So, how's your sex life these days?
If sex - or rather, the lack of sex - in marriages and long-term relationships isn't a hot topic, it's because no one dares talk about it. On a personal level, we don't do it out of loyalty to our partners, or embarrassment because we feel on some level that we're failing (although we understand that almost all of us are failing in the same way), or because we believe that our sex lives are a barometer of our relationship as a whole. On a wider cultural level, it's just not considered sufficiently - sexy. And yet, we are surrounded by sex. By our single friends' rampantness, but also by the latest Durex report, which insists that the average Brit had sex 118 times - or a little over three times a week - last year. We know about - have even entered into - the debate surrounding Shortbus, the allegedly most graphic non-porn film ever made, which focuses on 'a polysexual New York salon', and features fellatio and threeways and gay sex - none of which is simulated. We know that British teenagers are having huge amounts of sex - unprotected and feckless sex - and that it's a problem. We are bombarded by highly sexualised imagery every moment of every day. But none of it seems to apply to us any more.The article is laced with racy terms, facts, and 'bad' words' -- if you offend easily, please skip this post. It so happens I learned a lot from reading it, and thus share it with you. Of course, I seek your thoughts, comments, and opinions.
-- David M Gordon / The Deipnosophist
Sunday October 8, 2006
So, how's your sex life these days?
If sex - or rather, the lack of sex - in long-term relationships isn't a hot topic, it's because no one dares talk about it. Or admit to it. Until now...
The Jewish Community Centre in Manhattan is housed within a well-maintained, moderately ritzy, medium-height skyscraper, which stands on the corner of 76th Street and Amsterdam Avenue in New York City's affluent midtown area. It serves as the focus for all manner of activities designed to appeal to the swisher, more intellectually adventurous elements of Jewish society. Programmes include classes in creative writing, and left-field indie cinema seasons; Texas Hold 'Em poker nights; and a series of events targeted at the JCC's lesbian, gay, bisexual and transsexual faction. Tonight, though, promises something special, even in the grand scheme of the JCC's eclectic and spangly schedule. Tonight, the JCC is getting an audience with Esther Perel: couples counsellor, nascent media phenomenon, card-carrying 'shock shrink' - and the world's leading authority on the sexlessness of the long-term relationship.
A substantial crowd is gathering to meet Perel. They're mainly women and exclusively Jewish, summer-cashmere-clad with matching mid-length hair, hair which tends towards frizz. They've come in pairs: mother and daughter pairs, and girlfriend pairs; although the occasional lone female settles herself a touch self-consciously into a seat, and the one couple that is in evidence - a twentysomething man and woman - are indulging in very pointed displays of physical affection. The crowd at large is aged anything from 20 to 60. They sit, and they wait. They want to know what Esther Perel has to say.
So do I. It seems to me that increasingly, sex is the preserve of single people. Or of people in the very earliest stages of relationships. Or, as a colleague of mine recently pointed out, 'of people who are married - providing they're having sex with everyone apart from the people they're supposed to be having sex with'. But mainly, sex seems to be for single people. Certainly, my single friends are the only ones who ever talk about their sex lives, sex lives that seem - from where I'm standing at least, neck-deep in a long-term relationship - to be impressively wild and decadent and to involve all manner of erotic adventures. Oh, they're having fun, the single lot! Male and female, gay and straight. The stories they tell! They've got their casual repeat fuck buddies and their one-night internet-approved hook ups; their tentative flirtations on public transport and their hilarious stories of sexual misadventure (' ... and so he tried to creep out without saying goodbye, how rude! But he didn't realise he'd need a key to get out the main front door, and so my flat door slammed behind him and bam! He got stuck in the hallway! Hee hee! It's my patented man-trap, you see?') Even when they're not having sex, there's some potential or other round the corner, or failing that, there's the yearning for it, the fluttering, the fantasising.
My married friends, colleagues and contemporaries, the long-termers, the co-habitees and the likes of me, meanwhile, do not talk about our sex lives. The more daring among us might joke in a wry, fleeting and mildly competitive fashion, about whom, among us, is having absolutely definitely the least sex. 'Three months ago this very night. Woo hoo! And it was crap!' 'Ha! Don't even talk to me until you've done a full year!' Et cetera. But largely, we avoid the conversation altogether.
If sex - or rather, the lack of sex - in marriages and long-term relationships isn't a hot topic, it's because no one dares talk about it. On a personal level, we don't do it out of loyalty to our partners, or embarrassment because we feel on some level that we're failing (although we understand that almost all of us are failing in the same way), or because we believe that our sex lives are a barometer of our relationship as a whole. On a wider cultural level, it's just not considered sufficiently - sexy. And yet, we are surrounded by sex. By our single friends' rampantness, but also by the latest Durex report, which insists that the average Brit had sex 118 times - or a little over three times a week - last year. We know about - have even entered into - the debate surrounding Shortbus, the allegedly most graphic non-porn film ever made, which focuses on 'a polysexual New York salon', and features fellatio and threeways and gay sex - none of which is simulated. We know that British teenagers are having huge amounts of sex - unprotected and feckless sex - and that it's a problem. We are bombarded by highly sexualised imagery every moment of every day. But none of it seems to apply to us any more.
It's as if we accept - on an individual, and on a broader social level - that we stop being sexual creatures the moment we settle with one person. As if the one thing that got us into our relationships - lust - is ultimately the one thing that's absent from it. No wonder we don't talk about it.
But Esther Perel does want to talk about it. A lot. She thinks she knows why sex falters in long-term relationships, and how to remedy it. She's dedicated an entire book to the subject. Mating in Captivity - Reconciling the Erotic & the Domestic is her first book, yet it's causing the kind of media furore publishers dream of. When her original synopsis was released tentatively to a selection of US publishers early last year, 14 separate houses picked up on it, and Perel had a bidding war on her hands. Rumours regarding its content started floating around on the internet, and suddenly Perel was being invited to guest on The Oprah Winfrey Show and on CBS This Morning. Early reviewers described it in rapturous terms: 'Fearless ...', 'Revelatory ...' According to The New Yorker: 'It reads like a cross between the works of [psychoanalyst] Jacques Lacan and French Women Don't Get Fat.' Little wonder that the JCC is all fluttery over Perel's imminent arrival.
Once her crowd is settled and sufficiently excited, Esther Perel enters the room. She's a good-looking, well-dressed and definitively minxy piece in her late 40s, though she looks younger. She's charismatic and sexy - she moves and talks and interacts in an inescapably sensual fashion, and she's got a pronounced Belgian accent which adds to the overall effect. Everything about her leaves you in little doubt that Perel (despite being married for 21 years, and despite having two sons under the age of 12) is having plenty of good-quality sex. She takes her chair, and she begins.
'Love,' she announces, in dramatic tones, 'needs closeness and intimacy and familiarity to flourish. Desire does not. Desire needs distance, insecurity, novelty and surprise. Desire needs tension, breaches and repairs. Love is not comfortable with fights, but desire needs fights. Fights generate energy, erotic energy - and this is not just desire for sex, but a general exuberance and vitality, an élan, an aliveness! We often judge couples on the amount they fight, like: "Oh, they have such a good relationship! They never fight!" And yes, I know of couples who never fight and do have a very good relationship - but they also have a sex life that is somewhat flat. Desire needs fights! Intimacy - that is, emotional intimacy - inhibits erotic expression. Desire needs edge! Love needs absence of sexual threat, but desire? Desire needs to know there are other options out there for your partner, that your partner moves out there in a sexual world when they are not with you, a world of other people who look at them, sexually. Love needs talk. Desire needs not to talk. Eroticism thrives in the space between the self and the other. In order to maintain a sexual edge in our relationships, we must learn to tolerate this void, these uncertainties. I wrote this book because, in 22 years of practice in six different languages [Perel speaks eight, but teaches, lectures and practices psychology in only six], I've met couples over and over again who were having a good relationship, who love each other, but who have no sex, no tingle! I met couples who had a bad relationship, and who I helped to have a good relationship again, and the expectation was that the sex would just come back - but it didn't. I began to think there's something in this premise - that if sex is wrong, the relationship is wrong; and equally that more talk, intimacy and closeness will equal more sex, better sex - that just doesn't work. I knew I was on to something.'
And so Perel begins, launching herself into a 90-minute discourse that dismantles all popular wisdom. She addresses honesty, 'which in American terms has come to mean transparency, this idea that the only way a couple can be healthy, or can heal themselves, is with absolute honesty. Come on! We need secrets! We can never know our partner completely, and they can never know us completely, and that's good.'
She addresses fidelity, 'or the shadow of the third, the fear of betrayal, the awareness of the people we could have had, the ones that reconfirm our choice. Or yes, we have affairs - and they can be fatal, or they can be the best wake-up call ever. I know couples whose relationships are much better in the wake of the revelation of an affair than they were before. We need to remember that we do not own this person sexually.'
She addresses fantasy, 'which is never politically correct, it's transgressive and about power, which is why it's so hot. It's about surrender, revenge, aggression, abandonment. You can transcend moral and social boundaries. But this idea that you should share your fantasy with your partner ... I think that's very risky. You should recognise your own fantasies though, because they reveal what you need, sexually and emotionally. Desire without fantasy is just arousal. Desire has a plot.'
And she addresses failing libido as a consequence of parenthood. 'You're too stressed and tired for sex? Like you weren't stressed and busy and tired when you were hot and single! What happens is that the erotic is transferred on to the child. Who gets the long languorous hugs, the playfulness, the fun, the fashion shows, the teasing, the multiple kisses? The child! It's often easier to say: "I'm so exhausted, I'm too tired for sex," when what you actually mean is: I have a sensual connection with my child, and I'm getting everything from him or her. On the list of what it takes to raise a happy child, you never see: parents with a good sex life. It should be there!'
So it goes on. Perel talks hard and fast and dirty, and sacred cows fall at a rate of about three a minute ('Talking is overrated. Especially talking to just one person'; 'Aargh, that collapsed, deadened state of togetherness, where only the WE prevails!'; 'I cannot stand this tendency to identify a victim and a perpetrator in an affair'; 'This idea that tenderness and emotional intimacy leads to good sex - I'm afraid it became current when women came into my profession.')
Perel's audience hang on her every word. They're shocked by her. I'd like to say that's because they're American and therefore somewhat puritanical, but the fact of the matter is that I am British, and I am shocked, too. Perel says the kind of things that are so contrary to popular wisdom, they actually sound blasphemous - and yet, at precisely the same moment that you're being shocked by her, you're also acknowledging the validity of her ideas. Perel's ideas are like the chorus of a really good pop song - instantly familiar because they resonate deeply. It's all rather terrifying in its intuitiveness and its pure rightness. I leave the JCC feeling rather buzzy, and rather exposed. By the looks on the faces of those around me, I am not alone.
I meet Esther Perel again the following day, in her Fifth Avenue offices (located, appropriately enough, two doors up from the New York Museum of Sex). She is, predictably, an even more intense proposition in a one-on-one situation. She's inclined to say very disarming things like: 'Hmmmm, you know, you're the first person to ask me so much about fantasy I think, ever.'
You mean, the first journalist? 'No. The first person. And she's also so fascinated by the erotic workings of every human mind that she happens to encounter, that she can't help but try and get a handle on your situation, sexually and romantically speaking, the very moment she meets you. She's so incredibly direct, and so incredibly comfortable with all permutations on sexuality and relationships, that she makes it very easy for you to disclose rather too much, rather too quickly, which distracts you somewhat from your actual purpose. But we somehow get to the interview in the end.
So. Esther Perel is 48 years old, a Belgian-born Jew whose parents survived concentration camps (which, she thinks, enhanced their lust for living and adventure immeasurably - although she knows nothing about their sex life); who has worked as an actress (which would explain the theatrical bent) and who has run a fashionable clothing boutique in Antwerp (which would explain the clothes). She trained as a psychologist in Israel, and then moved to New York, where she specialised in working with cross-cultural relationships. She believes that her own status as a foreigner working with people who are culturally foreign to each other has provided her with multiple perspectives on relationships, and a good grip on romantic and sexual universal truths. Now, she works with all kinds of couples, gay and straight, mixed or not. But always couples. What is it, I ask, about couples that is so fascinating to her?
'Ha! The drama!' she says. 'Couples are the best theatre around! What two people do to each other, it can be sublime, and it can be evil.' I have no doubt about that - even before she tells me that this week is proving to be a very bad week for affairs. 'I dunno why! It's a bad week. Ouf!' She sighs, flings her arms wide. 'You know, the phone was ringing all night, all night, I had about four hours sleep I think! And I got in this morning and the husband of this one woman, he calls because he wants to see me. His wife had an affair after coming to one of my readings. So I say: Why do you want to see me? You must hate me! And he says: I do! I do hate you! But ... you understand her! And it's true. He does.' (Perel is brilliantly indiscreet about her clients - while absolutely retaining their anonymity, she references them hilariously and in luridly colourful terms. They are more than case studies - they are her characters. In the book, she remarks, for example, that one client, 'Adele', is dressed 'simply and elegantly, though she's been meaning to do her hair for a while now, and it shows'. She recounts how another, whose husband was having problems viewing his wife as a sexual being after she'd given birth to their first child, charged him $100 for a blow job in the interest of helping him through his Madonna/whore complex.) 'Anyway. What do you want to know?'
Does sex even matter that much?
'Hmm. Well. I think sex for many of us is incredibly important. Of course, it is quite new this idea that you should have great sex with your husband. Our parents did not live with that idea. The idea that you would find passion with your husband was absurd! But now ... I suppose now the difference is we have a midlife and the things we suppressed our erotic instincts for are more established - our children are older, we have the house and the financial stability we craved - well then, we remember, don't we? Maybe a friend divorces and remarries, or our children are teenagers and bringing sex back into the house, and we watch them and we think: Can I still have some of that? Just a little bit? Because it is not just about sex, that urge. It's about vitality and the frisson, it's about aliveness and the connection, it's about renewal; and yes, I think most of us need that. And so we start to want it, and if it isn't there any more in our marriage - by which I mean, all long-term relationships - then we have affairs. It is often one person who wakes up one day, feels the tickle, feels the tingle ... and they know they're loved, they know they're so loved -but they want to be wanted again.'
But an affair needn't spell disaster? 'Affairs can go both ways. But yes, they can be the most effective alarm system I have ever known. Men and women have affairs for different reasons. Women have affairs to find a sense of themselves outside of the relationship and the family, so that they can be taken care of, so they don't have to do the taking care. Men do it for a sense of affirmation. But people don't have affairs because they want to hurt their partner. So you can vilify them for it if you want, but then: what have you got?'
Is there a good way to damage-limit the disclosure of an affair? To stop it being the end of a relationship, and instead use it as a springboard towards better sex? 'Hmmm. Well, this couple that is unravelling as we speak, the husband who called me earlier ... all I'm going to do with them is try and contain it. Stop them from doing anything rash, impulsive and unthoughtful, because they're both in a state of shock. The wife asked me: is it salvageable? And truthfully, it's often less salvageable when it's the woman who has strayed. But there is something he could do: he could stop continuously trying to find out details. This pursuit of truth as if it will somehow help you reclaim reality! Help you recover! But it won't. The truth needs to unfold in small doses. If at all.'
What makes a person so very clever regarding sex, I wonder. Perel claims she hasn't had amazing sex for the whole of her life. 'Ha! No! Not at all! You know, I wish I knew what I know now, when I had the face I had then.' But clearly, there's been something in her experience that makes her especially intelligent about it. So what?
She pauses. 'I suppose I am very comfortable with it. And I make people comfortable with it. I am comfortable with sex and I am comfortable with the erotic mind, which are two different things, by the way ... and I don't make judgments, which is not to say I don't get ... surprised, because, woo-wee! The things people concoct! But I am direct and ... you don't get away with stuff with me.'
I wonder if she's had much adverse reaction to what is, after all, controversial material.
'It's been OK, so far. I thought the feminists would come after me because, like I say, desire is not politically correct; but no. In fact, the young feminists are edgier than I am! And I thought the religious lot, or the extreme right ... but not yet. Although the polyamorous lot are cross because they think I'm promoting monogamy.' Is she?
'I never want to say: one way is right, and one way is not. I never want to tell people what to do.'
I've spent another hour and a half in the company of Esther Perel. It's a brilliant and stimulating experience, but also rather an exhausting one, and I feel a touch like I'm voluntarily subscribing to the cult of Perel. So I prepare to wrap up our meeting, but ask her if there's anything she thinks I've missed. There is.
'You know one thing, when I ask people: when was the last time you looked at your husband or wife, and you felt desire. And you know what they always say? Not: "When we were like this [she holds a hand up, very close to her face], staring into each other's eyes and holding hands." No.
It's always: "When I saw her giving some talk or some presentation, like at work or something, and she didn't even know I was there." Or: "When he was about to go windsurfing, and he was so in his own mind and doing something that had nothing to do with me or the kids." It's when they see the distance between them, when they recognise that person as completely separate from them! That's when they feel erotic desire. And that's what you must keep in a relationship, to keep the sex.' I think this is possibly one of the truest things I have ever heard.
As I leave, I pause to ask her what she wants from all this. 'Sexually? I am very interested in the challenge of my own menopause. Professionally? TV. Definitely TV. Like a Sex and the City for 40-something married people. But mostly, I want people to talk about this. I want to crack this nut. One review described my book as a tipping point. And that was very good indeed. Because you know, actually, I don't care if I'm right. I just care that people start talking about this.'