The Sexual Healer
The Couples Therapy Expert Esther Perel Takes On Sex and Sexuality
By SUSAN DOMINUS
On the subject of sex, a subject that makes so many stammer, clam up or crack wise, Esther Perel, a couples therapist and author, is uncommonly eloquent, even rhapsodic. That particular rhetorical gift is apparently in high demand: Last July, Ms. Perel gave an opening talk at Summit Outside, a three-day meeting of 900 entrepreneurs and creative types held on Powder Mountain in Eden, Utah.
?Think of a moment when you have an experience of major adventure, of novelty, of surprise, of mystery, of risk,? Ms. Perel, 55, asked the audience, which was seated on a grassy lawn stretching out in front of the stage. ?A moment perhaps where you express desires in your body that you usually don?t allow yourself to know.? Ms. Perel, a Belgian who speaks nine languages, has a French-sounding accent that implicitly seems to bolster her authority. A video of this event captured the response: At one point, a young man looked around nervously, as if he found the exercise uncomfortable, but some of the guests, their name tags hanging around their necks, closed their eyes, luxuriating in their moment of reflection.
Since 2006, when Ms. Perel published a best-selling book, ?Mating in Captivity,? she has become a go-to speaker on sexuality and relationships in the world of couples therapy as well as in the luxury self-actualization set. She frequently runs discussions at resorts during events that the self-improvement mogul Tony Robbins holds for his Platinum Members, among the biggest donors to his foundation. This month, she spoke at Omega?s winter learning vacation in Costa Rica. Her 2013 TED talk, the ?Secret to Desire in a Long Term Relationship,? had one million hits in the first two weeks it was posted, taking on an apparent epidemic of low-libido marriages in what is theoretically the least repressed era in modern history. (That may be part of the problem: ?How can you desire what you already have?? Ms. Perel often asks in her talks.)
Perhaps not since Dr. Ruth commandeered American airwaves in the 1980s has there been a public figure with so much of an audience for her work on human sexuality. But if Dr. Ruth was trying to talk explicitly about the mechanics of sex in a pre-Lewinsky, relatively tame media environment, Ms. Perel has captured attention in the era of the oversexed. Instead of offering more explicitness, she writes and talks about the aspects of sexuality that can?t be captured on a screen, the hidden, psychological states that do or do not set the mechanics in motion.
?Blatantness doesn?t inspire you these days,? said Ms. Perel, drinking French press coffee in the kitchen of her downtown Manhattan apartment not long ago. She was wearing huge sparkling hoop earrings and a tank top. ?But to talk about mystery is immensely inspiring.? Embracing the mysteries of desire means she is also not on the hook for offering prescriptive answers to reviving a sex life that?s flatlined. ?Americans fundamentally believe there is not a problem that does not have a solution ? it?s the Nike approach: Just do it. But try to apply that to eroticism?? she asked, then shook her head. ?I don?t have answers, as in ?This is what you do.? I do say, ?This how I think it works.? ?
So exactly how does she think it works? Needless to say, it works all sorts of ways, but Ms. Perel?s book and talks make the claim that in seeking total comfort and intimacy, couples sometimes squash any possibility of a sexual charge. ?Intimacy becomes cruel when it excludes any possibility of discovery,? she writes in ?Mating in Captivity.? And also: ?When there is nothing left to hide, there is nothing left to seek.?
This notion, intuitive though it may be to anyone who?s ever owned a flannel nightgown, came as something of a revelation to the couples therapy community. Ms. Perel nudged the conversation in those circles away from the more politically correct concept ?that if you really understand and care for each other, good sex will follow,? said Jim Walkup, president of the metro chapter of the New York Association for Marriage and Family Therapy. ?She?s an advocate of understanding the difference between the erotic and the deep, caring commitment.? Couples therapy for the last 20 years, Ms. Perel said in a talk she gave to that association in December, has emphasized the need for security in a relationship. ?But if woman is so domesticated and all she wanted is security, why did every civilization need to lock her up if she wasn?t going anywhere, anyway??
In lieu of answers, Ms. Perel offers enticingly packaged insights as well a frank manner, her fans say, that facilitates open conversation. That she is physically appealing ? in some photos, she looks like an exotically styled Katie Couric ? is not irrelevant in her line of work. As Mr. Robbins put it, ?She?s an attractive person, so men will pay attention ? sounds horrible, but true ? but not over the top, in a way that would make women not feel safe.?
Petite, perfumed, blonde and someone who strategically brushes back her hair while speaking, Ms. Perel quickly builds intimate connections. Which is not to say her manner is gentle. At a men-only discussion she held at Summit, a married, successful investor from Los Angeles raised his hand, started with an off-color joke, then asked Ms. Perel about the challenge of temptation at a place like that very retreat, where there were so many unattached young women, none of whom nagged him about taking his shoes off in the house. Ms. Perel let loose.
?She said something like, ?If you?re so immature that your wife is mothering you, and that turns you off and you can?t communicate it, that?s your problem,? ? recalled the investor, who preferred that his name not be used. ?She was hard on me. And I was O.K. with that. She?s very authentic.?
Many of Ms. Perel?s fans might be surprised to learn that she is relatively new to the subject for which she is best-known. She started concentrating on sexuality about a decade ago. Until then, she was mostly known in the therapeutic field for her clinical work with intercultural and interfaith couples.
The daughter of two Polish-born Holocaust survivors, Ms. Perel was raised in Antwerp, in a community of survivors; she went to college at Hebrew University and started creating workshops with Jewish immigrants about their cultural identity. Her work with interfaith couples grew out of that expertise. ?Since I was 19, I?ve been creating conversations,? she said. ?I create thought-provoking, challenging conversations about the unspoken.?
In her mid-40s, Ms. Perel, who has a master?s degree in expressive art therapy, started thinking about taking on a new intellectual challenge. She began reading and writing more explicitly about sexuality, an aspect of couples therapy in which she had not yet specialized. She feels certain that the decision to take on the subject of sex, like her interest in cultural identity before it, can be traced to her upbringing. ?I remember saying as a kid, ?No door will ever be closed to me,? ? she said.
Growing up in a community of survivors left her permanently thinking about how people find their way to vibrant lives. ?In my community there were two groups of people,? she said. ?There were the ones who did not die and the ones who came back to life.? Her parents, a social couple who talked openly about what they endured in the camps, who were storytellers and who had humor, fell into the second category. In helping others explore their sexuality, as Ms. Perel sees it, she is helping foster a totally different, difficult conversation, and yet also helping individuals ?be more alive ? to have a more complex and meaningful lived life.?
Ms. Perel prefers to leave her husband, Jack Saul, the director of the International Trauma Studies Program in New York, out of stories about her work (although she did mention that he likes to say he?s going to write a sequel called ?How to Get Your Wife to Write a Book About Eroticism.? But when the older of their two sons, Adam Saul, walked in the door of their home that afternoon, she invited him (in French, in which she usually converses with him) to comment on his mother?s work if he was so inclined. Adam, a sophomore at Wesleyan, said that for years he begged his mother to cover up her books about sex when his friends came over.
?But she said she wouldn?t cover up books about weapons of mass destruction, ?And so I wouldn?t cover these up, either,? ? said Adam, putting on his mother?s European accent as she looked on with pride. For all the embarrassment he might have endured, he had some nice things to say about having a sex therapist for a mother, too. ?High school sexual education programs don?t teach you how to communicate with your partner,? he said. ?They?ll show you a picture, I can tell you if it?s gonorrhea or chlamydia, but not how to have normal, healthy intimacy.?
Ms. Perel still sees clients, but these days is only taking on new ones who have experienced infidelity, which is the subject of her next book, to be published by HarperCollins at a still-unspecified date. Her approach so far is both empathetic and a little provocative. ?Not every infidelity is a symptom of a problem in a relationship,? she said. ?Sometimes it has to do with other longings that are much more existential. Sometimes you go elsewhere not because you are not liking the one you are with; you are not liking the person you have become.?
She is prepared to be misread, she said, if that?s what it takes to start a conversation. ?Anything I can do that will embrace ambiguity in the complicated lives we lead,? Ms. Perel said, ?I will feel I have done some good in the world.?