Talking to: Prof. Gurit Birnbaum, 49, lives in Ramat Gan; social psychologist, Baruch Ivcher School of Psychology, Interdisciplinary Center, Herzliya; Where: A Tel Aviv café; When: Sunday, 11 A.M.
Tell me what you do.
I study the significance of sex for people, the role sexuality plays in their lives, and more especially in their close relationships, how sex creates bonds or destroys them and why it is so meaningful for us.
A dumb but necessary question: Why sex? How did you get into this field?
I always knew I would be a scientist, but I thought the direction would be genetic engineering. After completing my army service, I studied biology at the Hebrew University, but I simply couldn’t imagine spending my life in a laboratory. I realized that what truly interests me is human behavior, and at the very last minute I switched to psychology studies. After finishing my undergraduate degree, I went directly into a doctoral track. I was 23, and I asked myself what could rivet me for the next four years. The answer was sex.
At the age of 23, people tend to focus on sex itself, not on a doctorate about it.
I was then at the height of the joy of discovering sex, and that combination suited me very well and excited me. It surprised me to hear from people around me that what then seemed to me to be one of life’s greatest pleasures could be, even for people as young as I was, a source of boredom or even suffering. I decided that I needed to understand the reasons for this in depth.
For example, everyone who’s in a long-term relationship is familiar with the phenomenon: They have less and less sex. It happens even with couples in their twenties, not only with people who have children and a mortgage. When one side becomes frustrated with it, a very problematic dynamic of anger kicks in, which poisons the whole relationship. I was curious to know why this is so for everyone, and more than that: how and if the dynamic could be stopped. I asked myself whether there might be elements in the intimate relationship that could actually fan passion, and that’s how I discovered the concept of responsiveness.
By which you mean the way in which one side is attentive and attuned to the needs of the other side and what they say.
We are born with a deep need for responsiveness, going all the way back to an infant’s relationship with its mother. If the mother is responsive, the infant feels taken care of. He understands that he can rely on the world and on the people around him to supply his needs. If the mother is not responsive, all the processes of his self-perception and perception of his place in the world go awry, and he will carry that burden into his adult relationships.
We know that a secure attachment with parents is a prior condition for good relationships with others. Explain to me how successful attachment is translated into the adult relationship.
A person who does not experience a secure attachment, who has learned not to trust others, whose self-esteem is flawed, will turn to one of two strategies to protect himself. The first is to rely only on himself, to flee from intimacy, which he perceives as a source of stress, and to distance the other person, who is supposed to be close to him.
The second strategy is the opposite: over-activation of relationships. Because my mother did not supply my needs, I have a powerful yearning to be acknowledged and cared for, I am addicted to closeness and I coerce my surroundings into giving me what I need. People like this can be highly manipulative in managing their close circle. They extract from others the ratification they need, because they don’t believe it can be obtained in other ways.
You are describing two polar points on the scale, but I imagine that most people are somewhere in between.
It’s a biaxial system; each of us is situated on both an axis of abstention and an axis of apprehension. The aspiration, of course, is to be situated at the bottom of each of the two axes. The problems begin when someone is, for example, high in apprehension and low in abstention. That person will constantly be examining the surroundings and his partner, will see threats where they don’t exist, and everything immediately becomes a drama. By the way, if the apprehensive person is lucky and has a partner who is capable of and knows how to accommodate him and all the drama he generates – he can become more moderate over the years.
The adult relationship as a cure for a defective childhood attachment.
Yes, a therapeutic process within the relationship. Unfortunately, it doesn’t usually work like that – people like that choose a partner who reenacts and perpetuates their anxieties. Apprehensive women, in particular, tend to attach themselves to abstaining men. That’s the prevailing combination.
Because through his abstention she can create the drama she needs.
Yes. She is the pursuer; he, the pursued. Their relationship rests on that dynamic, which of course is only aggravated over time and makes them both miserable.
Let’s return to the notion of responsiveness and the way it can become the answer to the problem of the frequency of sexual relations in a long-term relationship.
We conducted a long series of studies, whose results were published in leading psychology journals. We found that desire in women whose partner is responsive only increases over time. We also saw another interesting phenomenon: At the dating stage, when the man and the woman are strangers, women are actually not interested in responsive men. That pattern repeated itself in six independent studies. On a date, if the man behaves like the woman’s psychologist, she loses interest in him.
Obviously. That’s a turnoff. On the first date? Be a tall, mysterious stranger – thank you.
Women come to first dates with a very high level of suspiciousness. When a man behaves in a way that doesn’t fit the gender stereotype, she starts to ask herself why he’s behaving like that. Does he just want to get her into bed? Maybe he’s simply spineless? For men, by the way, it’s the opposite. A woman who sits across from them on a first date and displays empathy wins them over completely. In a long-term relationship, that pattern reverses itself in women. In a relationship, women very much need responsiveness and very much appreciate it. Men, too, of course, but in women, it’s a more powerful and more blatant need.
Really, the only sweeping comment I can make is that women and men alike want and look for a responsive partner. The fact that the partner reads them, through and through, is what makes the relationship stable.
So, whoever wants more sex in a relationship had better start listening.
Absolutely. And not just to nod “uh huh,” but to be attentive and active in the ability to understand the other side, to convey the feeling that he’s really with them, without being critical and without pushing himself.
‘Haunted by demons’
There’s a sensational aspect to your studies, too. I’ve seen quite a few of their results published, even in well-regarded platforms like Forbes and The Wall Street Journal, with headlines like “Study confirms: Sex prevents wrinkles,” or “Couples who cuddle have better sex.”
One of my studies was reported in the Times of London with the headline, “Watch porn to get in the mood... for a first date.” I’m very ambivalent about this. On the one hand, it’s hard for me to see the findings superficialized and translated into a headline that’s usually far from the true significance. On the other hand, it’s very important for me to reach people. One of my goals is to create an opening for self-understanding among people, so they can cope with these issues. After 30 years in the field, it still astonishes me to discover how haunted people are by demons of one kind and another, how uncomfortable they feel with their sexuality and with themselves. Even in professional circles, after I deliver a lecture, other researchers approach me secretly and say, “I have such and such a fantasy – what does that say about me?”
Terrific. I wanted us precisely to talk about “six things you didn’t know about sexual fantasies.”
I’ve conducted a great many studies about fantasies. It really is fascinating. Having studied the subject in depth, I can now listen to someone’s fantasy and know exactly who he is, what he’s like in his relationship and what drives him. What’s truly astounding in them is that the fantasy matches the patterns of sexual behavior in reality.
In other words, we drag all our hang-ups into the fantasy world, too.
The fact is that even in fantasies, which is a platform where you have complete control – where you are the director and the scriptwriter and can fly as far as you want – people don’t succeed in letting go of themselves.
For example, the abstaining types we talked about earlier use sex to heighten their sense of self-esteem, so their fantasies contain elements of disconnect, alienation, aggressiveness and conquest. The fantasy revolves around the feeling that I am the king of the world, that I can get whatever I want. The apprehensive people, in contrast, have a need to be taken care of, so their fantasies touch on the realm of submission, surrendering, the sudden arrival of someone big and strong to arrange everything for them.
I’ve read Stella Grey’s book “The Heartfix: An Online Dating Diary,” which documents the ordeals of a British woman who returned to the dating market in middle age. One of the men who contacted her on a dating site asked her to sleep with him while he wore a diaper. He claimed it was a common fantasy. There probably couldn’t be a more literal one than that.
It’s definitely not a common fantasy, and that’s just as well. People try to realize their deepest psychological needs through their fantasies, and in fact they simply reenact their pathologies. Part of my research consisted of asking couples to keep a diary of the daily reality of their relationship, including the fantasies. Then, for example, I could see that the patterns of abstention and apprehension, and the matching fantasies, are very much heightened after quarrels.
Because you feel vulnerable. The relationship is vulnerable.
Exactly, and you protect yourself with means you’re familiar with.
How do you research fantasy with scientific tools, how does it work?
It really is complicated, because you need to take a story and process it in a form that will make possible a quantitative approach to the findings. I worked out a method for analyzing fantasies in three parameters: the wish that underlies the fantasy, such as to dominate; the way I present myself in the fantasy, such as the dominator; and the way that other people are represented in the fantasy. When we read the fantasies, we deconstruct and analyze them on the basis of those three parameters, and then it’s truly possible to understand that person’s story, and more than that, the story of his relationship.
If we can generalize about all your studies: Sexuality is not self-contained. It is always a product of emotional needs or deficiencies.
Yes. These needs have simply “hitched a ride” in the sexual channel, because it is so powerful, because it makes it possible to achieve intimacy and closeness in the fastest and purest way.
World of Tinder
The world of dating has changed a great deal during the period in which you’ve been studying it. Think, for example, what a storm speed dating caused – the media interest and the number of people who were shocked by the option of meeting several people in one evening.
True, and today you sit in the living room and hundreds of people are just waiting for you on Tinder. I haven’t investigated the effect of these changes, because ultimately our need for love and intimacy hasn’t changed and won’t change, only the means have changed. Tinder represents a more flagrant meat market, that’s for sure, but it also has positive aspects. Tinder has breached many barriers for us. It allows us to meet people that there’s no chance we would have met under other circumstances.
Do you use Tinder?
Yes, for research purposes. And also sometimes for my personal purposes. A basic asymmetry exists in the way that men and women comport themselves with Tinder. Men send a great many messages [to many potential matches], while women swipe and swipe [looking for just the right match].
So, you think Tinder is a positive development, and not the end of humanity?
Definitely yes. I think it’s wonderful, if it’s used the right way, if you are able to develop sophisticated filtering mechanisms.
Are you replying as a scientist or as a woman who uses Tinder?
As a person who sees both the positive potential and the evils.
How does the knowledge you’ve gleaned serve you in your private life? Let’s say, a girlfriend tells you about a bad date she had or about a guy who disappeared on her.
I try very hard not to analyze people who are close to me.
Is that possible?
No. So I act first of all as a friend and offer a shoulder to lean on and I empathize, but at the same time, I will give her a very clear picture of the mistakes she made, I will try to help her avoid self-defeating behavior, which is a phenomenon I see all the time in everyone. We all sabotage our relationships.
Can you elaborate?
Criticizing one’s partner, when the attack is about a permanent trait or personality feature, and not about specific behavior. Reacting to a complaint with a counter-complaint: “I don’t do anything in the house? You refused to visit my parents.” Refusal to respond to the partner’s complaints, regression from interaction while remaining in the same place physically, ignoring the partner, displaying contempt and disrespect for the partner. And in general, people who lose themselves in the relationship and forget their selfhood. Also the opposite: people who don’t see the other side at all – manipulative types who use sex to influence the partner, to maneuver him, to make him feel rejected. In short, the eternal pleasers and the eternal narcissists.
Do you activate these reflexes when you date, too?
If the date is successful, I enjoy it. If it’s not successful, I switch to analytical mode and try to extract the maximum from it. But don’t write that – it will wreck my dating!
Let’s talk about your new and surprising research, which deals with birth-control pills.
It’s a series of studies, in collaboration with Prof. Tsachi Ein-Dor, Kobi Zoltek and Sheer Birnbaum. All the findings relate to women who had been on the pill on an ongoing basis, and stopped taking it during a monogamous relationship, when they were raising a family.
One of the conclusions was that women who choose a partner while they are on the pill harm the health of their common offspring. Why?
The body directs us to choose the most genetically appropriate partner. That’s why an initial desire is in many senses a good predictor. That of course doesn’t mean that the person I crave at that moment is necessarily the best partner for me, but the desire is the primary signal attesting to the fact that I am going in the right direction or that it’s better for me to move away from there, and fast. You will desire someone who is genetically appropriate for you. Women are attracted to male body aroma, which indicates a different immune system from theirs, and the idea is that their offspring, potentially, will receive the broadest immune umbrella and will be able to cope more successfully with viruses and bacteria.
And that mechanism is completely irrelevant for women who take the pill, because the pill generates a pregnancy-like hormonal state. Even when you’re on a first date, you’re going into it pregnant, as it were.
The pill simply emasculates women and disrupts their body’s ability to choose a partner in a manner that will be beneficial to the offspring, because their preferences during pregnancy are completely different from their regular preferences. For example, pregnant women are attracted to the scent of family relatives. Not in the sexual sense, heaven forbid, but because in the vulnerable state of pregnancy these are the people who can protect them.
Brad Pitt as Quasimodo
Interesting. But you know, not all relationships are for reproductive purposes.
That’s just the point: The pill has many implications that people simply aren’t aware of. A woman who takes contraceptive pills will of course stop taking them at a certain stage. And what happens then? The Brad Pitt whom she chose for herself under the influence of the pill becomes Quasimodo.
Is it all so unequivocal? It can’t be.
Yes, it’s very unequivocal and is supported by many studies, not only the one we conducted. There are studies that indicated that the moment women go off the pill, they become disillusioned, because they chose a man suited to the state they were in under the pill’s influence, and when the body is restored to itself the desired object ceases to be desired, and women report a dramatic decrease in their passion. In our study we also saw that women who stopped taking the pill during their relationship tended to pay more attention to attractive strangers and fantasize about them sexually, particularly before ovulation. We also saw distinctly that after they went off the pill, women reported being dissatisfied with the relationship, and that they were more likely to play the field.
In other words, she went off the pill and started cheating?
That’s the pattern we saw. Of course, we did not examine cheating in practice, but we did see that women are more likely to divorce. Definitely.
After devoting your career to the study of sex, what do you understand about sex today that you didn’t understand when you started out?
That sex can be everything, other than sex.
What do you mean?
People channel a great many needs and wishes that have nothing to do with sex into the sexual relationship. Sex can constitute a way to feel good with yourself and to cope with difficulties that you experience in other arenas of life, and it can also be a tool to manipulate other people for all kinds of purposes. People use sex to express creativity, to sleep better at night, to escape reality and even to take revenge on others. There are couples for whom sex is an arena for wrangling, getting even and settling accounts. Some people make sex conditional, if not explicitly, on the fulfillment of their wishes out of bed.
Sex has dark and light sides. To the same degree that it can heighten an intimate relationship between people, it can express pathologies. There are people for whom sex is another channel of communication, which reflects authentically who they are in everyday life, while others, when they get into bed, turn into Mr. Hyde.