In search of Erotic Intelligence

Everybody’s not doing it. That’s the word from Newsweek, The Atlantic, and other trend watchers: Couples are having less sex these days than even in the famously uptight ’50s. Why? Busy, exhausting lives is the easy answer. But how Americans view eroticism in the wake of recent sexual and social revolutions may be an even bigger factor, according to a growing number of researchers and social observers. — The Editors

A few years ago, at a psychology conference, I heard a speaker discuss 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 speaker believed that resolving the couple’s sexual difficulty required working through the emotional dynamics of their marriage and new status as parents. But in the discussion afterward, the audience was far less interested in the couple’s relationship than in the issue of sadomasochistic sex. Some people speculated that motherhood had restored the woman’s sense of dignity, and now she refused to be demeaned by an implicitly abusive, power-driven relationship. Others suggested that the couple’s impasse illustrated long-standing gender differences: Men tended to pursue separateness and control, while women yearned for loving connection.

When after two hours of talking about sex no one had mentioned the words pleasure or eroticism, I finally spoke up. Their form of sex had been entirely consensual, after all. Maybe the woman no longer wanted to be tied up because she now had a baby constantly attached to her breasts-binding her better than ropes ever could. Why assume that there had to be something degrading about this couple’s sex play?

Perhaps my colleagues were afraid that if women did reveal such desires, they’d somehow sanction male dominance everywhere — in business, politics, economics. Maybe the very ideas of sexual dominance and submission, aggression and surrender, couldn’t be squared with the ideals of compromise and equality that undergird couples therapy today.

As an outsider to American society — I grew up in Belgium and have lived in many countries — I wondered if these attitudes reflected cultural differences. I later talked with Europeans, Brazilians, and Israelis who had been at the meeting. We all felt somewhat out of step with the sexual attitudes of our American colleagues. Did they believe such sexual preferences — even though they were consensual and completely nonviolent — were too wild and “kinky” for the serious business of maintaining a marriage and raising a family? It was as if sexual pleasure and eroticism that strayed onto slightly outré paths of fantasy and play-particularly games involving aggression and power-must be stricken from the repertoire of responsible adults in committed relationships.

What struck us was that America, in matters of sex as in much else, was a goal-oriented society that prefers explicit meanings and “plain speech” to ambiguity and allusion. Many American therapists encourage clarity and directness, which they tend to associate with honesty and openness: “If you want to make love to your wife/husband, why don’t you tell her/him exactly what you want?” These professionals in large part “solve” 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 reasonable “adult” sexual agendas.

Whereas therapists typically encourage patients to “really get to know” their partners, I often say that “knowing isn’t everything.” Most couples exchange enough direct talk in the course of daily life. To create more passion, I suggest that they play a bit more with the ambiguity that’s inherent to communication. Eroticism can draw its powerful pleasure from fascination with the hidden, the mysterious, and the suggestive.

Ironically, some of America’s best features — the belief in equality, consensus-building, fairness, and tolerance — can, in the bedroom, result in very boring sex. Sexual desire and good citizenship don’t play by the same rules. Sexual excitement is often politically incorrect; it often thrives on power plays, role reversals, imperious demands, and seductive manipulations. American therapists, shaped by egalitarian ideals, are often challenged by these contradictions.

In Europe, I see more of an emphasis on complementarity — the appeal of difference — rather than strict gender equality. This, it seems to me, makes European women feel less conflict about being both smart and sexy. They can enjoy their sexual power, even in the workplace, without feeling they’re forfeiting their right to be taken seriously. Susanna, for example, is a Spanish woman with a high-level job at an international company in New York. She sees no contradiction between her work and her desire to express her sexual power-even among her colleagues. “If compliments are given graciously, they don’t offend.We’re still men and women who are attracted to one another, and not robots,” she says.

Of course, American feminists accomplished major improvements in women’s lives in many ways. Yet without denigrating their achievements, I 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 coercion and abuse of women and children. Everything I suggest here depends on getting 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 filmmaker Luis Buñel put it more bluntly, “Sex without sin is like an egg without salt.”

Many therapists assume that the fantasy life that shapes a new relationship is a form of temporary insanity, destined to fade over a long-term partnership. But can sexual fantasy actually enhance the intimate reality of relationships? Clinicians often interpret the desire for sexual adventure — ranging from simple flirting and contact with previous lovers to threesomes and fetishes — as fear of commitment and infantile fantasy. Sexual fantasies about one’s partner, particularly those that involve role-playing, dominance, and submission, are often viewed as signs of neurosis and immaturity, erotically tinged idealizations that blind one to a partner’s true identity. Here’s an example from a client I worked with (the name changed, of course):

Terry had been in therapy for a year, struggling with the transition from being half of an erotically charged couple to being one-quarter of a family with two children and no eroticism at all. He began one session with what he deemed a “real midlife story” that began when he and his wife hired a young German au pair. “Every morning she and I take care of my daughters together,” he said. “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? Well, her energy has awakened me. I want to sleep with her and I wonder why I don’t. I’m scared to do it and scared not to.”

I didn’t lecture him about his “immature” wishes, or explore the emotional dynamics beneath this presumably “adolescent” desire. Instead, I tried to help him relish the awakening of his dormant senses without letting the momentary exhilaration endanger his marriage. I marveled with him at the allure and beauty of the fantasy, while also calling it just that: a fantasy.

“It’s great to know you still can come to life like that,” I said. “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 on shaky ground. You like it, but you’re also afraid that it can take you too far away from home. And you probably don’t let your wife evoke such tremors in you.”

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 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 listened 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 desiring a fresh young woman was what enabled him to listen to his wife differently — as a sexual and desirable woman herself. 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.”

It amazes me how willing people are to experiment sexually outside their relationships, yet how tame and puritanical they are with their partners. Many of my patients describe their domestic sex lives as devoid of excitement and eroticism, yet they are consumed by a richly imaginative sex life beyond domesticity — affairs, pornography, prostitutes, cybersex, or feverish daydreams. Having denied themselves freedom of imagination at home, they go outside to reimagine themselves, often with random strangers. Yet the commodification of sex can actually hinder our capacity for fantasy, contaminating our sexual imagination. Furthermore, pornography and cybersex are ultimately isolating, disconnected from relations with a real, live other person.

A fundamental conundrum is that we seek a steady, reliable anchor in our partner, at the same time we seek a transcendent experience that allows us to soar beyond 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.

It’s often assumed that intimacy and trust must exist before sex can be enjoyed, but for many women and men, intimacy — more precisely, the familiarity inherent in intimacy — actually sabotages sexual desire. When the loved one becomes a source of security and stability, he/she can become desexualized. The dilemma is that erotic passion can leave many people feeling vulnerable and less secure. In this sense there is no “safe sex.” Maybe the real paradox is that this fundamental insecurity is a precondition for maintaining interest and desire. As Stephen Mitchell, a New York psychoanalyst, used to say, “It is not that romance fades over time. It becomes riskier.”

Susan and Jenny came to see me about their sexual relationship. Susan, a longtime lesbian, set out to seduce Jenny right after they met. Jenny responded, though it was her first lesbian relationship. They moved in together just as Susan was waiting for the arrival of her adopted baby. Once they were a threesome, Jenny thought they were a wonderful family, but completely lost any sexual interest in Susan. Jenny, already in some conflict about her lesbianism, couldn’t be a second mom to the new baby, family builder, companion, and passionate lover all at once.

The transition to motherhood can have a desexualizing effect. I reminded them that the mother isn’t an erotic image in our culture. Mom is supposed to be caring, nurturing, loving, but, frankly, rather asexual. “Being new parents can be pretty overwhelming,” I said. “But can you try to add making love to the list of all the other things you enjoy doing together to unwind and relax? The idea is to make each other feel good, not to solve the fate of your relationship. That’s an offer you can’t refuse.”

At the next session, Jenny reported: “That really loosened us up. We can talk about it, laugh and not be instantly scared.”

So many couples imagine that they know everything there is to know about their mate. In large part, I see my job as trying to highlight how little they’ve seen, urging them to recover their curiosity and catch a glimpse behind the walls that encircle the other. As Mexican essayist Octavio Paz has written, eroticism is “the poetry of the body, the testimony of the senses. Like a poem, it is not linear, it meanders and twists back on itself, shows us what we do not see with our eyes, but in the eyes of our spirit. Eroticism reveals to us another world, inside this world. The senses become servants of the imagination, and let us see the invisible and hear the inaudible.”

Esther Perel is on the faculties of the New York Medical Center, Department of Psychiatry, and the International Trauma Studies Program, New York University. She is in private practice in New York. From Psychotherapy Networker (May/June 2003). Subscriptions: $24/yr. (6 issues) from Box 5190 Brentwood, TN 37024.

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