It is said that psychoanalysts see sex in everything, attributing any number of problems to unconscious sexual desires, but the British Lacanian psychoanalyst Darian Leader wonders if such desires are themselves cover for other motivations. As he puts it, what are we “actually doing when we are doing sex?” (“Doing” sex?) Urban legend has it that men think about sex every seven seconds; researchers have ascertained it’s more like every hour and a half – but even then, are sexy thoughts a diversion from other, unhappier ones? This might explain, for example, why porn use surges on a Sunday night and Monday, when we confront the work stress we’ve set aside for the weekend.
While we tend to view sexual desire as a primal instinct to be tamed by society, our desires and how we express them are shaped by culture. Nor, as much as we might want to have no-strings-attached sex, is it possible to separate our sex lives from our emotional lives. Within a few pages of Is it Ever Just Sex? the reader will understand that the answer to the title question is an emphatic no.
Soon after that, the reader may begin to wonder whether this book, despite its reasonable and intriguing enough starting point, is completely and irredeemably bonkers. It was here, at least, that I realised that Is it Ever Just Sex? is more than 200 pages of continuous prose, because Leader’s thoughts are seemingly too sprawling to contain in discrete chapters, or sum up in an introduction or conclusion. Occasionally, the text is broken by a dinkus: “The debates around fellatio are illuminating here,” one such section begins; another, “Let’s say a bit more here about breasts and milk.”
Leader has written books about madness, mourning and insomnia, hands and how we use them, and the psychology of art, and his writing can be elegant and full of surprising observations. Is it Ever Just Sex? is continually surprising, at least. Does he seriously believe that when we are instructed to return a supermarket product should the tamper-proof seal be broken this is “a relic of the cult of hymenal intactness”, rather than a hygiene measure? Or that toddlers develop an interest in doughnuts, bagels, macaroni and/or pretzels as part of an exploration of “bodily holes and invaginations”, an attempt to establish the boundaries of the self? Is it really psychologically significant that most people wash their hands after rather than before going to the toilet?
[See also: Lexicon of loss]
It feels undeniable that our sex drives and sexual scripts are shaped by our environment. Apparently, the frequency of oral-genital contact and breast-mouthing is predicted by whether a person has had more or less than nine years of schooling. (Is Leader suggesting that oral sex is less common among the higher educated, or more? Why might this be? He doesn’t elaborate.)
Leader also reports that though it is extraordinarily common for powerful men such as Premier League footballers and High Court judges to pay female sex workers to anally penetrate them, the practice has become less prevalent among Westminster politicians over the past two decades as their social power has eroded. It’s not clear how he knows this – but then Leader’s rendering of current affairs is impressionistic.
He writes that during a “crucial Brexit debate” in July 2018 the “most clicked on” story in the UK press was not about the negotiations but about a woman who had asked a man to tie her up and beat her. I wanted to fact-check this, but I have no idea how he determined the most clicked-on story in the UK press in July 2018. Leader believes men search for stories of assault on women as a way of keeping their own violence at a distance, their sympathy for victims sometimes masking an enjoyment of their plight. He describes the job of the media as the “curation of violence against women, usually masquerading as concern” – an interpretation that is both inaccurate and offensive to the many female journalists who write about sexual assault, a significant number of whom have experienced its horror first-hand.
Leader does not write about love or romance, seeing sex mostly in terms of violence, anxiety and power. Even in our moments of closest physical connection, we remain distant from one another, unspeaking and most likely fantasising (or, because he is a psychoanalyst, “phantasising”) about someone else. The book ends, inconclusively and anti-climactically, with the observation that when we believe sex is only about pleasure “we fail to see what we need to see in order to rethink what sex both is and might be”. According to Leader, the most common feeling after sex is relief – which is also what I felt when finishing his book.
Is it Ever Just Sex?
Hamish Hamilton, 288pp, £18.99
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[See also: To catch a catfish]
This article appears in the 07 Dec 2023 issue of the New Statesman, Christmas Special