In our post-feminist era, women have come a long way toward achieving equality with men, especially in the realm of romantic relationships. Leveling the playing field between the sexes has been a good thing, says psychotherapist Esther Perel, except when it comes to the bedroom, where all too often security and emotional intimacy make for boring sex.
Last night, Perel gave a dynamic presentation at Victoria Hall as part of her three-day residency in Santa Barbara, offered by the Family Therapy Institute, a low-cost clinic offering therapy sessions to a wide range of clients. “I want to speak about sex in the way many of us know but don’t speak out loud,” she told an eager audience of mental health professionals and other curious attendees.
Perel is a licensed marriage and family therapist with a private practice in New York City and a leading thinker in the fields of cultural identity and sexuality. A native of Belgium, she has lived in many countries, speaks eight languages fluently, and practices therapy in most of them. As she sees it, her multilingualism and experience of many cultures gives her a unique perspective on sexuality and society.
Perel’s latest book, Mating in Captivity: Reconciling the Erotic and the Domestic, flies in the face of much couples therapy today, which emphasizes strong verbal communication and ‘talking things out’ in order to build stronger emotional bonds. According to Perel, a satisfying sex life is dependent on erotic desire, and erotic desire cannot exist without a sense of mystery, otherness, and separation. In her words, “fire needs air,” and much couples’ therapy focuses on building closeness through talking about feelings; a feminization of intimacy that puts men at a disadvantage and puts a damper on desire. At the same time, Perel refutes the kind of thinking popularized by books like John Gray’s Men are From Mars, Women are From Venus. “We all need a balance of intimacy and freedom,” she declared. “I don’t believe men need one more than the other – we’re socialized a certain way, but it’s not inherent.”
As an academic, Perel knows how to build a solid argument, and her presentation was clear and incisive, founded in a fascination with her subject and a healthy dose of humor. Her main topic of discussion was the paradox of desire in modern Western couples living in the age of the romantic ideal. For the first time in human history, Perel pointed out, “People want to stay committed and erotically engaged with one another for a long time, for no other reason than they feel like it.” After tracing the social developments that had led to this phenomenon – industrialization, urban living, the development of individualism, contraception – Perel posited a series of questions: Why does sex fade in couples who love each other very much? How can we desire what we already have? Why doesn’t intimacy guarantee great sex?
Insofar as she posited solutions, Perel had unusual, practical, and refreshingly honest answers to these familiar issues, among them, that we don’t ever truly own our partners; that great sex doesn’t have to be spontaneous; and that what most couples are really missing is not so much the act of sex as eroticism – a sense of being alive that is not necessarily tied to sexuality.
At one point, Perel spoke of her own childhood, growing up in a community of Holocaust survivors. “There were two types,” she explained, “Those who didn’t die, and those who came back to life.” Ultimately, Perel suggested, eroticism is an antidote to death – a mystical sense of vitality that cannot be measured by statistics or supplied by Viagra. Gently chiding America for its Puritanism, she reminded her audience, “We’re a goal-oriented society, not play-oriented. Desire is about cultivating ambiguities.”