‘The Secret life of Desire’ How The Light Gets In festival

Do we have desires or do desires have us? A topic that pulled a large crowd at Hay’s 2016 philosophy festival for obvious and seductive reasons. This was a lively and well managed debate which explored themes around sexuality and desire in modern day life. Does the casual nature and availability of sex in today’s world increase opportunities for desire or quite the reverse? Is desire inherently good for us or shall we always find ourselves disappointed? And what about the question of rules- are they a necessary component for satisfying sexual relationships? These were some of the questions tackled by our panel of authors and columnists.

Rowan Pelling, editor of “Erotic review magazine” proposed that the fulfilment of desire was never fully attainable owing to the cost always being ‘too high’, an idea that was delightfully encapsulated by the panel as her ‘moon-on-a-stick theory’. Similarly, philosopher and author of “Middleage” Christopher Hamilton, thought we would always be disappointed in pursuit of our desires and perhaps it was ‘the thrill of the chase’ that really mattered. Social scientist and author of several books including ‘The new Rules: internet dating’ Catherine Hakim, was perhaps the most optimistic in her belief that our desires could be realised. Hakim spoke positively about modern sexual culture and how the explosion of internet and social media had created more spaces for different kinds of sex including gay sex and extra marital affairs. Pelling, who describes herself as ‘an old romantic’, expressed a certain disdain for the easiness and availability of modern sex for which, Hakim advocates. Pelling alluded to a TED talk as she suggested that whilst infidelity may be popular and seductive, most heterosexual couples actually preferred to be able to find desire and excitement with each other if that were possible. Pelling felt that, as a society, we needed help with this. She also raised a serious point about the wholesale deficiency of sex education within our schools and the necessity for individuals to be able to think and reflect around their own sexual desires.

When it came to the question of ‘rules’ in sexual engagement all parties agreed on their importance, even if rules were just there to be broken. Personally, I struggle with the fact that people do cheat with intent and use cheating itself as a catalyst for erotic desire. Hakim may view this as liberated, I would suggest it is self-serving. Rules around sex are clearly present and the question I have is, have they really changed much over the centuries? I’m not sure they have. I was extremely sceptical of Hakim’s notions of ‘erotic capital’. I’m not sure if any self-respecting feminist could agree that beauty (erotic capital) and wealth are a fair exchange for sex, regardless of the beauty’s gender. It gives me great sadness to think that women always have and continue to be exploited for their beauty.

I thought Pelling had the most to offer women in this debate and evidently she has some understanding of female sexuality. When it comes to sexual happiness, research suggests that women are once again, the losers, reporting significantly lower levels of sexual desire than men. ‘Advances’ such as the ‘little blue pill’ (viagra for women) seemed to hold out little hope for Pelling, who reminded the audience that, unlike their male equivalent, these were little more than anti-depressants.

So was Hamilton’s view correct then? Are we all doomed to disappointment in the field of our desires? Host Curran confronted the panel finally with the question of whether desire was actually good for us anyway? The panel responded with a unified and positive yes- and I don’t think I would disagree with them there.

(c) Sarah Dosomah 2016

‘The Secret life of Desire’
A debate from ‘How The Light gets in’ festival, 4th June, Hay-on-Wye
With Rowan Pelling, Christopher Hamilton, Catherine Hakim, Hosted by Sean Curran

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