Written by Frederick Toates

Do we really need to know?

Review by Gunnel Minett

Whether we like to admit it or not, sexual desire plays a central role in our lives. Fortunately for the majority of people it is a source of joy, which not only helps us bond with a partner, but also brings us a sense of general wellbeing throughout life.
Sexual desire plays such a central role because it’s essential for the survival of the species. Because it’s so central, nature has made sure that it becomes a strong driving force in our lives. The potential downside of such a strong urge or drive is that, when all doesn’t go according to nature’s plan, a darker side of sex emerges. Many crimes in society are sex-related and throughout history much effort has gone into attempts to regulate and control sexual urges to make sure they are expressed in positive ways.

Sadly, the results of these control efforts have not always been what was intended. Simply punishing sexual offenders does not change their behaviour. To prescribe celibacy does not remove sexual desire. Separating women, or heavily restricting their appearance or movements, does not change much either. On the contrary, we’ve seen many examples of unintended consequences from, and revisions of, attempts to control sexual expression.

In Britain, as in many other countries, a growing understanding of the why and how of sexual urges has lead to a more open and tolerant view. For instance, a growing understanding of homosexuality has removed the attempt to control it by criminalisation. Now there is a growing acceptance that some people just are attracted to the same-sex and that such relationships can be as valid and as important as heterosexual relationships.

In Britain, recently, revelations of sexual abuse have frequently been in the news, revealing sexual abuse on a shocking scale, often committed by people with some form of authority, for example, celebrities taking advantage of their position, clergy and people in charge of children’s homes.

One conclusion to draw from all of this is that traditional attitudes and attempts to control sexual misbehaviour have not been successful. Naming and shaming or punishing people in other ways does not change sexual behaviour. The only positive outcome maybe that it can help the victims to deal with their trauma. But changing unwanted behaviour requires a deeper understanding of the problem. This is one reason why a book like this is so important.

But for society it is not only a question of dealing with crimes committed. In order to prevent future crimes we need to understand the causes of sexual deviation. A theme of this book is that sexuality is a complex area that needs a broad approach to be understood properly. For instance, the book draws parallels between drug addiction and sexual addiction and points to the fact that understanding one may help understanding the other.

A major issue is how and when sexual preferences start to emerge. One theory is that there is a ‘window of learning’ for establishing sexual preferences, similar to that of native language learning (i.e., only available during a specific period early in life). During this period, it’s important for children to get the right type of contact with all age groups. This should ring alarm bells concerning the avalanche of internet pornography which can often provide the first sexual experiences for many children today. We have yet to see the full effects of this in future generations. In particular since the internet may be providing a substitute for contact with adults and other children within the same age group.

Simply disapproving of, and trying to regulate, some forms of adult sexual behaviour may not be particularly effective. One such example is the attempts to protect children from pedophiles by very restrictive rules around contact between different age groups. This may help to keep potential pedophiles away, although too many examples show that this has not always been the case. But the real downside of these restrictions is that it prevents children from having natural contacts with adults, including physical contact which is especially important for young children. This is particularly relevant since, according to the author, a common problem underlying sexually deviant behaviour is the lack of proper contact with adults during childhood.

The conclusion to draw from this book is that we need to get a clearer picture of how sexual desire works in order to understand how it can go wrong. Only then can we design appropriate measures to help people to develop a positive attitude to sex with all the positive benefits this will have for both the individual and society.
This book offers a broad and thorough view, including the latest research in psychology and neuroscience, as to the how and why of sexual desire and urges. It also offers suggestions for how to help people with problems in this area and should be seen as a valuable contribution to an improved attitude that will lead to a healthier and safer society. This makes it really important for all working with psychotherapy since sexual desire can be a really difficult area to work with. In particular if it involves transference between client/therapist.