Mating in Captivity: Reconciling the Erotic and the Domestic by Esther Perel
Perel is a sex therapist who discusses many of the problems she sees in committed couples who aren’t satisfied with their sex lives. She discusses the erotic in an abstract way as a kind of playful energy, which was a new idea for me. Sex is rife with tensions and contradictions: it’s about power and control and also about letting go; it’s something you can ‘work on’ and schedule, but a meditative, non-striving state of mind is best; our culture is both Puritan and libertine, shaming us both for having sex and not having enough sex. I’m used to thinking of sexual entitlement as a bad thing–it’s what gives men internal permission to rape–but Perel talks about how, in the context of a committed relationship, both partners need to feel somewhat entitled to their pleasure, or they won’t ever ask for what they need, and the experience is diminished for both. Perel is as inclusive as possible, discussing couples of all ages, gay couples, and nonmonogamous couples, and tries her best to avoid gender stereotypes.
Personally, I didn’t relate much to the problem that Perel kept saying was so universal. Most of her couples experienced a decline in attraction and desire as they got to know their partners better or when they committed to them. Most of their issues seemed to boil down to the idea that “familiarity breeds contempt” and the inverse of “you always want what you can’t have.” Part of it also seemed to be kind of a virgin/whore complex, or an idea that sex is dirty: several of the men interviewed said something like “I can’t treat my wife that way” meaning ‘the way that turns me on.’ Maybe I’m exceptionally well-adjusted, but these conflicts aren’t ones I’ve experienced personally. If anything, familiarity and commitment have enhanced my desire because they are what freed me from my inhibitions and made it feel safe for me to be sexual in the first place. Sure, it’s a turn-off to see my husband sitting on the toilet, but it’s not that hard to put that image out of my mind when I’m in the mood to. I’ve been with my husband for almost 11 years now, married for 4, parents for almost 2, so I don’t think ‘newlywed glow’ is a good explanation for why I don’t feel the same way as Perel’s couples. We’ve had our share of problems in the bedroom, but our issues have been so idiosyncratic (or so banal) that a book like this was not likely to address them. So I found it hard to relate to a good chunk of the book, but I’m not sure that’s a bad thing for me.
The book was published in 2006, and I feel like since then a lot of its insights have become kind of common knowledge, thanks in part to Dan Savage’s podcast, which began the same year. For example, I feel like most people know that fantasies aren’t necessarily things that people want to actually experience, and that excessively goal-directed sex is no fun. For that reason I don’t feel like I learned much from it. Its most useful concepts for me were the good side of entitlement, and eroticism as an abstract idea that encompasses play. Seeing the way she approached problems in a sideways direction was also kind of instructive. The book might be best for committed couples with very little experience, like those who waited until marriage for sex, or for people who have never read or thought much about sex.