Montag, 18. Februar 2013

The birds and the bees and Alain de Botton

...or how to write very wrong things about sex.
So, Alain de Botton philosophizes about sex. There's nothing wrong about that per sé, many people do and some of them even publically. But it becomes a problem when you write a lot of deeply problematic and very damaging things about sex and dress it up as philosophy and some deep knowledge about human sexuality.
Trigger warning ahead and TMI warning, too.

And that's what de Botton ultimately does in many, many innocently abused words:
Sex, we have been led to believe, is as natural as breathing. But in fact, contends British philosopher Alain de Botton, it is "close to rocket science in complexity." It's not only a powerful force, it's often contrary to many other things we care about. Sex inherently sets up conflicts within us. We crave sex with people we don't know or love. It makes us want to do things that seem immoral or degrading, like slapping someone or being tied up. We feel awkward asking the people we love for the sex acts we really want.
The beginning is problematic already. I don't know how Alain de Botton or the editors who wrote this introductory paasage get through life. Maybe he just gets up in the morning, slips into an elaborately embroidered housegown, makes a cup of tea, gets into his armchair in the library and thinks deeeeeep thoughts all day, but for most people life is full of conflicts. My desire to stay in bed is in conflict with my kids' desire for breakfast AND my college timetable. My desire to spend time with them is in conflict with my desire to get a college degree. Life is hard. Come to think about it, my conflicts about sex are relatively small and easy to solve. Actually, once I stopped worrying too much about my desire to be tied up because it's "degrading", that conflict simply vanished and I could just enjoy it.
In his own opening paragraph he gets actually close to something: how sex and sexual desires are policed in society, how we're only sanctioned to enjoy a narrow range of the full rainbow. And then he loses it. It would have been a better article if he'd stopped there.
Nothing is erotic that isn't also, with the wrong person, revolting, which is precisely what makes erotic moments so intense: At the precise juncture where disgust could be at its height, we find only welcome and permission.
This small part shows what for me seems to be at the root of de Botton's problem: A deep misunderstanding about sex, eroticism and consent. He sees sex as something deeply troublesome as such, where disgust is the norm and eroticis and sexual pleasure as the exception. That's putting the carriage before the horse, if you ask me.
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.
WTF? I don't even know what this is supposed to mean. I only see innocent words that are hurting. This sentence makes me want to write an S for style on my screen with a sharpie.
 Why is sex more difficult to talk about in this era, not less?
What makes him think it is? This seems to be the first aera at least in the western world we have finally started to talk about sex. It's the first time we try to break the narrow societally approved norms about sex for real. We talk about sex being more tham making babbies, about homosexuality, kink, everything. That's not easy, but that's due to the narrow definition of sex, not because of sex.
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. Our best hope should be for a respectful accommodation with an anarchic and reckless power.
That's bad. That's really bad and I don't mean the horrible things sex makes us do. I mean his view on people being so horribly controlled by sex. And by people he obviously means men, because "exposed midriffs" are pretty much gendered.
 Involuntary physiological reactions such as the wetness of a vagina and the stiffness of a penis are emotionally so satisfying (which means, simultaneously, so erotic) because they signal a kind of approval that lies utterly beyond rational manipulation.
Figleaf on "Bad Men Project" has already written about the seriously problematic and rape-apologist issues with this part, much better than I could, so go there and read it. I want to focus on the "lesser" evil of this passage: Sexual arousal is indeed not easily controlled by willpower. But it's also not tied neatly to "emotional satisfaction" and approval". Our bodies are machines and they react to stimuli. My vagina reacts to the physical stimuli of sitting on a hard chair for a prolonged time. Getting horny towards the end of a lecture is mostly annoying. It has nothing to do with any approval of the lecture or my desire to fuck anybody present. It also doesn't mean that failure to get wet or an erection means disinterest in sex or dissatisfaction. In this world, erectile dysfunction and vagial dryness exist, the latter especially among post-menopausal women. Does that mean we lose the sex-drive with the baby-making ability?
In a world in which fake enthusiasms are rife, in which it is often hard to tell whether people really like us or whether they are being kind to us merely out of a sense of duty, the wet vagina and the stiff penis function as unambiguous agents of sincerity.
Even if all the other stuff weren't a problem, this is another one of de Botton's fails where he mystically ties up sex and stuff. Even if a wet vagina and an erect penis were sincere indicators, they would be sincere indicators of only one thing: a desire to fuck.
 A kiss is pleasurable because of the sensory receptivity of our lips, but a good deal of our excitement has nothing to do with the physical dimension of the act: It stems from the simple realization that someone else likes us quite a lot.
Again I'm asking myself: what planet does this man live on? Do you remember your first kiss? The first real snogging with tongue and spit and inexperienced touching for other body parts? Man it was great. It was also the result of 2 beers and laughing our asses off over some Jehova's Witnesses pamphlets. I never saw the boy again.
What is the lure of sex in the back of an airplane?
Yes, I'd like to know that, too. De Botton gets it almost right again, talking about societally permitted forms of sexuality and the hotness of transgression, but the way this stands so isolated from the rest of his article it leaves questions, mostly "yeah, what?"
Why is "Not tonight, Dear" so destructive?
Stop that gendered crap NOW! I'm pretty sure that de Botton would deny that this phrase has a gendered meaning, but whom are we kidding? One bazillion movies and TV-series have taught us that this sentence is said by the woman. It reinforces the trope that men want sex and women withhold it (remember the naked bellies and the nightclub?)

Logic might suggest that being married or in a long-term relationship must guarantee an end to the anxiety that otherwise dogs attempts by one person to induce another to have sex. But while either kind of union may make sex a constant theoretical option, it will neither legitimate the act nor ease the path toward it. Moreover, against a background of permanent possibility, an unwillingness to have sex may be seen as a far graver violation of the ground rules than a similar impasse in other contexts.
Ground rules? GROUND RULES? What fucking ground rules? Or are these the good old ground rules that women have to say yes whenever their husband asks? Also, please don't project your personal issues onto other people. Seriously, I don't know what his problems are, but most  couples, especially those who have established communication and respect for their partner(s) and their sexuality are perfectly able to deal with "no tonight, Dear".

Why is impotence an achievement?
There are few greater sources of shame for a man, or feelings of rejection for his partner. The real problem with impotence is the blow to the self-esteem of both parties.
I don't know, but didn't somebody just lecture us on how the erection is the only sincere indicator? So, he actually realizes the harm the perpetuation of such bullshit causes and it apparently doesn't make him think twice? Toddlers are better at playing "connect the dot".
Also, the real problem with impotence is that it is often a medical problem that gets ignored because people bullshit about its deep philosophical implication.
 We are grievously mistaken in our interpretation. Impotence is the strangely troublesome fruit of reason and kindness intruding on the free flow of animal impulses, of our new inclination to wonder what another might be feeling and then to identify with his or her potential objections to our invasive or unsatisfactory demands.
 This is de Botton's troublesome view on sex again. To him it seems to be a transaction, something one takes and another one gives instead of something two people mutually enjoy. To the guy who doesn't get it up because he worries about whether his advances are welcome I have one tip: Use your mouth. It's a much better indicator whether your partner wants to be fucked in a certain way than wetness or erections.
All but the least self-aware among us will sometimes be struck by how distasteful our desire for sex can seem to someone else, how peculiar and physically off-putting our flesh may be, and how unwanted our caresses.
Again, this leaves me wondering a lot about de Botton's own mind and history more than it makes me think about sex as such. But I guess that if you're constantly wondering about how groos and disgusting you and your sexuality are it definetly leads to trouble.
What do religions know about sex that we don't?
Probably nothing.
 Only religions still take sex seriously, in the sense of properly respecting its power to turn us away from our priorities. Only religions see it as something potentially dangerous and needing to be guarded against.
Well, we had the male-centric view, now cue in the Eurocentric view. Not all religions and cultures are obsessed about sex. Apparently "religions" in this context means "Abrahamic religions." Other religions and cultures seemed to have had a more fun view on sexuality (I once had the luck to see some of the vases for real. Gorgeous, I tell you, gorgeous.)
  Perhaps only after killing many hours online at can we appreciate that on this one point religions have got it right: Sex and sexual images can overwhelm our higher rational faculties with depressing ease. Religions are often mocked for being prudish, but they wouldn't judge sex to be quite so bad if they didn't also understand that it could be rather wonderful.
Maybe it escaped de Botton, but when the Abrahamic religions laid down their screwed sex rules, youporn hadn't been invented yet. That would be one piece of evidence for some god: a real, straightforward commandment laid down 4.000 bc that says "Thou shalt not watch Youporn". In pseudo King James Bible English. Also, citation fucking needed. It is again this bizarre world de Botton lives in, a world in which we don't understand the very un-sexy reasons for religious rules about sex, the rules that are about power and property, not about fun sexy-times and youporn. And it's again de Botton being unaware of the damage his philosophical wankery causes in the real world. He gives Abrahamic religious ideas and their deep anti-woman, anti-gay and anti-consent nature authority and approval. He does not spend one word on the abuses and hurt caused by religious rules about sexuality, especially not those that deal with the consequences like abortion.
Does marriage ruin sex?
A gradual decline in the intensity and frequency of sex between a married couple is an inevitable fact of biological life, and as such, evidence of deep normality—although the sex-therapy industry has focused most of its efforts on assuring us that marriage should be enlivened by constant desire.
Citation fucking needed. Especially the "inevitable fact of biological life". I'm willing to conceed that at 80 you're probably lacking the stamina you had at 20, but I'm unconvinced that this is triggered by a marriage certificate.
 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.
Again a totally unevidenced opinion. Why and how? Because I don't fucking see it. Empathy, a desire to please, a healthy dose of self-respect, a will to compromise and a will to set boundaries, mutual understanding and affection, those things are the qualities my relationship demands in every. single. aspect. From dinner planning to the holidays.
Marriage tends to involve—if not immediately, then within a few years—the running of a household and the raising of children, tasks that often feel akin to the administration of a small business and call on many of the same skills.
Heteronormative breeder bullshit. Says this hetero mum. Yeah, running a family is hard, that's why I appreciate a good fuck even more.
 Sex, with its contrary emphases on expansiveness, imagination, playfulness, and a loss of control, must by its very nature interrupt this routine of regulation and self-restraint. We avoid sex not because it isn't fun but because its pleasures erode our subsequent capacity to endure the strenuous demands that our domestic arrangements place on us.
As much as this leaves to speculate about de Botton's sex life, it leaves us at least clear that he has never run one of these small-business families with young kids. Because nobody teaches you playfulness and imagination like your kids. And again, who's this "we" who avoids sex then? For me it's actually one of the things that makes me able to "endure" the demands of a busy life. Especially the most important contrast to everyday life, the lack of kids is what makes it so wonderful and important, the ability and opportunity to hang the mummy and daddy coats away for a bit of airing and to slip back into the lover-suits to keep the thing going that was there before the kids came and that we still want to have once the kids are out of the house. Jesus fucking Christ, that man really has a bad view on life and sex.

Teal Deer.
This is only the end of page 2 of de Botton's article and I feel the need to do something naughty now just to make sure I wasn't sucked into complicated de Botton-verse.
It's not all bad, though.
Whenever a young aspiring writer approaches you and asks you "how should I write about sex", you can always show them de Botton's article and tell them "not like that".

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