I had the pleasure last weekend of participating in “Sessions Live 2019: In Search of Eros,” an all-day gathering convened and hosted by Esther Perel, who’s probably the most famous sex-and-relationship therapist in the world right now. Her books (Mating in Captivity and The State of Affairs) and her TED talks (on desire and infidelity) have acquired a passionate following worldwide, as evidenced by the sold-out crowd of 400 who showed for the live event November 9 in midtown Manhattan (many of whom flew in from other countries) and the 1200 people viewing at home via Livestream.
A New York resident born in Belgium and educated in Israel, Esther brings a distinctly European flavor to her work, so what might have been a typical therapy conference with parade of academic talking heads became something else – a lively salon with a dynamic array of speakers presenting in a variety of formats with a very engaged audience, fueled by delicious food.
The morning began with an on-your-feet warm-up conducted by Esther along with 5 Rhythms teacher Amber Ryan, psychoanalyst Aviva Gitlin, and therapist-performer-ritualist Paul Browde. Esther gave an opening talk called “Finding the Erotic Self: A Journey for Practitioners,” which included dialogue with Alexandra Solomon. Before lunch, Holly Richmond talked about her work helping trauma survivors recover their sexuality, and I spoke about my own concentration on healing through pleasure.
After lunch Sara Nasserzadeh led the participants through a modified Sexual Attitudes Reassessment. Then there were presentations about erotic obstacles by Ian Kerner (author of She Comes First), psychologist Guy Winch, and the two young co-founders of the St. Louis-based educational company Afrosexology, Dalychia Saah and Rafaella Fiallo. The last hour brought a free-flow of questions and commentary from audience members both in the room and watching via Livestream.
Women dominate the field of therapy and social work, and certainly Esther’s audience was 75-80% women (as became clear at the reception she hosted the night before — above), which is why she asked me to address the issues that men bring to a sex therapist. I talked about the dance between performance anxiety and being present for pleasure, the lessons I learned about erotic energy from Joseph Kramer and the Body Electric School, the paradox of pornography as liberator and oppressor, and my own formula for satisfying sexual encounters (PCM: your own Pleasure, Connection with your partner, and the Mechanics of what goes up and down, in and out).
For the rest of the day, I spent every break being pulled aside by people saying, “Do you have a minute? I have a question about…” I heard very touching stories from men who hailed from Iceland, Poland, and China, and female therapists who work with very specific populations (Catholic priests, homeless mentally ill, Jersey guys).
I walked away from the event feeling nourished by the high level of powerful questions that the day generated: What’s the difference between sex and eroticism? If I’m struggling to figure out what I want, what happens if I ask myself “What am I missing?” Which of the senses (sight, sound, touch, taste, smell) is most erotic to me? Which ones do I need to ramp up in my life? How do we teach vulnerability to young men who have no experience of that? How do we deal with different stages of erotic life?