Esther Perel is a Belgium-born therapist whose book, Mating in Captivity: Reconciling the Domestic and the Erotic,--just out in paper--has been said to read like a cross between Jaques Lacan and French Women Don’t Get Fat. Personally, I think it’s Fear of Flying meets Jane Sexes It Up—an implicitly sexy and intellectually fearless 21st century manifesto on sex inside marriage, for both women and men. According to Perel, mating in captivity is not a problem to solve. Rather, it’s a paradox to manage. And manage we can.
I recently had the chance to sit down with this brilliant, vivacious thinker at her Manhattan home. Snippets from our follow-up below.
DS: What made you decide to write this book?
EP: There were a number of converging motivations. At the time of the Clinton affair I was intrigued at how adultery could become a matter of national political agenda in the US. Why was it I wondered, that this country showed a lot of tolerance for divorce, but was rather intransigent vis a vis infidelity when the rest of the world had traditionally been more tolerant of infidelity and less so of divorce.
In my professional life, I would attend conferences and be struck by an overemphasis on pathology and dysfunction and a tendency to leave out of the conversations the notions of pleasure and eroticism when addressing a couple’s sexual life.
The claim that sexual problems were always the result of relational problem and that one should fix the relation and the sex would follow, did not bear true for me. I saw many couples who’s relationship would improve significantly and it would do little to their sex life. I would see loving caring couples whose desire flat lined and not because of a breakdown in intimacy. I began to rethink what had often struck me, that it isn’t always the lack of closeness that stifles desire, but sometimes too much closeness. So I started to question a host of assumptions on the nature of erotic desire over the long haul that are held as truths and could use deeper examination. A number of questions occupied me: Why does great sex so often fade in couples who claim to love each other as much as ever? Can we want what we already have? Why is the forbidden so erotic? Why does good intimacy not guarantee great sex? And why does the transition to parenthood so often spell erotic disaster in couples?
DS: Your book is being published in 22 countries and 20 languages, and has just come out in paperback. I loved seeing all the different covers all lined up on your shelf. What aspect has surprised you the most about the book's international reception?
EP: I originally wrote MIC from the position of a foreign therapist observing American sexuality. Now that the book has been translated broadly, what stands out is the pervasiveness of the breakdown of desire in all societies where the romantic ideal has entered. Never before did we have a model of long-term sexuality that was rooted in desire. People had sex for reproduction, or out of marital duty. Bringing lust home is the next taboo. Everywhere people are wondering about this fading of desire, they fill pages of books and magazine to spice things up. But if it were so simple, we wouldn’t need a new recipe each week.
The covers alone speak volumes about how each society deals with sexuality.
In my travels to 16 countries this year I got to experience some the unique tensions and changes that are at play in each society. It was as if in each country there was a theme that emerged: female infidelity in Argentina and Mexico, homosexuality in Turkey, the shift from reproductive sexuality when people had 12 children on the farms of Norway to the 2 or 3 kid family or the sexual consequences of the egalitarian model of Sweden to name but a few.
ON SEX, EGALITARIANISM, AND FEMINISM
DS: I've been thinking a lot these days about the word "egalitarianism"—or rather, the expectation women my generation grew up with here in the U.S. that our relationships with men would be marked by this sense of reciprocity and mutuality in all realms. Including the bedroom. And I'm interested in your argument that "mutuality," "democracy." and "equity" in bed result in very boring sex. Did feminism do something to sex? Tell us more about why what you call politically incorrect sex is so important for couples today.
EP: Indeed I do think that America’s best features--the belief in democracy, equality, consensus, fairness, mutual tolerance—can, when carried too punctiliously in the bedroom, result in very boring sex. Feminism fought hard to eradicate differences, and abuses of power, and we are still far from victorious. While I very much recognize these momentous achievements, I do think that it brought with it unanticipated consequences. To extricate power, aggression, difference is antithetical to erotic desire.
Sexual desire doesn’t always play by the rules of good citizenship. What excites us most at night is sometimes the very thing we fight against in daytime. There is a subversion at play in the erotic realm. The erotic mind is politically incorrect, thriving on power plays, role reversals, unfair advantages, imperious demands, seductive manipulations, and subtle cruelties. if we all fantasized about a bed of roses, we would not have such a hard time talking about all this, but the erotic mind is not always neat, or docile. There is a whole other side to eros.
DS: Have you had any particularly interesting conversations with feminist thinkers on this point of late that you can share? And generally speaking, what has been the feminist response to your book? (Not that there's ever just one feminist response of course…But just curious!)
EP: I read the French feminist psychoanalysts like Luce Irigaray, and Elizabeth Badinter. I found the writings of Camille Paglia and Laura Kipnis most interesting. I was in a conversation with her at the New York Public Library and, as is often the case, any open conversation on the vicissitudes of desire leads to talking about the limits of monogamy.
The feminist thinkers in my field listen to me apprehensively sometimes wondering if I undervalue the importance for the need for security and safety for women to experience sex.
Others have engaged with me in conversations about how I choose to define the word “Intimacy”. But mostly I have received very positive feedback from feminist writers and practitioners that has really touched me. I feared that I may be taken to an extreme I did not mean to go, and it did not happen luckily. Mostly I am told that I wrote what we all know, think, feel and don’t say out loud. Now in the last months I have been preparing a series of talks on female sexual desire, or lack thereof, where I am introducing a different way to conceptualize female desire than the dominant models, and we shall see.
DS: I personally don't buy into the concept of postfemnism, but is there such a thing as postfeminist sex? What would it look like? (Will I know it when I see it?)
EP: A few points come to mind: a focus that that expands from sexual sovereignty to sexual pleasure. The idea that we don’t have one sexuality, but a few sexualities in the course of our life. The shift to a more androgynous view of love that transcends the binary models of gender thinking. And an understanding that what is emotionally nurturing isn’t the same as what is sexually exciting. These are two different needs that spring from different sources and pull us in different directions.
DS: You write, "American men and women, shaped by the feminist movement and its egalitarian ideas, often find themselves challenged by these contradictions." Please say more about how younger men—the sons of feminism, that is—are challenged by contradictions. Of what sort?
EP: In heterosexual couples, I see men who struggle to find a place for themselves sexually with their partner, and with how to express a masculinity that includes a striving force, a drive, assertiveness and that will be welcomed by the women. They are reluctant to reveal their sexual turn ons to their partner for fear of insulting her. Moreover, having lost the male privilege of a woman who’ll perform her wifely duty, they need to keep her erotically engaged, seduce her, make her feel desirable and interested in him. The idea that committed sex is intentional, premeditated consciously willed clashes against the myth of spontaneity. Another point is that if women can do all what the man does, where does that leave him? What is specific to him? Ou est la difference?
It is important for him to convey to her that the language of intimacy for him is often not verbal, but physical and sexual. Additionally, he wonders how to bring the erotic home, be safely ruthless with the woman he loves and respects.
Given the power shifts, men often struggle to integrate masculinity and sexuality in their intimate relationships.
DS: When we last spoke, you mentioned that you've seen more and more men struggling with a loss of sexual desire at younger and younger ages. Why do men seem to be experiencing this loss so early on? What's changed? The women? Or the men?
EP: Well, we live in a time that focuses on instant gratification. The current generation of boys and girls, raised in a way where they never have to feel any frustration nor boredom, is turning out to be the one with the greatest difficulties with sustaining desire. If you have never wanted something, longed for it etc., you cannot know desire. Where there is no frustration there is no desire.
I am interested in the role of porn in the lives of coupled men, as well as the degree of sexual honesty and communication in relationships. The all-out exposure of sex on billboards does not translate in the privacy of our bedrooms.
To order Mating in Captivity, click here