November 20, 2019

Author’s advice on sex and intimacy makes her hot stuff

I open Esther Perel’s new book on the bus, and I know that my seatmate is staring at the cover photo of a man and woman in bed not touching beneath the red sheets.

“Mating in Captivity: Reconciling the Erotic & the Domestic” (HarperCollins) has caught the man’s attention, but he maintains the bus rider’s code and doesn’t ask about it. Perel’s book has also captured the attention of large numbers of readers, journalists and producers.

Recently, the Belgian-born psychotherapist has been profiled in Vogue, covered in People and featured on Oprah. She’s talking a lot about sex and intimacy, and the talk often turns to sexlessness among committed couples.

“Love flourishes in an atmosphere of closeness, mutuality, and equality,” she writes. “We seek to know our beloved, to keep him near, to contract the distance between us. We care about those we love, worry about them and feel responsible for them.

“For some of us, love and desire are inseparable. But for many others, emotional intimacy inhibits erotic expression. The caring, protective elements that foster love often block the unself-consciousness that fuels erotic pleasure.”

The book, her first, is theory, cultural analysis and practical advice. Based on more than 20 years of research, as well as counseling couples of all backgrounds and ages, straight and gay, married and not, the book includes many stories of real people in loving, long-term relationships who find that increased intimacy has been accompanied by decreased sexual desire. Not all of the stories have happy endings.

Esther Perel
“The challenge for modern couples lies in reconciling the need for what’s safe and predictable with the wish to pursue what’s exciting, mysterious, and awe-inspiring,” she writes.

A couples and family therapist in private practice, Perel, 48, does a lot of work related to cultural identity and ethnic and religious intermarriage. Having grown up in Antwerp, attended university in Jerusalem, lived in the United States for more than two decades and traveled around the world, she sees herself as a cultural hybrid, observing from the sidelines.

She doesn’t hold to what she says is a very American belief, that all problems have solutions. Rather, she tries to show different ways of looking at issues, trying to promote understanding.

I met up with Perel recently in a Manhattan cafe, just before she was off to Brazil to launch the Portuguese edition of the book.

Perel doesn’t easily sit still — she jumps up to clear a table when she spots an opening in a quieter corner of the cafe. She speaks rapidly, in an accent that’s not easily identifiable, perhaps a blend of the eight languages in which she is fluent. In her therapeutic work, she uses most of them, sometimes changing languages every hour. She deals with Europeans, Haitians, West Africans and ultra-Orthodox Jews.

“I live New York in the full sense,” she says.

Perel is direct and articulate, comfortable talking about sex and eroticism, and her life’s journey from Louvain, the ancient Belgian university town where she was born, to the loft in Soho that she shares with her husband, Jack Saul, the director of the International Trauma Studies Program at Columbia University, and their two sons, ages 10 and 13.

She met her husband when she came to study in the United States for what she thought would be one year, after graduating from Hebrew University. Saul was her unofficial thesis adviser and a mentor.

Perel is the child of Holocaust survivors, and she relates her perspective to her parents’ outlook on life. Growing up in a community of survivors, she came to recognize a certain type among them, a bit unusual, like her parents. The sole survivors of their families, and who came very close to death themselves, her mother and father were decidedly connected to life. They lived with exuberance, reclaiming their spirit of adventure and enjoyment.

While she knows nothing about their sex lives except that they had two children, she senses that they had a deep understanding of the erotic.

“Though I doubt they ever used the word,” she writes. “They embodied its mystical meaning as a quality of aliveness, a pathway to freedom — not just the narrow definition of sex that modernity has assigned to it.”

She also speaks of discovering talmudic stories that she found “utterly brilliant” in their understanding of the tension between the domestic and the erotic. In the book, she retells a story about Rabbi Bar Ashi, who would stand before God every night and beg to be saved from the evil urge. One day, after overhearing him, his wife dressed up as a prostitute and met him. Later on, at home, he confessed to his wife, and when she admitted that it was she, he was still distraught as he “intended the forbidden.”

The author points out that Judaism never embraced a culture of celibacy. When asked about whether the traditional laws of family purity, with their prescribed separation, are a protection from the kind of overfamiliarity among couples that she describes, she dismisses that as a modern interpretation.

Perel’s family’s background is ultra-Orthodox, although her parents left that world. She’s related to the Gerer Rebbe and does a lot of work in the Orthodox community. Among her clients are those who have sex frequently, with desire not located in the self but in the larger mitzvah, something holy and transcendent. But when they come to see her, “the system isn’t working.” When she works with these couples, she also deals with their rabbis.

“They come to me because I’m not Orthodox. I speak Yiddish, but I’m not an insider,” she explains. “Being a Jew is the central part of who I am, my world view and sensibility, how I think. I consider my Jewish identity the ultimate cosmopolitan identity. I have a very European view. I don’t belong anywhere, but I have access to the world.”

She doesn’t identify as an American Jew, nor with the experience of the hundreds of American Jews she has worked with over the years. But she’s likely to identify with a Jew from places like South Africa or Argentina “in a second.”