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The Erotic Intelligence
An interview with Esther Perel

Go to the italian translation / Leggi la traduzione in italiano

Published on La Voce di Romagna (Italy), 3rd-4th June 2009

by Simone Mariotti

Can you desire what you already have? Why do we think at the effort to maintain alive a relationship in a way like it was a job, at the discipline as a weariness? Why are we going on being entrapped in the sexual spontaneity myth? Why the sex is so good for our Childs's happiness? And a cheater is always just "a cheater"?
These are just some of the aspects sexologist Esther Perel treat in her book Mating in Captivity: Reconciling the Erotic and the Domestic, international bestseller translated in more than 20 languages. Dr Perel is one of the most highly-esteemed marriage and family therapist in USA, works in NY, and a popular commentator in many radio and TV programmes too, including The Oprah Winfrey Show. Today she's kindly accepted to have a chat with us.

Let's start from one of the most interesting assumption of your book: "complaining about the boredom of the sex is easy and conventional. To cultivate the eroticism at home is an act of clear provocation". How many people are conscious of the importance of this provocation? Where's our society going?
The institution of marriage has undergone an extreme makeover in the last century. Marriage has become a romantic arrangement where commitments are built on love. Our desiderata still include everything the traditional family was meant to provide-security, children, property, respectability - but now we also want our partner to be our best friend, our trusted confidante and our passionate lover to boot. And we live twice as long. Romance and passion are the center of the marital plot . Not only do we have this endless list of expectations, which have exceeded the maximum allowance, but on top of it we want to be happy.
Today, our sexuality is a part of who we are, and no longer merely something we do. It has become a central feature of intimate relationships, and sexual satisfaction, we believe is our due. For the first time in history, we have sex not because we want eight kids or because it's the woman's marital duty; today, in the west, sex is primarily rooted in desire. For many of us bringing lust home is a taboo, we opt for security on the inside and freedom on the outside. Some manage to introduce the playful, bold, transgressive nature of the erotic in the midst of their daily lives. They know how to keep desire alive, to stay connected to a sense of playfulness, aliveness, and connection.

One of the things I agree most with you is to see in the "create a distance" a sign of erotic intelligence. Do you however think that is it an always easily acceptable model, at least in a not anglo-saxon (or nordic) culture?
Fire needs air. Desire wants to go where it hasn't yet been. It needs otherness, difference. But to have an erotic Úlan, there needs to be a synapse to cross. Modern couples strive for oneness, yet eroticism thrives in the space between self and the other. Because this concept may seem abstract, I routinely ask the following question: "When do you feel most drawn, most attracted to your partner?" The answers resonate with a remarkable similarity.
After we've been apart; when he's confident and passionate about something he loves; When she's unaware I'm watching her; When he is talking with friends; When he surprises me; When we're at a party and I see others looking at her; When she's standing on the other side of a crowded room, and she smiles just for me; When he's playing with the kids (This is the only comment that is gender specific, for men rarely think that a mother playing with the kids is sexy); When we're away from home, and have fun together; When we dance; When I ride on the back of his motorcycle; When I see him play sports...
Whatever the answer, it is never without an element of distance. It is a description where we look at our partner from a comfortable distance. Not too close because we cannot distinguish them, and not too far for then they are no longer in our field of vision. We see a partner who is separate, where difference is magnified. And this person who is otherwise already so familiar is momentarily once again somewhat unknown, somewhat mysterious and elusive. More importantly, in none of these situations, is the other needing us, nor do we need to take care of him. Caretaking may be very loving, but it is also a powerful anti-aphrodisiac. In sex, people want to feel wanted, not needed.
American audiences have responded to the questions similarly to all 20 countries where I have been on book tour. At first they start out with different assumptions, but then they get it.
Of course this approach contrasts with the dominant emphasis here on transparency, and the definition of honesty as a kind of wholesale sharing.

Going on with a cultural comparison, you say that the ability to express you feelings it's not a particularly good quality in the building up of the American manhood. Even a not desirable one. And also that generally we minimize the not-verbal part of our communication. In short, too much talking.
Well, I don't know, but maybe even in Europe we are on that way. You have been raised in Belgium, studied in Israel, and now you're working in NY, a privileged point of view. What do you think about it?

Yes, indeed, the making of manhood shares a similar mandate here and abroad. We are born a woman, we become a man, says Elisabeth Badinter. In all societies there are rituals confirming masculinity, there are none for girls. No woods we go tot o prove that we are not men.
We inculcate fearlessness, competition, competence, instrumentality, self sufficiency in men in the US as well as in Europe and Israel. But it is a matter of degree. The boundaries between masculinity and femininity are different. The fact that Feminism in Belgium was based on complementaritÓ while here it was build on the idea of sameness also makes for major differences. There is no war of the sexes in Belgium the way it exists here. But you know these generalizations can be dangerous and they always lack nuance.

Speaking about parenthood, is it true that one of the best gift a couple can do to their children is to keep alive the sex tension between them? And why many parents find it difficult to be aware of that?
Family life flourishes in an atmosphere of comfort and consistency. Yet unpredictability, spontaneity, and risk are precisely where eroticism resides. In effect, what eroticism thrives on, family life defends against. Many of us become so immersed in our role as parents we become unable to break free, even when we might.
In our culture the survival of the family depends on the happiness of the couple. Cultivating the ideal relationship requires care and attention, and this competes directly with the "full-contact" parenting many of us embrace. Utopian romance butts heads with the realities of family life. Many of the couples I see have stopped factoring their own needs. Simply put, they have not carved out the time and space they need to unwind and replenish, either as individuals or as a couple.
No longer focused on one another, they have turned to the children to compensate for what they are missing. They need us to have our own loving relationship(s), in whatever form they take.
When we are emotionally and sexually satisfied (at least reasonably so, let's not get carried away here), we allow our children to experience their own independence with freedom and support. To get their groove back, couples need to free themselves from the disproportionate focus on their kids, both emotionally and practically. On the extensive list of things the children's needs, parents who have sex should feature as one of them.
Many women struggle to integrate sexuality and motherhood. Ours is a culture that equates maternal devotion with selflessness: self-sacrifice, self-abnegation, self-denial. They relinquish freedom and independence-both cornerstones of desire. Sexual identity changes as the result of pregnancy, childbirth, nursing and motherhood. In my work with women, we aim shift the focus from self-denial to self-awareness. We explore how to reclaim a right to pleasure, with its inherent threat of selfishness, in a way that doesn't leave them feeling like a bad mother.
Children who see their parents at ease expressing their affection (discreetly, within appropriate boundaries) are more likely to embrace sexuality with the healthy combination of respect, responsibility, and curiosity it deserves. By censoring our sexuality, curbing our desires, or renouncing them altogether, we hand our inhibitions intact to the next generation.

Why the playing (and turning to infantilism also?) is so important during the sex?
Two images come to mind. For adults sex is their sandbox. If you trust the partner, If you feel deserving and confident about your desires, then you can play freely in the sandbox not unlikely children whose imagination goes wild .
Eroticism is the adult version of playing hide and seek. The thrill of hiding, the relief of being found. The pursuit is key. So many children games are about running after someone who doesn't want to be caught.
In short, sex gives us a space to let go of the constraints of our adult lives, we can dream, play, invent, be taken care off, handled, and be safely regressive. We can be rocked, soothed, licked, tickled, all these wonderful sensual experiences of life that we discovered as a child.

Let's close with the hot topic of infidelity. Yea, if a person gets married, than divorce, has sex relationship, than gets married again, the second divorce, other relationship, than gets married for the last time, but always true during the marriage, she is considered a true one. If another one stay 50 years with the same person, but in the middle has a one-night affair, she is the cheater: "once a cheater, always a cheater", they said, at least some time ago, but today?
This is my next project. So I have a lot to say, more than you need.
Infidelity has historically been universally condemned, and universally practiced. What is so compelling about cheating? , about the enormous risks men, and women in particular are willing to take for a glimmer of passion, freedom, and alivness.
Here in America, infidelity is morally condemned. In Italy I think that the moral factor has been neutralized. It may not be approved, but it is understood. Monogamy is the next frontier. Once we have made sex so central in our couples lives, we may push to grant sex to be important in its own right and thus to be freed from the constraints of "marriage".
Many people live with the ideal of monogamy, as do those who are not. There is the dream and there is reality.
Infidelity always carries an element of rebellion, a quest for autonomy, since in the secrecy of the affair, I know the story belongs to me, this is mine and for me. But it also is thought of a away to balance the primary relation, to accept a more compartimentalized view of relationships.
Infidelity puts us in touch with the ambitions of love and their oversized expectations, followed by disillusions that there may not be one relationship than can give us everything.
And finally, what people today long to escape from, is the sense of deadness that keeps up on them in their busy, stressful, driven lives. Not much can compete with the energy burst an affair can bring. As one of my patients said recently, it is anti depressant and a facelift at no cost, far more immediate and cheaper than therapy.
Thanks Esther, we are looking forward reading your next book!

Esther Perel
Esther Perel

Covers of the international editions of Mating in Captivity
L'intelligenza erotica - di Esther Perel

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