NEW YORK – In January 1998, the couple therapist Esther Perel joined millions of others in watching U.S. President Bill Clinton declare before the cameras, “I did not have sexual relations with that woman.” Perel, who was born and raised in the Jewish community of Antwerp, Belgium, and now lives in New York, followed the Clinton affair avidly.
“Having grown up in European culture, I did not understand why Americans take cheating and extramarital sex so decisively,” she relates. “I decided to analyze the phenomenon, and the result was an article, ‘Erotic Intelligence: Reconciling Sensuality and Domesticity,’ which appeared in a number of journals.”
In 2006, three years after the article’s publication, it had become the kernel of a best-selling book by Perel, “Mating in Captivity: Unlocking Erotic Intelligence.” The book, which has been translated into 23 other languages besides English, made Perel, today 55, a go-to speaker and a guru of convention-breaking sexuality, in which monogamy is identified as a “spectrum” and not a binary category. She has appeared on TED Talks – one of those talks last year garnered more than 388,000 views – and has contributed articles to The New York Times and the Guardian, among others. In June she will speak in Israel, during a visit sponsored by the Israel Association for Family and Couple Therapy.
“Eroticism is a language,” Perel told me when I met with her here recently. The interview was conducted in Hebrew, which she polished when she did an undergraduate degree in Israel, occasionally spiced with English and French (“the easiest language in which to talk about love,” says Perel, who speaks nine tongues fluently).
“Like every language, the language of eroticism also has to be learned. We are born sensual but learn to be erotic. We learn to become familiar with the language that our body wants, likes and is capable of speaking. Of course, I am using the term ‘language’ as a metaphor. It is convenient for me to think about it as a multilayered structure that contains a great many elements: sensuality, sensitivity, content, grammar, patterns.”
Does everyone have this potential for eroticism? To what degree is it connected to the erotic intelligence of our parents, or to the culture in which we were raised?
“Everything is connected. It is impossible to separate the different elements. As with every language, not everyone can express himself in it with the same freedom. There are people for whom the body is their castle and they are happy to invite everyone to visit it, while for others the body is a prison. Education for eroticism involves values of enjoyment for its own sake – the ability to truly get pleasure from our body is related to recognition of our self-worth. If I do not feel that I deserve it, then my ability to ask my partner for things is very limited.
“For example, most of the women I met in my clinic think that sex ends when the man has an orgasm. They don’t think that they too deserve pleasure. But these are things that can be changed.”
Adds Perel: “Erotic intelligence is a combination of how you were loved and how you learned to love. Many cultures perceive enjoyment as something suspect, because it is liable to take us to a dangerous place. Every culture tries to control sexuality and regiment it, in ways that have changed down through history. If we were taught that sex is something dirty, dangerous or embarrassing, that will naturally be reflected in the bedroom. Those things get into our veins.”
Are you referring specifically to religious education, or is a puritanical approach found everywhere?
“I think that religious education doesn’t necessarily have to lead to the limitation of eroticism. I define myself as a Jew first of all, before any national definition. My mother is descended from the Gerer Hasidic dynasty. I am still connected to my ultra-Orthodox relatives. I love the spectrum: to visit the Haredi family, and to treat single-sex couples who come from a completely different place.”
In her public talks, Perel draws a link between her childhood as a second-generation Holocaust survivor and her choice to deal with sexuality. “Eroticism is an antidote to a sense of loss,” she says in this regard. “It is a reason to go on living. For me, it is the power and the ability to use the human imagination. Even in the camps people made love. That’s love with someone who is not there.”
Perel’s Polish-born parents were transferred repeatedly from one concentration camp to another during the war. “They both lost their families in the Holocaust,” she relates. “My father went through 14 camps and my mother, who survived on her own in the forest for a year, was in nine camps in Poland. They met before the war, when my mother was engaged to a different man, and met again afterward. They decided to settle in Belgium, because they found the language easy and it was comfortable for them there. They were always attached to Israel – they visited every year, and I went to a Jewish school and learned Hebrew.”
Flemish, Yiddish, Polish and French were spoken in Perel’s home, in addition to Hebrew. “There is no such thing as one language for me,” she says.
In the early 1980s, after obtaining an undergraduate degree in educational psychology and French literature at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, Perel moved to Boston, where she met her American-born husband. “He said, ‘Let’s try living a year in New York and we’ll see how it goes.’ That was in 1984,” she says with a smile. She obtained a master’s degree there and was trained and supervised by Dr. Salvador Minuchin, a psychiatrist who is considered one of the founders of family therapy.
“For 20 years, I had a career in therapy that was unrelated to sexuality,” she explains. “I was an intercultural psychologist. I studied ethnic, religious and also sexual identity, but sexuality was not at the center. I treated three main groups: refugees, internationals and people in mixed marriages. I was especially interested in Jewish identity and the way it changes in accord with national identity. That intrigued me, because the Jews of Belgium, in contrast to French Jews, for example, do not categorize ourselves as Flemish but as a community of refugees in Belgium. In contrast, American Jews are Americans.
“So, when I worked with mixed couples, I asked myself who is getting married: two people or two families? To whom does feminine sexuality belong? Is the wife free or does she belong to her husband? Is there an expectation of happiness? I asked all those questions, but didn’t really have answers.
I chose couple therapy from the outset, because it’s the best theater in town. I grasped that it is a vast, fascinating world. And then the Clinton story broke and I understood that I wanted to write about these subjects. I read huge numbers of articles about sexuality, and I started to feel a need to challenge some of the basic assumptions about desire and modern love.”
In Perel’s view, the division between couple therapy and sex therapy is no longer effective. “Couple therapy is a practice that denies sexuality, in the same way that for many years sex therapy did not contain enough elements of couple therapy. A conspiracy of silence was created, both in society and in the clinic. At the same time, sex therapists limit themselves to problems of performance and medical problems, even though the main problem they are actually dealing with is desire and passion. We live in an age in which the motive for sexuality is desire, not the need to reproduce.”
A new unfaithfulness
In an effort to allow a “freer and richer dialogue about sexuality,” Perel devoted one chapter of “Mating in Captivity” to an attempt to articulate a new concept of unfaithfulness. Titled “The Shadow of the Third: Rethinking Fidelity,” the chapter opens with a quote from Alexandre Dumas: “The bonds of wedlock are so heavy that it takes two to carry them, sometimes three.”
According to Perel, before we can acknowledge the crippling hypocrisy that exists around phenomena of adultery and unfaithfulness, we need to come to terms with the fact that we all cheat all the time. “We all have a ‘third person,’” she says. “This can take the form of fantasies or reality – as an extramarital affair or as the introduction of another person into an open relationship. The third person can be former lovers whom we were with in the past, the person we gave up when we committed to a relationship with our partner, or someone we met by chance at work or on the Internet. The third, real or imagined, concrete or not, is what is outside the pale: forbidden.”
The problem, as Perel describes it in her book, is that therapists tend to support “monolithic monogamy” instead of challenging it: “Yet sexual boundaries are one of the few areas where therapists seem to mirror the dominant culture. Monogamy is the norm, and sexual fidelity is considered to be mature, committed and realistic. Nonmonogamy, even consensual nonmonogamy, is suspect. It points to a lack of commitment or a fear of intimacy.”
The result is an all-or-nothing approach, in which every act of infidelity is perceived as a justified reason to dismantle the relationship. But in practice, Perel emphasizes, the reasons for infidelity can be many and varied, and do not always reflect a problem in the relationship.
In a talk Perel gave in Israel last April, she explained that in a certain sense, infidelity expresses a fear of death and an awareness of the fleetingness of our existence: “As therapists, we should look for death within the unfaithful person, because the encounter with death is like a mirror that reflects an existential truth we don’t wish to see – we are terminal, ephemeral – and hence the need arises within us to bring back to life inside us what is dead. We are unfaithful not only because we want to distance ourselves from the person we are living with, but because we want to distance ourselves from the person we have become.”
Perel is currently working on a second book, which will be titled “The State of Affairs: Cheating in the Age of Transparency,” and will be devoted completely to infidelity. In “Mating in Captivity” she refers to reports about that phenomenon in the Western world and to her accumulated clinical experience.
“It interests me why for some couples the relationship improves after infidelity, while for others it’s death,” she says. “I found it interesting when a patient told me, ‘I didn’t go to someone else, I went looking for a different me.’ An affair is utopia, it is a liminal state. But it can only be enjoyed if a very concrete reality is waiting on the other side. Most of the patients who told me about illicit affairs love their partner. Accordingly, we have to move away from the discourse of good-bad, black-white, victim-adulterer.”
In addition to monogamy, another theme that exercises Perel is the idea that sexuality is the exclusive preserve of the young. At age of 55 and as the mother of two sons, Perel maintains that “the notion that women have no desire for sex after menopause is arrant nonsense. Give that woman a new man and she won’t need to take hormones. It’s an age at which one can finally behave freely, because there is no chance of becoming pregnant. Eroticism is based on imagination, not on hormones. Erotic intelligence is a byproduct of the way in which I experience myself, and it takes women years, usually decades, to feel comfortable in their skin.”
That sounds utopian in a culture that makes women of 40 feel “old” in the face of endless images of adolescent girls.
“Look, if I were single today, the likelihood is that half the men who come to the talks I give wouldn’t look at me. But there are enough men who would. Women are much better than men at looking after their looks and their health. Here’s another myth that has to be shattered: Most of the couples who stop having sex after the age of 50 do it because of the man, not the woman. Most men above a certain age live on drugs related to blood pressure, diabetes or depression, and all those drugs have side effects of which the most common is impotence. And if the man was used to a spontaneous, automatic erection, as soon as something changes, he is totally burned out.”
That’s why Viagra was invented.
“It solves nothing. Our sexuality is scattered across the whole body, not only in the genitals. Viagra pumps blood into the penis, it doesn’t provide self-confidence or desire. Courtship, attentiveness, narcissism – that’s what’s important. One thing I learned is that for female sexuality to be liberated, it has to be narcissistic. Men tell me, ‘Nothing arouses me more than seeing her enjoying herself.’ There is a great deal of generosity in that. But what turns women on, in contrast, is the knowledge that they are capable of turning on their men, and therefore the sexual act affirms their worth from the sexual and psychological viewpoint. From this perspective, women are more narcissistic than men.”
What is the greatest difficulty a couple therapist faces?
“Couple therapy is always very difficult, because people have a whole spectrum of interests for staying in the relationship. The question of when to stop the therapy and abandon the relationship is one of the most difficult issues that therapists cope with. One of my tools is the understanding that my values are not necessarily the values of the people I am working with, but that I can imbue the patients with strength and belief that there are alternative value systems. If you tell me, ‘I am a woman of 55, what’s waiting for me out there, who will have me?’ I will not come back with, ‘And what about your self-respect?’ People would sometimes rather be humiliated in a relationship than to be alone.
“Sometimes I think that there is no love left there, and then the couple shows me that there is actually a great deal. My work is to enable people to give themselves a long and honest account of their life, when they reach a point at which they ask themselves, after 17 or 20 years of marriage: ‘Is this it? Is this all there is? Is this the way my life will look from now on?’ I have another 20 or 30 years left to live, and I don’t want to live without desire.”
So what is the solution?
“I don’t have a solution. I always say that I am not an expert, I am just someone who spends most of my time thinking about these subjects. Sexuality is the greatest experiment of the human society: How can one integrate great sensual sex with the same person with whom I raise children, buy vegetables and write the rent check? What’s necessary is to stop selling futile dreams and start talking more openly about these subjects.”