Why Egalitarian America Needs Dominant Sex

Relationship Advice from Sex Therapist Esther Perel

Esther Perel

A few years ago, I attended a presentation at a national conference, demonstrating work with a couple who'd come to therapy in part because of a sharp decline in their sexual activity. Previously, the couple had engaged in sex with 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.

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.

After two hours of talking about sex and bondage, the group hadn't once mentioned the words pleasure or eroticism, so I finally spoke up. Was I alone in my surprise at this omission? 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?

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.

America, in matters of sex as in much else, seems to be a goal-oriented society that prefers 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."

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.

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 client 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."

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.

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

Our therapeutic culture "solves" the conflict between the drabness of the familiar and the excitement of the unknown by advising clients to renounce their fantasies in favor of more rational and "adult" sexual agendas. Therapists typically encourage clients to "really get to know'' their partners. But I often tell my clients that "knowing isn't everything." Eroticism can draw its powerful pleasure from fascination with the hidden, the mysterious, the suggestive.

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.

This blog is excerpted from “Erotic Intelligence." Want to read more articles like this? Subscribe to Psychotherapy Networker Today!

Topic: Couples

Tags: boundaries | conversation | couples therapist | couples therapists | ED | Esther Perel | imagination | marital therapy | psychotherapy | sex | sexuality | SPECT | Symposium | talking | TED | therapist | therapists | therapy

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