LIVING

Sex-pectations

PHOTO: AFP

Sex is overrated.

There, that got your attention.

I recently rewatched my all-time favourite TV comedy-drama, A Very Peculiar Practice.

It was first broadcast in Britain back in the 1980s, and is centred on a small medical practice in an English university.

In one episode, one of the doctors, Bob, in a meeting with his colleagues, remarks: "Sex is overrated nowadays, don't you think?"

This prompts raised eyebrows all around. So Bob protests: "My wife thinks so too!"

The eyebrows rise even higher.

So Bob squirms in his seat, tugs at his shirt-collar and splutters: "Well...er...anyway, stop looking at me, will you!"

Anyone who, like poor old Bob, suggests that sex might be overrated risks being suspected of simply not doing it right.

Nonetheless, the ancient Greek philosopher Epicurus (341 - 270 BC) did suggest it.

Quite unembarrassedly.

And furthermore, he backed up his claim with some convincing arguments.

THE PROBLEM WITH SEX

Epicurus was no prude. He had no hang-ups or moral qualms about sex. And he had no objection to the sexual act itself, which he considered perfectly pleasant and enjoyable.

He also recognised that sex is a normal human drive, and that it is necessary for reproduction.

So what was his problem with it?

The problem, as he saw it, was that when people become too preoccupied with sexual passion - not just with the physical act, but with all the emotional and cultural baggage that comes along with it - they are likely to make themselves unhappy.

And being unhappy is something we definitely ought to avoid, as far as we possibly can.

In a letter to a young man, one of his disciples, Epicurus wrote: "I understand from you that your natural disposition is too much inclined towards sexual passion."

He then proceeded to offer some advice: follow your inclinations, but make sure you don't break any laws, disturb any well-established customs, injure your health or waste your possessions.

He then added that the chances of the young man following his inclinations while avoiding all of those pitfalls were very slim, "for a man never gets any good from sexual passion, and he is fortunate if he does not receive harm".

Perhaps this was putting things too strongly. Or perhaps his remarks were relevant to Athenian society in the third-century BC, but not so relevant today.

But, at the same time, perhaps we shouldn't be too hasty in dismissing what Epicurus had to say.

THE GOOD AND THE BAD

Sex - using the word in the widest possible sense, to include passionate love and longing as well as the physical act - might be pleasurable and joyful sometimes.

But it is also responsible for a lot of heartache, guilt, bitterness and disappointment.

Now, Epicurus was all for the positive stuff: the pleasure and joy.

But he was equally against all of the bad stuff: the heartache, betrayal and guilt.

He argued that as passionate relationships are complicated and unpredictable, it is wise not to put too much faith in them; not to burden ourselves with unrealistic expectations.

Because if we do and when things don't turn out as wonderfully as we hope they will, we end up making ourselves miserable.

This message is still as relevant in the modern world as it was in Epicurus' time.

The message we get from love songs, rom-coms and glossy magazines is that passion and romance ought to be bliss.

But sometimes they're not. And Epicurus' message is that even when they're not, we still can and should embrace life and happiness.

gary@garyhayden.co.uk

Gary Hayden is a philosophy and science writer.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 25, 2015, with the headline 'Sex-pectations'. Print Edition | Subscribe