I’ve recently been reading Esther Perel’s book Mating in Captivity: Sex, Lies and Domestic Bliss. The book discusses sex and eroticism in long-term relationships and is interesting in many ways. But there’s a particular point that has stood out for me as a sex therapist.
In Mating in Captivity, Perel discusses what I’m going to call the ambiguities or intangibles of sex, sexuality and love-making. She also explores the way that these intangibles can fly in the face of our can-do, goal-oriented society:
“In matters of love, as in much else, America [and Western society] is a goal-oriented society… We cherish the capacity to define what we desire… Nailing it down to an exact number of steps, not exceeding ten, promises you entrance into the garden of earthly delights with hardly a minute wasted… This pragmatic approach typifies how [Western society] goes about solving problems.
Apply this to sexual problems, though, and you get a model that focuses more on sexual functioning than on sexual feeling. We are indeed a nation that prides itself on efficiency. But here’s the catch: Eroticism is inefficient. It loves to squander time and resources… We glorify efficiency and fail to recognise that the erotic space is a radiant interlude in which we luxuriate, indifferent to demands of productivity.”
(Esther Perel, Mating in Captivity: Sex, Lies and Domestic Bliss, Chapter 5)
As Perel notes, we are very invested in systematising our problems and finding linear and replicable solutions. And I personally relate to this very strongly as a therapist: I really want to be able to give my clients the 5-step process that will take all their sexual concerns away, or the 4-week challenge that will reinvent their sex life forever.
And a key reason these kinds of linear and replicable solutions are so appealing is because they allow us to believe that everything has a place in the system and therefore everything makes logical sense; that if we just try hard enough, we can get exactly what we want; that we are in control.
The feeling of control is very comforting in the face of adversity.
But, as comforting as all of this can be, Perel reminds us that categories, components and step-by-step plans are not the full picture of sex and love-making. These ideas may give us a feeling of control, but it can be a false sense of control.
Why false? Because us humans are not so simple and predictable. Although some aspects of sex can be categorised and laid out in neat steps, others cannot.
Sexuality and eroticism are more than just the sum of their parts. They are fluid and changing all the time. They are influenced by culture and personality; the past, the present and the future; biology, psychology and spirituality; mood, cognition and mental health.
And sex can be paradoxical – sometimes doing all the “right” things can lead to dead boring sex, and sometimes a counterintuitive move can lead to an unexpected sexual spark.
All of these intricate factors lead to as many individual differences in the bed as there are people in that bed.
This is why sex therapy can take time and patience. People don’t get stuck in sexual ruts and distressing patterns because they are not trying hard enough – they get stuck because it’s complicated, hard to define and confusing to navigate.
But, the pay off for all this ambiguity and complexity is that sex and eroticism have the potential to be very powerful, very pleasurable, and ultimately divine.
Dr. Alice Hucker