Though people are definitely buying Alain de Botton’s How to Think More About Sex, de Botton knows some readers won’t buy his book in their local bookstore. “The sales have been much higher online,” de Botton said during a recent interview. “There’s still an awful lot of shame [about sex]. Shame is the key word.”
It’s this sense of shame that de Botton’s new title seeks to shatter. The author of 12 books, many of them best-sellers, including Status Anxiety, The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work and How Proust Can Change Your Life, de Botton has earned a reputation as a skilled writer able to make the most difficult philosophical issues accessible to all readers.
Yet the impetus for his newest book came from a different project. De Botton is the founder and chairman of central London’s The School of Life. Occupying a sunny spot on a busy street near a kebab shop and several cafes, The School of Life offers classes, lectures, workshops and individual sessions on life’s thorniest issues. Anyone can step in off the street and take classes such as “How to Stay Calm,” “Spirituality Without God” or “How to Find a Job You Love.”
According to de Botton, the school is “trying to do in a physical space what I’ve been up to in books for a number of years.” Both the school and the new School of Life series published in the United States by Picador, “use culture, defined as the humanities [and] the arts, as a resource to deal with the big and small questions of life.” The goal is to drag knowledge out of academia’s ivory tower and use it to make people happy. As de Botton says, “This stuff can be useful.”
For such slim books, The School of Life series has an ambitious goal: the revitalization of one of the literary world’s most maligned genres: the self-help book. “Self-help books are tactical, often mechanical,” de Botton says. “We wanted to slightly upend that. A book can be helpful if it’s quite dark, maybe even more helpful.”
How to Think More About Sex doesn’t provide diagrams or preachy advice to help you in the bedroom. It turns out, the problem is not how much, but how we think about sex. De Botton thinks everyone would be a lot happier if we stopped worrying that we’re unhappy, lovelorn deviants. Instead, we should accept that we’re unhappy, lovelorn deviants.
According to De Botton, modern society has instilled in us impossible sexual and romantic ideals. Our inevitable failure to live up to these ideals leads to shame and anxiety. “What tortures people is the thought that other people are having a great sex life,” de Botton said. He says we’ve convinced ourselves “that sex is a birthright, one of the gifts of modern, liberated society…but it’s not true. It was never supposed to be completely easy.”
It feels like a relief, doesn’t it? Sex, fidelity, love—de Botton argues that none of it is as easy or straightforward as we are made to believe. How to Think More About Sex asks tough questions: Is anyone sexually “normal”? Is adultery so bad? How damaging is pornography? Are happy, satisfied marriages even possible?
De Botton’s answers might not fill every reader with cheer. In the “Adultery” chapter, de Botton rewrites traditional marriage vows to include: “I promise to be disappointed by you and you alone....I have surveyed the different options for unhappiness, and it is you I have chosen to commit myself to.”
Yet the intelligent warmth of de Botton’s writing can make even the bleakest claims palatable. How to Think More About Sex never condescends to the reader, and it also never loses sight of humor. “A useful self-help book on this subject ought hence to focus on the management of pain rather than its outright elimination,” de Botton writes in the introduction. “We should hope to find a literary version of a hospice, not a hospital.”
But if How to Think More About Sex is a hospice, then it is a comfortable one with a caring staff. And this seemingly discouraging pessimism is actually a specific part of de Botton’s larger argument. “A little darkness can correct the problem of feeling persecuted,” de Botton says. By facing the truth about sex, love and marriage, he argues, we can do away with many of the anxieties associated with some of the strongest forces in our daily lives.
Despite the weighty topics and scandalous issues, de Botton says his goal is that “people have fun and they learn stuff.” Students of de Botton’s school of life won’t have true happiness just handed to them. But if they’re brave enough to pick up the books, then they’ll face the questions that can lead them there.Richard Z. Santos is working on his first novel. He's a member of the NBCC and PEN; his work has appeared in Nimrod, The Rumpus, The San Antonio Express News, and many other publications.