Thou shalt (not?) commit adultery?

The greater part of our economy would be meaningless without sex as a driving force or organizing principle

Charles Assisi

Imagine a world where sex does not exist. For the sake of this argument, take procreation out of sex and consider it nothing but an act of pleasure. Almost instantly, it is then possible to imagine a world where large parts of the global economy have collapsed and businesses cease to exist.

If that sounds far-fetched, consider the Swiss British philosopher and writerAlain de Botton's take on this imagined world in his superbly written treatise:How to think more about sex.
"There would be so much less to do without sex. No one would bother to open jewelry stores, embroider lace, serve food on silver platters or hoist hotel rooms onto pontoons over tropical lagoons. The greater part of our economy would be meaningless without sex as a driving force or organizing principle. The mad energy of the trading floors, the padded gold-leaf dressing rooms of Dior on Bond Street, the gatherings at the Museum of Modern Art, the black cod served at the top of Japanese restaurants—what are all these for if not to help along the sort of processes whereby two people will eventually end up making love in a darkened room while sirens wail in the streets below?"

It is, therefore, in everybody's longer-term interests to think more about sex. But the problem with great sex, Botton argues, is that like happiness, it is an exception than the rule. If some evidence were needed, consider the responses to sex surveys by India Today and Outlook magazines. Their findings report the very act of sex, as the years progress, is viewed more a monotonous obligation than an act of joy.

The question then is how do you really think about sex? Because at the end of the day, it is not just around whether economics work and businesses flourish, but how do we live our lives.
Botton's packed itinerary did not permit a detailed interview. But between his book and many conversations with Kuldeep Datay, a Mumbai-based practising clinical psychologist who is affiliated with the Institute of Psychological Health (IPH), startlingly similar, and shockingly counter-intuitive insights emerged.

Modern marriages are built on the back of three necessities, and not necessarily in the following order:
1. The desire to have sex
2. A need to be loved romantically
3. The evolutionary urge to raise a family

These necessities are the beginning of a problem as well. "It is unfair to place all of these demands on one person and expect to feel fulfilled. It is not the natural order of things," says Datay in a matter-of-fact tone.

But it is and when they are imposed on frameworks created by contemporary morality, room emerges for conflict. "The person who wants love but gets just sex feels used. The person who is really after sex but who must pretend to want love in order to get it feels, if forced into a relationship, trapped or, if able to flee one, corrupt and dishonorable," writes Botton.

In ancient times though, most societies did not place a premium on sexual fidelity. This was true both in the East and the West as documented by various texts—both historical and mythological.
But by the beginning of the mid-18th century, as prosperity and urbanization started to seep into Europe, for various reasons, the notion of an ideal marriage, or a relationship, started to take root. This ideal demanded that all of the three necessities articulated above be embedded in one individual, with a huge premium on sexual fidelity. And if these ideals, particularly the ones to do with sex, don't stand to scrutiny, individuals are scorned as immoral.

But the problem with this Victorian framework is that when placed in the context of a marriage, it involves one spouse taking on the onus of running the home. "Tasks that often feel akin to the administration of a small business and that draws the same bureaucratic and procedural skills, including time management, self discipline, the exercising of authority, and the imposition of rules upon recalcitrant others," argues Botton.

When viewed at from a man's perspective, Datay puts it bluntly. Child-rearing later, unless worked upon very hard, a woman's body goes through significant changes. While it satisfies her man's need to raise a family, it runs the risk of derailing his sexual appetite for her.

Botton is unambiguous in that this dichotomy isn't gender specific. "…women recognize the theoretical appeal of warm, nurturing and communicative males, but are at the same time unable to deny the superior sexual attraction of those cruel bandits who will take off for another continent the moment the lovemaking is finished."

That said, Datay has witnessed many interesting cases. "I've seen couples," he says, "where if 21 boxes need to be checked on what needs to be done to makes a marriage work, 20 are ticked, but the marriage is sexless," where sexless is defined as one where a couple has sex no more than 10 times a year.

Then there are other cases where he's had to intervene, where couples converge on nothing else but lovemaking. While most couples think both of these are grounds for divorce, the courts often don't agree and refer the warring parties to counselling.

Botton contends this is tragic. "We don't choose whom we want to sleep with; science and psychoanalysis have by now made it clear that there are hidden forces that make the choice for us long before our conscious mind can have a say in the matter."

But both are unambiguous in their assessment that this is fertile ground for adultery. They are equally unambiguous in their assessments as psychologists that viewing adulterous relationships as "sinful" is rather naïve as well. "There is no right and wrong in this," says Datay.

That said, there is a flip side to adultery. What starts off as a relationship on the side intended to satisfy one or more needs missing from a marriage, is that both are seeped in idealism. Botton suggests it is impossible to sleep with someone outside of marriage and not spoil the things we care about inside it. Ironically, "just as it is impossible to remain faithful in marriage and not miss out on some of life's greatest and most important sensory pleasures along the way".

For all practical purposes, this is what is classical Catch 22. When in love, sex may be unnecessary. A secret tryst with someone you think attractive but aren't in love with can mean the death knell to your partner in love. And in raising a family, both love and sex between couples stands to be compromised because all of the attention is on the children. Not focusing on the children to set love and sex in place can threaten the future of the next generation.
Are there ways out?

Hack #1: The first on Datay's list is among the oldest tools in the book—fantasize. Try to imagine, he advises, as often as possible, what it was like when you laid your eyes on your partner for the first time and wanted to make love. And then there are times when you just have to get on with it, even if you don't want to. Because if you don't and advances made by your spouse are rejected, the consequences are humiliating to the one who initiated the advance.

Hack #2: Then there is the fact that couples live in an unchanging environment. "We can blame the stable presence of the carpet and the living room chairs for our failure to have more sex," writes Botton. "The physical backdrop becomes permanently coloured by the activities it hosts—vacuuming, bottle feeding, laundry hanging, the filling out of 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. Hence, the metaphysical importance of hotels….there is no limit to what a shared dip in an alien bath tub may help us achieve."

Hack #3: The pursuit of art in some form can have beneficial consequences to how we view sex. Consider what Edouard Manet, the celebrated French painter could do to something as lowly as a bunch of asparagus. He infused this still life painting that goes by the same name with "tumultuousness" and "turbulence"—adjectives used to describe this work by the curator of the museum where it is now housed. The point here is trying to locate the good and the beautiful beneath the layers of habit and routine.

Hack #4: Above all else, Botton suggests we rethink the platitudes used in marriage vows and make it a lot more downbeat than the swaggering optimism that accompanies it now: "I promise to be disappointed by you and you alone. I promise to make you the sole repository of my regrets, rather than to distribute them widely through multiple affairs and a life of sexual Don Juanism. I have surveyed the different options for unhappiness, and it is you I have chosen to commit myself to."

This article was first published in Mint on Nov 21, 2104. Reproduced with permission.

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About the author

Charles Assisi
Charles Assisi

Co-founder and Director

Founding Fuel

Charles Assisi is an award-winning journalist with two decades of experience to back him. He is co-founder and director at Founding Fuel, and co-author of the book The Aadhaar Effect. He is a columnist for Hindustan Times, one of India's most influential English newspaper. He is vocal in his views on journalism and what shape it ought to take in India. He speaks on the theme at various forums and is often invited by various organizations to teach their teams how to write.

In his last assignment, he wore two hats: That of Managing Editor at Forbes India and Editor at ForbesLife India. As part of the leadership team, his mandate was to create a distinctive business title in a market many thought was saturated. When Forbes India was finally launched after much brainstorming and thinking through, it broke through the ranks and got to be recognized as the most influential business magazine in the country. He did much the same thing with ForbesLife India where he broke from convention and launched the title to critical acclaim.

Before that, he was National Technology Editor and National Business Editor at the Times of India, during the great newspaper wars of 2005. He was part of the team that ensured Times of India maintained top dog status in Mumbai on the face of assaults by DNA and Hindustan Times.

His first big gig came in his late twenties when German media house Vogel Burda marked its India debut with CHIP a wildly popular technology magazine. He was appointed Editor and given a free run to create what he wanted. During this stint, he worked and interacted with all of Vogel Burda's various newsrooms across Europe and Asia.

Charles holds a Masters in Economics from Mumbai Universtity and an MBA in Finance. Along the way he earned the Madhu Valluri Award for Excellence in Journalism and the Polestar Award for Excellence in Business Journalism.

In his spare time, he reads voraciously across the board, but is biased towards psychology and the social sciences. He dabbles in various things that catch his fancy at various points. But as fancies go, many evaporate as often as they fall on him.

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