Against Sexual Solutionism


I have just started reading the fascinating new book by Evgeny Morozov, To Save Everything, Click Here. The book is a critique specifically of internet utopianism – the belief that technology alone is going to create a perfect world – but he interprets it as a symptom of a broader mindset, which he calls solutionism. Solutionism sees the world as a set of puzzles to which there must be a solution, rather than a set of problems we have to wrestle with, debate, and try to resolve in whatever imperfect and temporary way we can.

I read a lot of writing about sex: by advice columnists, psychologists, and self-proclaimed social commentators. And a lot of this writing is very good. But much of it also reveals that we have become a society of sexual solutionists.

Unlike Morozov’s internet solutionists, sexual solutionists don’t use technology to solve the puzzles they face. Instead, they use a few basic axioms, which they are confident are sufficient on their own, if adequately understood, to pretty much solve whatever tricky dilemma you face in your life. So they look impressive, let’s call them The Solutionist Axioms. They go something like this:

Be yourself. Be honest and open with people all the time, especially your partner. (Communication is SO important!) Respect other people, and treat them with respect. And don’t judge yourself or others for anything if what you’re doing doesn’t immediately harm another person.

Find an advice column at random, and find a question dealing with some sexual problem. (Don’t worry, every advice column, even if it isn’t specifically devoted to sex advice, has at least one sex-related question.) And I guarantee you the discussion will be of the following form:

Q: I have this problem and it seems really complicated and I don’t know what to do.
A: Cheer up, it’s not that complicated! [Insert one of the Solutionist Axioms here.]

Sexual solutionists believe that once you strip away all of our hang-ups and misunderstandings, and get past all the people with bad intentions, our sexual problems can be solved pretty easily.

They’re wrong.

I know they’re wrong because people are unhappy. Not everyone is, obviously, but lots of people are, and lots of this unhappiness is directly linked to sex. If the Solutionist Axioms really were the answer, people’s unhappiness must come from the fact that they don’t actually know the Axioms. But everybody knows them! It’s not that they’re wrong. They’re right, as far as they go. But, at least on their own, they are not actually solutions to much of anything.

Sexual solutionism has the effect of making people feel like their problems SHOULD be simple, and that if they are still struggling with them, it must be their fault. It isn’t. I started this blog partly because I wanted people to see how complex many of the problems we face really are, and to show that they can’t really get solved – they can just get pondered, wrestled with, and debated, in more or less interesting and productive ways.

I suspect my anti-solutionism guarantees that I will never get a lucrative job writing an advice column. That’s okay. Philosophy has its own rewards.

Image: An early computer, the WITCH (Wolverhampton Instrument for Teaching Computing from Harwell), Britain’s oldest computer, at work, circa 1951.

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One Comment

  1. Olive

    I’m not a philosopher, but I have often wonder why is that people don’t try to maximize happiness when they have a sexual problem. Take infidelity, for instance… Most people argue that if there’s ever a sexual slippage, the only way to make amends is to tell the truth; however, as a woman, I can tell you that I prefer to know nothing about it, especially if it’s been just once and when there haven’t been witnesses.

    Posted May 1, 2013 at 8:28 pm | Permalink | Reply

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