Editor's Note: This blog is excerpted from a piece that originally appeared in our May/June 2003 issue, Rediscovering Eroticism.
A few years ago, I attended a presentation at a national conference, demonstrating work with a couple who had come to therapy in part because of a sharp decline in their sexual activity. Previously, the couple had engaged in light sado-masochism; now, following the birth of their second child, the wife wanted more conventional sex. But the husband was attached to their old style of lovemaking, so they were stuck.
The presenter took the approach that resolving the couple's sexual difficulty first required working through the emotional dynamics of their marriage and new status as parents. But the discussion afterward indicated that the audience was far less interested in the couple's overall relationship than in the issue of sado-masochistic sex. What pathology, several questioners wanted to know, might underlie the man's need to sexually objectify his wife and her desire for bondage in the first place? Perhaps, some people speculated, motherhood had restored her sense of dignity, so that now she refused to be so demeaned. Some suggested the impasse reflected long-standing gender differences: men tended to pursue separateness, power, and control, while women yearned for loving affiliation and connection. Still others were certain that couples like this needed more empathic connection to counteract their tendency to engage in an implicitly abusive, power-driven relationship.
After two hours of talking about sex, the group had not once mentioned the words pleasure or eroticism, so I finally spoke up. Was I alone in my surprise at this omission? I asked. Their form of sex had been entirely consensual, after all. Maybe the woman no longer wanted to be tied up by her husband because she now had a baby constantly attached to her breasts, binding her more effectively than ropes ever could. Didn't people in the audience have their own sexual preferences, preferences they didn't feel the need to interpret or justify? Why automatically assume that there had to be something degrading and pathological about this couple's sex play?
More to the point, I wondered, was a woman's ready participation in S&M too great a challenge for the politically correct? Was it too threatening to conceive of a strong, secure woman enjoying acting out sexual fantasies of submission? Perhaps conference participants were afraid that if women did reveal such desires, they'd somehow sanction male dominance everywhere—in business, professional life, politics, economics? Maybe, in this era, the very ideas of sexual dominance and submission, conquest and subjugation, aggression and surrender (regardless of which partner plays which part) couldn't be squared with the ideals of fairness, compromise, and equality that undergird American marital therapy today.
As an outsider to American society—I grew up in Europe and have lived and worked in many countries—I wondered if the attitudes I saw in this meeting reflected deep cultural differences. I couldn't help wondering whether the clinicians in the room believed that the couple's sexual preferences—even though consensual and completely nonviolent—were too wild and "kinky," therefore inappropriate and irresponsible, for the ponderously serious business of maintaining a marriage and raising a family. It was as if sexual pleasure and eroticism that strayed onto slightly outer paths of fantasy and play—particularly games involving aggression and power—must be stricken from the repertoire of responsible adults in intimate, committed relationships.
After the conference, I engaged in many intense conversations with other European friends and therapists, as well as Brazilian and Israeli colleagues who'd been at the meeting. We realized that we all felt somewhat out of step with the sexual attitudes of our American colleagues. From these conversations, it became clear that putting our finger on what was culturally different wasn't easy. On a subject as laden with taboos as the expression of sexuality, each of us is inevitably thrown back on our own experiences.
What struck most of the non-Americans I talked with was that America, in matters of sex as in much else, was a goal-oriented society that preferred explicit meanings, candor, and "plain speech" to ambiguity and allusion. In America, this predilection for clarity and unvarnished directness, often associated with honesty and openness, is encouraged by many therapists in their patients: "If you want to make love to your wife/ husband, why don't you say it clearly?... And tell him/her exactly what you want." But I often suggest an alternative with my clients: "There's so much direct talk already in the everyday conversations couples have with each other," I tell them. "If you want to create more passion in your relationship, why don't you play a little more with the natural ambiguity of gesture and words, and the rich nuances inherent in communication."
Growing up in Belgium, a traditionally Roman Catholic society that carries a mixture of Germanic and Latin traditions and influences, I gravitated toward the warmth and spontaneity of the Latin features of the culture. I came here to further my education, and never used my return ticket.
Ironically, some of America's best features—the belief in democracy, equality, consensus-building, compromise, fairness, and mutual tolerance—can, when carried too punctiliously into the bedroom, result in very boring sex. Sexual desire doesn't play by the same rules of good citizenship that maintain peace and contentment in the social relations between partners. Sexual excitement is politically incorrect, often thriving on power plays, role reversals, unfair advantages, imperious demands, seductive manipulations, and subtle cruelties. American couples therapists, shaped by the legacy of egalitarian ideals, often find themselves challenged by these contradictions.
What I'd characterize as a European emphasis on complementarity—the appeal of difference—rather than strict gender equality has, it seems to me, made women on the other side of the Atlantic feel less conflict between being smart and being sexy. In Europe, to sexualize a woman doesn't mean to denigrate her intelligence or competence or authority. Women, therefore, can enjoy expressing their sexuality and being objects of desire, can enjoy their sexual power, even in the workplace, without feeling they're forfeiting their right to be taken seriously as professionals and workers.
Susanna, for example, is a Spanish patient who has a high-level position with an international company in New York. She sees no contradiction between her job and her desire to express her sexual power—even among her colleagues. As she puts it, "I expect to be complimented on my looks and my efforts to look good. If compliments are given graciously, they don't offend, but make clear that we're still men and women who are attracted to one another, and not worker-robots. If a man indicates he likes the way I look, I don't feel he thinks anything less of my professional abilities because of it, any more than I think less of him because I find him handsome."
Of course, American feminists achieved momentous improvements in all aspects of women's lives. Yet without denigrating those historically significant achievements, I do believe that the emphasis on egalitarian and respectful sex—purged of any expressions of power, aggression, and transgression—is antithetical to erotic desire, for men and women alike. I'm well aware of the widespread sexual abuse of women and children. I don't mean to offer the faintest sanction to any coercive behavior. Everything I suggest here depends on receiving clear consent and respecting the other's humanity.
The writer Daphne Merkin writes: "No bill of sexual rights can hold its own against the lawless, untamable landscape of the erotic imagination." Or as Luis Bunuel put it more bluntly: "Sex without sin is like an egg without salt."
The Lure of Fantasy
Many in our field assume that the intense fantasy life that shapes the early stages of erotically charged romantic love is a form of temporary insanity, destined to fade under the rigors of marriage. Might not fantasy, though, and particularly sexual fantasy, actually enhance and animate the reality of married life? Clinicians often interpret the lust for sexual adventure and the desire to cross traditional sexual boundaries—ranging from simple flirting to infatuation, from maintaining contact with previous lovers to cross-dressing, threesomes, and fetishes—as fears of commitment and infantile fantasies. Sexual fantasies about one's partner, particularly if they involve intense role-playing or scenarios of dominance and submission, are often regarded as symptoms of neuroses or immaturity, erotically tinged romantic idealization that blinds one to a partner's true identity. Our therapeutic culture "solves" the conflict between the drabness of the familiar and the excitement of the unknown by advising patients to renounce their fantasies in favor of more rational and "adult" sexual agendas. Therapists typically encourage patients to "really get to know'' their partners. But I often tell my patients that "knowing isn't everything." Eroticism can draw its powerful pleasure from fascination with the hidden, the mysterious, the suggestive.
Terry had been in therapy for a year, trying to come to terms with the shock he'd experienced in the transition from a two- to a four-person household, from being one half of a couple involved erotically to being one quarter of a family with two children and no eroticism at all. He began one session by announcing: "All right, you want to hear a real midlife story? You're going to get one. My wife and I recently hired this young German au pair to work for us during vacation. It's ended up that every morning, she and I take care of my daughters together. She's lovely—so natural, full of vitality and youth—and I've developed this amazing crush on her. You know how I've been talking about this feeling of deadness, my energy dropping, my body getting heavier? Well, her energy has wakened me up. I want to sleep with her and I wonder why I don't. I'm scared to do it and scared not to. I feel foolish, guilty, and I can't stop thinking about her."
As I listened to him, I thought that what was happening to him was an awakening of his dormant senses. The question was how could he relish this experience without allowing the momentary and exhilarating intoxication to endanger his marriage?
I didn't discourage Terry from his "immature" wishes or lecture him. I didn't try to talk reason into him. I didn't try to "explore" the emotional dynamics beneath this presumably "adolescent" desire. I simply valued his experience. He was looking at something beautiful; he was fantasizing. I marveled with him at the allure and beauty of the fantasy, while also calling it by its true name: a fantasy.
"How beautiful and how pathetic," I said. "It's great to know you still can come to life like that. And you know that you can never compare this state of inebriation with life at home, because home is about something else. Home is safe. Here, you're trembling, you're on shaky ground. You like it, but you're also afraid that it can take you too far away from home. I think that you probably don't let your wife evoke such tremors in you." As he left, I told him to keep that thought in mind over the next week.
A few days later, he was having lunch in a restaurant with his wife and she was telling him of her previous boyfriend. "I'd been thinking hard about what we talked about," he told me. "And, while we were sitting at the table, I had this switch. Normally, I don't like hearing these stories of hers—they make me jealous and irritated. But this time, I just let myself listen and found myself getting very turned on. So did she. In fact, we were so excited we had to look for a bathroom where we could be alone."
I suggested that perhaps the experience of listening to a fresh young woman was what enabled him now to listen to his wife differently—as a sexual woman in possession of her desirability. He was viewing his familiar wife from a new distance. I invited Terry to permit himself the erotic intensity of the illicit with his wife: "This could be a beginning of bringing lust home," I said. "These small transgressions are acceptable; they offer you the latitude to experience new desire without having to throw everything away."
Reviving Sexual Imagination
It always amazes me how much people are willing to experiment sexually outside their relationships, yet how tame and puritanical they are at home with their partners. Many of my patients have, by their own account, domestic sex lives devoid of excitement and eroticism, yet are consumed and aroused by a richly imaginative sexual life beyond domesticity—affairs, pornography, prostitutes, cybersex, or feverish daydreams. Having denied themselves freedom and freedom of imagination in their relationships, they go outside, to reimagine themselves with dangerous strangers.
Yet the commodification of sex—the enormous sex industry—actually hinders our potentially infinite capacity for fantasy, restraining and contaminating our sexual imagination. The explicitness of sexual products undermines the power of mystery, the voyeuristic pleasures of the hidden. Where nothing is forbidden, nothing is erotic. Furthermore, pornography and cybersex are ultimately isolating, disconnected from relations with a real, live, other person.
A fundamental conundrum in marriage, it seems to me, is that we seek a steady, reliable anchor in our partner, and a transcendent experience that allows us to soar beyond the boundaries and limitations of our ordinary lives. The challenge, then, for couples and therapists, is to reconcile the need for what's safe and predictable with the wish to pursue what's exciting, mysterious, and awe-inspiring. That challenge is further complicated when the partners are on opposite sides of this divide.
When Mitch complains about the sexual boredom in his marriage, he points at Laura's lack of imagination. "She always does the same thing. It's so predictable, it doesn't even really arouse me. She doesn't kiss me, she has so little imagination. She doesn't know that the mind is the most important sexual organ."
"So what do you do with your mind?" I ask. "Do you go off into the imaginary when you're with your wife?"
"You mean think about other women?" he asked.
"That," I said, "or it could be about yourself when you were younger, or any other places you may go."
"No," he declared, "that would be accepting that she's not enough and that I need to compensate."
"You're talking about reality. I'm talking about fantasy. Fantasies open up the erotic realm. You complain that she's passive, but you're passive, too. You can be wherever you want in your own head, your wife is whoever you perceive her to be. The preservation of autonomy and mystery allows both of you to be apart in your fantasies, and together in your bodily experiences. It's your ability to go off on your own that enables both of you to maintain your interest in each other."
What I was saying to Mitch is that separateness is a precondition for connection. Sex is vulnerable and risky; in this sense, there's no "safe sex." There's a powerful tendency in long-term relationships to favor the predictable over the unpredictable. Erotic passion is defiant and unpredictable, unruly and undependable—which leaves many people feeling separate and vulnerable. As Stephen Mitchell, a New York analyst, used to say, "It is not that romance fades over time. It becomes riskier.
The ongoing challenge for the therapist is to help couples find ways to experience small transgressions, illicit strivings, and passionate idealizations in the midst of their predictable, safe lives. Adam Philips, an English analyst, underscores the point in his book Monogamy: "If it is the forbidden that is exciting.... then the monogamous.... have to work, if only to keep what is always too available sufficiently illicit to be interesting."
This blog is an excerpt. To read the full version, click here.
Esther Perel, MA, LMFT, is the author of the international bestseller Mating in Captivity, the consultant on the Showtime series The Affair. She’s the author of the new book The State of Affairs: Rethinking Infidelity. Her TED Talk has reached more than 5 million people.
This blog is excerpted from "Erotic Intelligence," by Esther Perel. The full version is available in the May/June 2003 issue, Rediscovering Pleasure: Are Therapists Afraid of Eroticism?
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