Esther Perel on the Nature of Erotic Desire

Sex Therapist, Author, and Speaker
Psychologist and sexuality expert Esther Perel discusses the nature of erotic desire. We owe it to ourselves, says Perel, to be happy and search for our own gratification and sexual expressiveness. Perel is the author of the bestselling Mating in Captivity: Unlocking Erotic Intelligence.
  • Transcript

TRANSCRIPT

Esther Perel: My interest has been to probe the nature of erotic desire, in long-term relationships, but also in general and to see where love and desire relate, but also conflict because therein lies the mystery of eroticism. And in particular, because of the profound change that sexuality has experienced in the context of committed relationships, which for most of history was about procreation and about a woman's marital duty, but not anchored, rooted in this concept called desire, which is to own the wanting, which is so much a part of an individualistic culture in which there is an I who deserves to want and who is entitled to have their wants be met.

We would like to think that people are having affairs today, but in fact people have had adultery from the day marriage was invented. In fact there wouldn't be a taboo if there wasn't a measurable threat. And the measurable threat is human nature. It is the only commandment that is repeated twice in the Bible, once for doing it and once just for thinking about it. So there is nothing new about the act of transgression itself, what is very new is the meaning of that act and the context in which it takes place because marriage has undergone a fundamental change in structure and in meaning, and particularly in longevity. And when I say marriage I mean all forms of committed coupledom. So, in our time people stray for a multitude of reasons. They may stray because of their discontent, because of their loneliness, because of their lack of affirmation, because of their disconnect in their relationship, because life is short and they are in touch with mortality, or because they are on the other side of it, which is a certain sense of permission and entitlement to all experiences that are affirming, actualizing, amplifying and for which we have received tremendous push. We deserve to be happy.

We brought happiness down from the heavens where it used to be part of the afterlife and it is no longer just a possibility but it's a mandate. So in the name of being happier we find that we deserve to go and explore. To often look, not necessarily for another partner, certainly in the context of happy couples or couples who are relatively content and who also experience affairs and infidelity, but a search for the other self; a search for the person that is not the one that we have become over the many years; a search for gratification; a search for sexual expressiveness, loads of reason that unfortunately are not often part of the negotiations, certainly not with interested sexual couples. So they become part of the most traditional model that coupledom has ever known, which is proclaimed monogamy and clandestine adultery.

But I think it's very interesting what we call a traditional marriage, if we go back to just the '60s or the '50s, that is a very, very short time. For most of history, marriage has been an economic institution. It was for companionship, for family life, for social status and for economic reasons, land, expansion and so forth. And we brought love to marriage. Then we brought sexuality to love. Then we brought a connection between marital happiness and sexual satisfaction, all courtesy of the democratization of contraception, the women's movement and the gay movement. What we may call traditional marriage to me is that form of marriage, in which by the way the adulterous space for most of history was the space for love because love was not a building block nor a foundation nor a motive for being married.

What we have done by making in the romantic ideal, by making love the central ingredient, I'm chosen, you choose me, it's a free choice enterprise, we are going to cultivate this wonderful intimacy, which is no longer the traditional living together, working the land, raising the kids and all the vicissitudes of the every day, but intimacy as in-to-me-see and I'm going to have this communicative experience with you where I'm going to share my most valuable assets, which is not my land but my internal life, my feelings, my worries, my dreams, my aspirations and you're going to reflect back on me and you're going to validate me. And in our relationship I'm going to transcend my existential aloneness because the couple has become the bulwark, the safe haven against all the insecurities away from a much larger community in which people had their needs met by a large network and the couple was one interaction but not the central interaction, the organizing principle of our mythic and practical life. That today is the new marriage I would say.

Directed / Produced by Jonathan Fowler, Elizabeth Rodd, and Dillon Fitton