True to its title, Sex, Drugs and Chocolate is all about pleasure: sensual as well as cerebral, low level and fairly innocent as well as orgiastically excessive and decidedly not-so-innocent. It explores social as well as biological aspects of pleasure and throughout the book the historical, sociological and anecdotal is interspersed with medical, physiological and psychological.
Evolutionarily speaking, pleasure is there to help humans (and other animals - apparently rats can experience intense joy and even lizards seem to have some kind of pleasure mechanism).
The biological perspective is extremely useful in explaining aspects of pleasure which may otherwise seem mysterious: its fleeting character, the poor correlation between pleasure and happiness, how the same experience changes from pleasurable to neutral to displeasurable depend on biological needs and a fundamental asymmetry in a way in which pleasure is self-limiting while pain is not. This simple biological view doesn't take into account the crucial human ability to defer gratification (which, unlike pleasure, in linked to both intelligence and happiness).
The title is not a gimmick: sex, drugs and chocolate (as well as food in general) are really a source of a lot of pleasure and are covered extensively in separate sections.
From bonobos' sexual frolics to the Chinese anal violin, a brief survey of the immense variety of sexual activities primates engage in is followed by a summary of scientific research on sexual responses (including perhaps more than one might care to know about the lengths to which researchers will go to probe the depths of the human orgasm).
I was particularly impressed by the sections on drugs, possibly because they contained most previously to me unknown material, but also because I felt Martin managed to present the social, political and medical issues surrounding legal and illicit drug use in a balanced, informative and neither panicky nor enthusiastically positive way.
Humans everywhere have always used mind-altering substances and most likely will continue to do so. Martin presents examples of various drugs and the roles they played in human culture. Drugs make us feel nice and remove pain, but they also make us feel different: those (more or less) altered states of conciousness are often a crucial part of human rituals and celebrations. There is even a theory that a desire for intoxication is as basic a drive as hunger, thirst and sex. The idiocies of the UK illegal drug classification (which bears no relation to addictiveness or medical and societal harm caused) are explored, but Martin's is not a blindly permissive approach either, as he suggests that the best way to deal with drug problems is to concentrate on reducing various types of harm associated with them.
The subject of drugs is a good leeway into the darker side of pleasure, the excesses of unbridled hedonism and addiction. The difference between pleasure (i.e. liking something) and desire (wanting something) is crucial to understanding addictions, both chemical and behavioural.
Often times we desire things that we find pleasurable, but surprisingly often we don't: serious substance addiction is an obvious case with addicts often reporting a complete lack of pleasure associated with their compulsive activities.
Desire is controlled by a neurotransmitter called dopamine and it's been shown that people (and animals) whose dopamine levels have been boosted experience heightened desire without experiencing heightened pleasure when the desire is fulfilled. Addiction is clearly a disorder of desire, and some individuals are more prone to it than others.
Throughout Sex, Drugs and Chocolate Martin mainatins a graceful balance between the light touch and deep, wide-ranging, and carefully referenced knowledge of serious research from psychology to ethology, social history to neurophysiology. In many instances, survey data which is clearly correlational is used to support causal hypotheses in a rather cavalier way, but as it's mostly limited to the lighter sections (and particularly noticeable in sex and chocolate chapters - I suppose there is relatively little serious research done on chocolate) it doesn't affect the reliability of the whole.
Sex, Drugs and Chocolate moves from solidly scholarly to bordering on whimsical and this strategy, generally, pays off, although I felt that devoting whole sections to chocolate and masturbation was close to shifting the balance too much towards the anecdotally titillating.
But the sections do alternate rather cleverly and thus a reader dissatisfied with ultimately rather boring tales of great hedonistic excess from Rochester to Elvis can gain enlightenment from the more serious presentation of research on pleasure, desire, happiness and addiction; while a reader getting bored (and boredom is profoundly important and greatly underestimated in the exploration and experience of pleasure) with the physiology and psychology can be entertained by accounts of orgies and feasts of Roman emperors and the pleasure gardens of Regency London.
The prose is erudite and confident 'educated colloquial', slightly detached, with plenty of wry authorial asides, irreverent comments and only an occasional, and one feels, knowingly corny, pun. Martin manages to infuse his presentation with enthusiasm and liveliness that characterises the best popular science writing and I would certainly seek out his previous books.
Amazingly, we apparently spend so little time doing pleasurable things that teaching people how to engage in more of them significantly improves mood and it's more effective at that than either exercise or sessions of introspection.
And thus fittingly, Sex, Drugs and Chocolate concludes with a half-serious and half-tongue in cheek guide to pleasures smaller and larger (in addition to the grand trio of sex, drugs and chocolate). From sleeping (yes!) to shopping (more of a purgatorial than heavenly activity for this reviewer) to smelling pleasant scents to lunching to social interaction to music; the lists is varied and inspirational although I can't help but be surprised that Martin omitted a fundamental and free source of pleasure that is accessible to virtually all people: the pleasure of (non-sexual) touch, from baby massage to Shiatsu, aromatherapy rubs to the feel of silk and velvet against bare skin.
One of the pleasures Martin does list is one of the infovore. Humans take delight and satisfaction in learning about new things; pleasure to which a perennial popularity of trivia books, gossip and evening classes is a clear testimony; and a pleasure that may be happily extracted from this entertaining and enlightening gem of a book that can be enjoyed by anybody with even a slight interest in human behaviour.
Publisher: Fourth Estate Ltd January 2009
This review has been originally written for The Book Bag.