MEDIA: Esther Perel interviewed by Terry Gross on NPR’s “Fresh Air”

Esther Perel is a Belgian-born sex therapist who has become widely known for her speaking and teaching about sex, intimacy, and relationships. Her first book, Mating in Captivity, examined and overturned a lot of preconceptions about how to sustain emotional and sexual intimacy in a committed relationship. Her TED talk on desire (“The secret to desire in a long-term relationship”) has gotten over 11 million views online. And her new book, The State of Affairs, inspired another juicy TED talk distilling the essence of the book, “Re-thinking infidelity.”

Perel has achieved media stardom partly because she’s a strikingly attractive blonde woman with a charming European accent — I mention her photogenic personality to make the point that it combines with a sharp intellect and a gracious sense of humor to get across some very provocative and challenging ideas in a remarkably accessible way. She was recently interviewed about the material in her book on NPR’s “Fresh Air” by the ever-appealing Terry Gross. Few therapists in the public arena have impressed me so much with their sensible approach to the subject of sex and relationships.

In particular, I was struck by how Perel talked about a subject that I encounter frequently in my own practice, which is the situation where there is a big difference in libido: one partner wants sex and the other doesn’t.

Terry Gross: How do you deal with relationships where one partner desires something that the other partner isn’t willing to give? Doesn’t enjoy sex, doesn’t want it frequently, therefore they’ve become sexually incompatible. What’s your position for the partner who desires something that partner can no longer get within the marriage?

Esther Perel: If you ask about what to do with the discrepancy around desire for sex within the relationship, thinking that what people miss is the act of sex, you fail to understand what people are really asking for. Sexuality is often a pathway for connection, for intimacy, for tenderness, for sensuality. For playfulness, for power, for curiosity, for relaxation. When people are deprived of sex, it’s this whole set of feelings and experiences they are deprived of. They can have sex in various places. What they want is everything that the connection gives them. When they are deprived of that, what they experience is a depletion of energy, of vibrancy, of aliveness, of vitality. That’s what they’re yearning for. So the conversation begins not with sex but with loss. Loss on both sides. The person who is no longer interested is not so happy about that, either.

To me, this was the most interesting part of the interview:

Terry Gross: When someone no longer feels sexually aroused by your partner, is that something you feel they can get back?

Esther Perel: Arousal is one thing, desire is something else, and willingness is a third. We do not start sexually only because we are aroused and turned on. We sometimes start to be involved sexually because there is willingness. You’re not always hungry. But then there is food in front of you, and it looks beautiful, and it smells really good, and you have a little taste, and you think, “Hmm, after all, I wouldn’t mind a little bit more.” And even after you ate, you may say, “That was delicious, I wasn’t really hungry,” and you still enjoyed it. So we have multiple doors for entering into an intimate engagement with our partner. Excitement is just one of them. Sometimes you are desirous but you don’t have an arousal, you’re not turned on physiologically yet. But you have the idea, you have the wish for it, you’re in the mood. And sometimes you are excited and turned on but you’re not necessarily in the state of desire. I think we need to separate these concepts and these entry points, first of all.

Second of all, I think the more important question sometimes is: “I turn myself off…how? I shut down my desires…how?” That’s not the same as “You turn me off when…” and “What turns me off is…” That puts the responsibility only on the other person: if only the other person did amazing things it would move me. The fact is, if I’m shut down, if I’ve closed the door, you can do a lot of things but there will be nobody at the reception desk. There needs to be receptivity, an openness, a willingness, and that is the fundamental sovereignty of desire. That is something that I own. I decide if I want to open that or not. What they’re talking about is the ways they have closed themselves off from possibility of touch, of connection, of sensuality, of pleasure, of surrender, for a host of reasons that range from sexual trauma to self-criticism to lack of self-worth to negative body image to issues of self-esteem. It is those things that make us close ourselves down.

Terry Gross: Is that something you can help fix?

Esther Perel: Yes, many times. That’s the work. The work is about helping people often to reconnect with parts of themselves they’ve neglected or they’re in conflict with or that they despise. Or that they feel loathsome about or don’t feel deserving of because they gained too much weight or they haven’t performed well enough at work, because their mother left them for another man so they decided they would be all mother and they killed the woman inside of them the day they had a child. Or because their father was violent and aggressive and they don’t know how to bring together love and lust. Those are the deeper conflicts around desire and intimacy and sexuality that I work with in my practice.

I encourage you to listen to the entire half-hour interview yourself online here.  Check it out and let me know what you think.

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QUOTE OF THE DAY: Conflict

CONFLICT

Many people try their best to avoid conflict, but relationship researchers say every conflict presents an opportunity to improve a relationship. The key is to learn to fight constructively. Marriage researcher John Gottman has built an entire career out of studying how couples interact. In one important study, Dr. Gottman and his colleagues observed newly married couples while they were having an argument. The researchers found that analyzing just the first three minutes of the couple’s fight could predict their risk for divorce over the next six years. That means the most important moment between you and your partner during a conflict are those first few minutes. By focusing on your behavior during that time, it likely will change the dynamics of your relationship for the better.

Here’s some general advice from the research about how to start a constructive argument with the person you love:

Identify the complaint, not the criticism. If you’re upset about housework, don’t start the fight by criticizing your partner with, “You never help me.” Focus on the complaint and what will make it better. “It’s so tough when I work late on Thursdays to come home to dishes and unbathed kids. Do you think you could find a way to help more on those nights?”

Avoid “you” phrases. Phrases like “You always” and “You never” are almost always followed by criticism and blame. Instead, use sentences that start with “I” or “We,” which will help you identify problems and solutions, rather than putting blame on someone else.

Be aware of body language. No eye-rolling, which is a sign of contempt. Look at your partner when you speak. No folded arms or crossed legs to show you are open to their feelings and input. Sit or stand at the same level as your partner – one person should not be looking down or looking up during an argument.

Learn to de-escalate. When the argument starts getting heated, take it upon yourself to calm things down. For example, use the phrase “What if we…” or “I know this is hard…” or “I hear what you’re saying…” or “What do you think?”

–Tara Parker-Pope, “How to Have a Better Relationship,” New York Times, October 13, 2017

QUOTE OF THE DAY: Marion Woodman on the tension of the opposites

TENSION OF THE OPPOSITES

Holding an inner or outer conflict quietly instead of attempting to resolve it quickly is a difficult idea to entertain. It is even more challenging to experience. However, as Carl Jung believed, if we held the tension between the two opposing forces, there would emerge a third way, which would unite and transcend the two. Indeed, he believed that this transcendent force was crucial to individuation. Whatever the third way is, it usually comes as a surprise, because it has not penetrated our defenses until now. A hasty move to resolve tension can abort growth of the new. If we can hold conflict in psychic utero long enough we can give birth to something new in ourselves.

–Marion Woodman

QUOTE OF THE DAY: Value

VALUE

Human beings are prone to learn early in life to associate vulnerability with powerlessness and to associate the adrenalin rush of anger with personal power. The problem is that states of vulnerability are more often triggered by the diminishment of self-value rather than by the loss of power. When people feel devalued, they try to feel superior by exerting power over others overtly through aggression or by mentally devaluing them. Naturally, this tendency backfires: most of the emotional distress that clients suffer—indeed, much of the psychological dysfunction in the world in general—comes from substituting power for value. Temporarily feeling more powerful by driving aggressively or shouting at your spouse is unlikely to make you feel more valuable. In fact, it usually does the opposite. It subverts the motivational function of devalued states, which is to get us to enhance the value of our experience. Substituting power for value is like eating when your body tells you to urinate, sleeping when it tells you to eat, or taking an amphetamine when it tells you to sleep.

Steven Stosny, Psychotherapy Networker

DID YOU SEE…?: New York Times on Women of Sex Tech

In last Sunday’s New York Times, reporter Anna North wrote a fascinating story called “Women of Sex Tech, Unite” about the savvy female entrepreneurs — many of them millennials — who are pouring their attention, energy, talent, and skills into developing sex toys and related products and helping other women who are marketing and distributing them.

North writes:

In 2017, women entrepreneurs in the field still seem to be very much in the minority. Today around 70 percent of sex product companies are run by men, according to an analysis by Unbound. But women, many of them millennials, are starting to harness their economic and social power to disrupt the industry, both on the business and on the consumer side, Ms. Fine said. Millennials can be more comfortable talking about sex than their elders, explained Helen Fisher, an anthropologist and research fellow at the Kinsey Institute. “It’s a transparent generation that’s practical, go-getting, tech-oriented and eager to have it all.”

Besides providing surveying the modern history of sex toys without the usual sniggering tone, the article mentions a whole bunch of resources (products, companies, websites, publications, podcasts) that I’d never heard of but that I’d like to know more about, in the interests of supporting women in expanding their access to greater sexual pleasure and erotic awareness.

North leads with Janet Lieberman and Alexandra Fine, two Brooklyn-based entrepreneurs (above) who started Dame Products, the first company to receive Kickstarter funding to develop a sex toy.

If the movement has an ideological center, it’s probably Women of Sex Tech, a group founded last year by Polly Rodriguez [pictured below center, with her team], 30, the chief executive and co-founder of Unbound, a Manhattan-based sex toy company that sends subscribers a box of products every quarter, and Lidia Bonilla, 38, who started House of Plume, which sells storage boxes for sex toys. Based in New York, the group has since expanded to include more than 70 people, including members in California, Spain and China. New York City-based members include Meika Hollender, the co-founder of Sustain, which makes organic and fair trade lubricants and condoms; Mia Davis, who created a sex education app called Tabú; and Bryony Cole, the host of the popular podcast, Future of Sex.

Check out the whole article here and let me know what you think.

DID YOU SEE: The Atlantic on the impact of pornography

In the latest issue of The Atlantic, Sophie Gilbert writes an excellent thoughtful piece about the impact of pornography, as it is reflected through Tom Perrotta’s novel Mrs. Fletcher and a podcast called The Butterfly Effect.

“It’s a surprisingly simple argument, and yet a shocking one, in a culture that’s as polarized over porn as it is over everything else. What if porn is neither good, nor bad, but both? What if it enables some people to feel less isolated even while it conditions others to do things they regret?”

Check it out here and let me know what you think.

LET’S TALK ABOUT SEX: a practical guide to “cleaning out”

Aficionados of anal sex appreciate the value of preparing for an encounter by douching, for the safety, comfort, and pleasure of both parties. Over time, most bottoms develop a system that works for them. But people who are new to bottoming or inexperienced and curious are subject to considerable amounts of fear, anxiety, and bewilderment about the process. I’ve met many young guys and people new to exploring anal sex who live with a huge amount of self-consciousness and concern about bottoming because they’re afraid of not being squeaky-clean and humiliating themselves in front of more experienced partners.


How do you learn about cleaning out? They certainly don’t teach it in school. It seems like a much more taboo or embarrassing topic than menstruation or masturbation. If you’re lucky, you might have a kind, patient, and generous friend or partner who will take you by the hand and lead you through the process. More likely, you turn to the internet and take your chances with whatever information churns to the surface from a Google search. I’ve looked at a lot of online resources and have finally found one that I can wholeheartedly recommend.

Someone who calls himself “blindjaw” on the Tumblr-like blog site called imgur has created a clever, knowledgeable illustrated instructional article forthrightly titled “How to Clean Your Ass Before Anal Sex.”

What I like about this comic-book-style article (see the first panel above; see the rest here) is that the instruction is very clear and plain-spoken — and, be forewarned, very explicit about buttsex and poop. And that’s what you want when you’re looking for information about cleaning out.

One of the misconceptions he clears up right away is that you have to do high-powered colonic hydrotherapy and fast for hours before having anal sex. He outlines two different methods for cleaning out, but newcomers need only pay attention to the “fast” type he describes (fisting is not an activity for newcomers). I love that his illustration features a bear-sized guy, and he’s very practical-minded about how to dispose of waste products. Plenty of people find the idea of peeing in the shower or bathtub a little edgy — pooping down the drain may seem beyond the pale. But his explanation is pretty solid and practical. It’s still probably too edgy for some people, so there’s always the toilet.

I’m not sure you need to repeat the process quite as many times as he recommends (once or twice will do the trick for many folks preparing to bottom), but I definitely agree that the shower hose with personalized nozzle is the superior method for cleaning out, and I can steer you toward what I consider the best model on the market: the ErgoFlow Portable Shower Shot. It clips onto any shower pipe, and it comes with its own travel bag, easy to throw in your suitcase when you’re on the road. The videos and still shots that I’ve seen demonstrating the product are a little coy, leaving much to the imagination, which is where blindjaw’s instructions come in extra-handy.

Check it out and let me know what you think.