In Search of Desire

December 1, 2007
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Esther Perel, author of Mating in Captivity: Unlocking Erotic Intelligence, is a licensed marriage and family therapist in private practice in New York, serving a multilingual, multicultural clientele. An authority on cultural identity, cross-cultural relations, and ethnic and religious intermarriage, she has led private and public interventions around the world. Esther hosts the Downtown Salon, a forum that grew out of the Ideas Cafe she launched at the Skirball Center in 2003. Perel serves on the faculties of the Department of Psychiatry, New York University Medical School, and the International Trauma Studies Program. She can be reached at She spoke recently with Sh’ma Editor, Susan Berrin.

Susan Berrin: Let’s begin with your own personal Jewish history, and how it has influenced your work as a sex therapist with couples.

Esther Perel: Both my parents were the sole survivors of their family, so I used to think about the Holocaust in terms of loss, suffering, and pain. But as I was thinking about my book, and wondering what drew me to eroticism, I began to think about survivors as primarily two groups of people: those who survived and those who came back to life.

Those who survived were people who often lived quite tethered to the ground with their energies focused on recovering some basic sense of security and safety in the world, but they rarely have pleasure guilt free and reclaim a sense of joy in life. The other group, those who came back to life, found some basic sense of security or at least accepted that maybe such a thing doesn’t really exist but were able to reconnect with a sense of creativity and playfulness and eagerness toward life. This group could experience pleasure and allow their children to experience pleasure without guilt. My parents were among the second group of survivors, and from them I absorbed a mystical meaning of eroticism: how to preserve a sense of aliveness and vibrancy and vitality and how the erotic is an antidote to death.

When I work with couples and I hear them complain about the listlessness of their sex life, I don’t just hear them wanting more sex, I hear them wanting to reconnect with a sense of renewal and connection and playfulness that sex used to afford them. And that’s why more than being interested in sexuality, I really was interested in the erotic, in how people fight a sense of deadness that sometimes creeps into life.

Berrin: So what would you say to a couple experiencing a loss of desire?

Perel: Desire is connected to our sense of self-worth. Couples have a way of being together that stops the flow of their erotic interest. A lack of desire can be a result of too much distance and lack of connection or it can be the consequence of excess closeness. Fire needs air and many couples don’t leave each other enough air. Desire needs a synapse to cross. Desire ceases when there is nothing to desire — that is, an individual has no desire for the sex he or she can have. The loss of desire is often far more the result of fear than the passage of time. Fear of bringing our deepest wishes, needs, and vulnerabilities to the one we love. Sex in a long-term relationship is always risky because erotic sex with the one we love is perhaps the last taboo.

What really helps people is to connect with their own erotic selves, what is blocking their capacity for pleasure, their sensuality, their own sensuousness. We’re all born sensuous but we become erotic. We must develop an awareness of our body, a connection with our own skin, and a desire to want to please it, touch it, dress it, wash it, let it breathe the air.

Berrin: Does Judaism put up blocks and obstacles to that experience of pleasure?

Perel: Not Judaism but Jewish people. Judaism is not anti-carnal, but it has developed a sexuality that is not purely pleasure bound; pleasure is connected with reproduction. It has a purpose. Eroticism cultivates pleasure for its own sake. If poetry is the eroticism of language, then eroticism is the poetry of the body. That’s the difference between sexuality and eroticism. In Judaism, the prohibition against masturbation, for men, that is spilling seed, fosters a total dependency on their partner.

Berrin: Kedusha is often translated as holiness, but it means separateness. How does the concept apply to the erotic, that is, wanting what you can’t have, what’s set aside?

Perel: While the laws of nida were built around increasing the possibilities for fertility, they also, implicitly and explicitly for that matter, increase the desire and the interest and the wanting when you are once again allowed to return to your spouse. The notion of creating a boundary, a time when you are not supposed to be intimate, also energizes the time when you may be sexual. An underlying assumption in the system is that separateness increases desire. But I’m not sure it always works like that for people practicing nida.

The very existence of rabbinic discussion of the erotic in Jewish text shows that there was an awareness of erotic yearnings for the forbidden; sex is described as something important, a major element of matrimony. That conveys a positive value. There is no sin attached to sex, no sense of the debasement of the flesh, or it being inferior. Reading Jewish text, you discover lots of rules, but you don’t get a sense of shame and vilification of the flesh, which is quite a feat for a religion whose closest neighbor for so many centuries was dominant Christianity that espoused celibacy and the inferiority of the body.

But the lack of exposure and ignorance about sex can create problems. There is text and then there is life. Historically, with the glorification of study and mental capacity and the elevation of education and the intellect, the body was basically neglected. So, while we are supposed to have great sex, our bodies are often treated like shmatas. That’s the essence of Woody Allen with his nerdy body who is so preoccupied with sex — repression always fuels interest. And repression has a way of fueling passion. That’s part of the forbidden. Can you want what you already have or is desire rooted in absence and in longing? One has to be happy with a lease with an option to renew. Marriage for me is that you have a lease with somebody with an option to constantly renew.

Berrin: But the ketuba is a legal contract that outlines marriage as ownership.

Perel: The notion of ownership is about the commitment of marriage and not about the desire in marriage. Within Jewish law they are interwoven. The ketubah outlines the obligations, what each is due as a husband and a wife. But desire works around different rules than commitment. Commitment is about reliability, familiarity, and predictability, which flourishes in an atmosphere of mutuality and reciprocity — elements that anchor and ground our lives with security. Desire operates along different rules that have much more to do with the unpredictable, the mysterious, even risk. And every person, every relationship, straddles these two poles. The rules of commitment and ownership in Judaism do not assure the sustaining life of desire. It may sustain sexual activity but it doesn’t guarantee desire. Love is about having and desire is about wanting. Desire needs a bridge to cross with someone to visit. It needs otherness and takes place in that space between self and other. Wanting is the movement of an arm reaching out, but in order to reach out there needs to be a space. Otherwise your arm stays glued to your body.

Commitment comes with responsibility but desire is much more rooted in freedom. And that balance between freedom and responsibility, between love and desire, is a fundamental human tension.

Berrin: Is there some way that this tension plays out in a Jewish home that is specific to it being Jewish or is it simply universal?

Perel: I think it’s universal. But while my non-Orthodox patients understand sex as it’s related to desire — you don’t do it if you don’t feel like it — my religious patients live more comfortably with the idea that sex is not just about you; they straddle individualism and a culture of interdependence where the needs of the collective are more important than one’s own needs.

There’s a paradoxical relation between the domestic and the erotic, our need for security and our need for adventure. The challenge is reconciling a need for what’s safe and predictable with a wish to pursue what’s exciting, mysterious, and awe-inspiring. We want today what we always wanted in marriage — respectability, companionship, children, economic support, but now we also want our partner to be our best friend, our trusted confidante, and a passionate lover to boot. Marriage and passion are strange bedfellows, and we’re living twice as long.

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