence and courage. Good sex is more than a mere luxury – more than self indulgence – it’s a route to a certain kind of mental health.
It’s time to accept the strangeness of sex with humour and courage, and to start to talk about it with honesty and compassion. You would think there’s more than enough chatter about sex in the world already, but much of it is of the wrong kind, the sort that encourages us to expect a degree of ease and perfection which is simply unrealistic. We think we’re liberated, but really there’s too much embarrassment about the reality of sex. A bit more frankness in this area shouldn’t be thought shocking, it’s in the interests of living well. What, therefore, are some of the things that get in the way of that mythic ideal: great sex?
To begin with, and most innocently, the lack of sex within established relationships typically has to do with the difficulty of shifting registers between everyday work life and the erotic. The qualities demanded of us when we have sex stand in sharp opposition to those we employ in conducting the majority of our other, daily activities at the office. Relationships tend to involve, if not immediately then within a few years, the running of a household and often the raising of children. These tasks often feel akin to the administration of a small business and draw upon many of the same bureaucratic and procedural skills, including time management, selfdiscipline, exercising authority and imposing an agenda of renunciation upon recalcitrant others.
"Good sex isn’t just fun, it keeps us sane and happy"
Sex, with its contrary emphases on imagination expansiveness, playfulness and a loss of control, must by its very nature interrupt this routine of regulation and self-restraint. It threatens to leave us unfit, or at the least disinclined, to resume our administrative duties once our desire has run its course. The worry is that by letting go, we’ll never be able to pull ourselves back together again: we’ll always be somewhat unravelled, vulnerable, dishevelled human beings – and that’s not the way that most of our family and working responsibilities enable us to be. We avoid sex not because it isn’t fun but because its pleasures erode our subsequent capacity to endure the strenuous demands life places on us.
Our failure to notice the erotic side of our partner can also be closely related to the stable environment in which we lead our daily lives. We should blame the unchanging presence of the carpet and the living room chairs for our failure to have more sex, because our homes guide us to perceive others according to the attitude they normally exhibit in them. The physical backdrop becomes permanently coloured by the activities it hosts – vacuuming, bottle feeding, hanging laundry, filling out tax forms – and reflects the mood back at us, thereby subtly preventing us from evolving. The furniture insists that we can’t change because it never does. Human nature takes its cue from what is all around; we become pious in churches, quiet in museums and in the wrong sort of home, a touch too domestic.
Hence the metaphysical importance of hotels. Their walls, beds, comfortably upholstered chairs, room service menus, televisions and small, tightly wrapped soaps can do more than answer a taste for luxury; they can also encourage us to reconnect with our long-lost sexual selves. There is no limit to what a shared dip in an alien bath tub may help us to achieve. 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 which first drew us together. This act of fresh perception will have been critically assisted by towelling bathrobes, a complimentary fruit basket and a view out of a window onto an unfamiliar harbour.
We may not be having too much sex because our partner is angry with us – or we with them. The common conception of anger posits red faces, raised voices and slammed doors, but only too often, it takes on a different form. And when it doesn’t understand or acknowledge itself, anger just curdles into numbness, into a blank “I’m not in the mood…”.
There are two reasons we tend to forget we are angry with our partner, and hence become anaesthetized, melancholic and unable to have sex with them. Firstly, because the specific incidents that anger us happen so quickly and so invisibly, in such fast-moving and chaotic settings (at breakfast time, before the school run, or during a conversation on mobile phones in a windy square at lunchtime) that we can’t recognise the offence well enough to mount any sort of coherent protest against it. The arrow is fired, it wounds us, but we lack the resources or context to see how and where, exactly, it has pierced our armour. And second, we frequently don’t articulate our anger even when we do understand it, because the things that offend us can seem so trivial, finicky or odd that they would sound ridiculous if spoken aloud. Even rehearsing them to ourselves can be embarrassing.
"The rise in internet porn has damaged a lot of sex lives"
We may, for example, be deeply wounded when our partner fails to notice our new haircut or doesn’t use a breadboard while cutting a bit of baguette, scattering crumbs everywhere. These hardly seem matters worth lodging formal complaints over. To announce, “I am angry with you because you’re cutting the baguette in the wrong way”, is to risk sounding at once immature and insane. But we may need to spell out our complaints in order to get in the vulnerable, trusting, honest mood that makes sex possible.
The rise in internet porn has damaged a lot of sex lives. People may find, to their alarm, that their partner’s libido has mysteriously sex vanished. It hasn’t, it’s just been given over to the computer. An unwitting alliance between the IT industry on the one hand and thousands of pornographic content providers on the other has exploited a design flaw of the human mind. A mind originally designed to cope with little more sexually tempting than the occasional sight of a tribeswoman across the savannah is rendered helpless when bombarded by continual invitations to participate in erotic scenarios far exceeding any dreamt up by the diseased mind of the Marquis de Sade. There is nothing robust enough in our psychological make-up to compensate for developments in our technological capacities, nothing to arrest our passionate desire to renounce all other priorities for the sake of a few more minutes (which might turn out to be four hours) in the darker recesses of the web. Porn is so immediate and intense, it destroys our capacity to engage in the far more human and low-key business of actual sex. The best solution may simply be to lock away the computer, and to discuss the temptations with honesty. Porn shouldn’t be spoken of as simply ‘revolting’, it’s nice for some, but in a way that destroys things that are more than simply nice; that are essential to life.
It’s paradoxical that children are created by sex but also have a nasty habit of killing off sex. Their presence is both delightful and entirely unconducive to the sort of erotic feelings that (way back when) made sex possible. Part of the problem is that our partners have a habit of turning into our parent figures rather than equals once we’ve got kids. We cease to look at partners as erotic figures when we spend the greater part of every day acting in the roles of ‘Mummy’ or ‘Daddy’. Even though we are not each other’s intended audience for these performances, we must nevertheless be constant witnesses to them. Once the children have been put to bed, it may not be uncommon for one partner – in one of those slips of meaning Sigmund Freud so enjoyed – to refer to the other as ‘Mum’ or ‘Dad’, a confusion which may be compounded by the use of the same sort of exasperated disciplinarian tone that served all day long to keep the young ones in line.
“Though we may try to tame it, sex has a recurring tendency to wreak havoc in our lives”
It can be hard for both parties to hold on to the obvious yet elusive truth that they are in fact each other’s friends and partners, not colleagues at a nursery. The way out of this sterility is not of course to begin all over again with a different partner, for if we’re not careful fresh candidates will themselves end up morphing into sexless figures, too, once the relationship has taken root. It is not a new person we require, but a new way of perceiving a familiar one. The issue is a matter of how we look at our partner. To keep our sex lives alight, we need imagination. We should try to locate the good and the beautiful beneath the layers of habit and routine. We may so often have seen our partner pushing a buggy, arguing with a toddler, crossly berating the electricity company and returning home defeated from the workplace that we have forgotten that dimension in him or her which remains adventurous, impetuous, cheeky, intelligent and, above all else, alive.
Whatever discomfort we do feel around sex is commonly aggravated by the idea that we belong to a liberated age – and ought by now, as a result, to find sex a straightforward and untroubling matter. Despite our best efforts to clean it of its peculiarities, sex will never be simple in the ways we might like it to be. It can die out; it refuses to sit neatly on top of love, as it should. Tame it though we may try, sex has a recurring tendency to wreak havoc across our lives. Sex remains in absurd, and perhaps irreconcilable, conflict with some of our highest commitments and values.
Perhaps ultimately we should accept that sex is inherently rather weird, instead of blaming ourselves for not responding in more normal ways to its confusing impulses. This is not to say that we cannot take steps to grow wiser about sex. We should simply realise that we will never entirely surmount the difficulties it throws our way.
How To Think More About Sex by Alain de Botton (Pan, £7.99) is out 10 May as part of a series examining work, sex, money, emotional maturity, digital life and changing the world. To celebrate, The School of Life is touring in London, Edinburgh, Dublin and Manchester. For information visit theschooloflife.com
Picture credit: Rex Features
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