What if men aren't from Mars and women aren't from Venus? What if, in fact, we're not as different as cultural gatekeepers would lead us to believe? "Male and female sexuality are massively different on some levels," said Esther Perel, "but on many other very interesting levels, they are not. In fact, there are more similarities between men and women than we imagine."
Perel is an acclaimed couples therapist with a formidable intellect who's been mining this relational turf and challenging cultural stereotypes for decades. Originally from Belgium, Perel is based in New York, speaks nine languages, and conducts therapy in six. Her work has appeared in numerous publications and she speaks around the world about modern marriage and sexuality. She recently won the "Vicki" Sexual Freedom Award from the Woodhull Sexual Freedom Alliance and is also the author of the best-selling "Mating in Captivity," which was chosen by NPR as one of three most essential "relationship-building reads." Wrote NPR's Harriet Lerner: "Perel's spirited and bold take on the paradoxes of domesticity and eroticism will pull you in and keep you there."
Perel has also been described as a woman who understands men. After a recent Psychotherapy Networker webinair on male sexuality, Perel's work was summed up by one male therapist this way: "I think she understands men much better than most men themselves do. When she changes the narrative from 'what do you want?' to 'what does sex mean to you?' she translates the man's experience into words that a woman can hear."
We recently spoke with Perel about why Venus and Mars might not be as far away from one another as we suspect.
What is the most common misconception about sex post50?
Men, just like women, are subjected the vagaries of desire. And we know, particularly from the work of Barry McCarthy, that post 50, the vast majority of couples who stop being sexual do so because of the man. That's an interesting finding that comes through in therapy. When I talk with therapists, we see many men with a crisis of desire. They don't feel like having sex. They don't want to. Sometimes they don't want to have sex with their partner. Sometimes they don't want to have sex, period.
That runs counter very engrained notions in our culture that women are the ones who rebuff sex. Could you elaborate on this male crisis of desire?
Sexuality in long-term relationships is completely rooted in desire. It's the only motive for sex. In long-term relationships, you don't have sex because you want more kids. You do it for the pleasure connection. I'm suggesting that there are more similarities between men and women. As a man, you're supposed to want sex. You're meant to want it anytime you can get it. How often in the locker room do you hear men talking about how their wives want sex all the time and they're not so interested?
Right, it's the other way around. In the women's locker room, you hear about how men always want sex; how women aren't as interested in it and are so exhausted they just want to sleep. I have yet to hear a man talk to me about how his wife wants too much sex and he doesn't feel like it having it. It's a taboo. Men, by definition, want sex. Women, by definition, don't. And generally I challenge that kind of stereotypic thinking and mythology.
So are you suggesting that men are as relational as women when it comes to desire?
Yes. Generally when we talk being emotional and relational, we think about women and their need for intimacy. There's this notion that women have the upper hand relationally. And yes, women are socialized more for it, but I don't think it benefits us to turn men into one-dimensional creatures.
I really want to give credit to Martha Meana's work, because she's the one who turned this question about desire around. Men want women to enjoy sex. There are many men who will only have an orgasm after they've given pleasure to their partner. She has to have an orgasm first, which sometimes puts pressure on the woman. She has to come before him, because then he feels that she won't begrudge him; he can go ahead and do what he wants. He deserves it. He earned it. There are many different groups of men, but this narrative is super common. Many men will tell you that one of the things they enjoy the most is to see their partner excited. It frees him up in both directions. If your partner is open, that opens you -- if you're willing to be open.
You've suggested that what is often construed as selfishness in a man is, in fact, loneliness. What is the connection between loneliness and male sexuality?
In relationships, sexuality is so much a language of intimacy for men as it is for women. When men are deprived, when they are disconnected sexually, they feel lonely. Sexuality as a language of intimacy is no different from talking. We are multilingual. Often if a man can't be sexual with his partner, it's not that he's frustrated because can't get laid. He can get sex anywhere he wants. What he wants is all the other feelings that are often repudiated and forbidden for men: tenderness, softness, connection, intimacy, surrender. For men these feelings are allowed to circulate through sex. When men can't have sex, those feelings are cut off. So it's not the sex that a man is missing. It's all the feelings that sex usually allows him to experience.
That's an interesting way of looking at men and sexuality. Where does male performance fit into this whole equation?
This is one particular way that men lose desire that is different from women -- when they're not able to perform the way they want to or used to. That's when they start to feel inadequate, and loss of desire is an expression of that. That is not what you experience in women. But 65 to 70 percent of men who use Viagra stop using it. The drop-off rate is tremendous.
Why is the drop-off rate of Viagra so huge?
Viagra helps with performance but it doesn't help with desire or confidence. Viagra increases blood flow, but it doesn't increase masculinity. It doesn't increase your sense of self-esteem or sexual self-esteem. People never talk about this. It can if you feel good and you're totally OK knowing that you need a little bit of boost -- then taking medication doesn't really tap into your sexual self-esteem. But if a man is used to autonomous, spontaneous erections -- if they've always been ready for the experience and suddenly it's not happening -- some men experience it as an absolute emasculating experience. They think 'Im no longer a man. I'm done." And they close up shop. Men need to feel worthy with a soft-on as much as with a hard-on.
Is it possible that in being so over-sexualized, our culture has actually made it more difficult for people to get in touch with their sexuality? There's so much emphasis on sex --how much is normal, how to have mind-blowing sex and so forth. Oddly, it's sort of a kill joy.
Yes, absolutely, and that's another kind of crisis of desire. All over the planet, people think they should be having a lot of sex. Or they're worried that they're not having enough of it but they don't really feel like having it. And this is happening at a time when they finally have permission to do everything and anything they want. The very generation that has contraception in their hands -- where premarital sex is a given and people have permission to do everything they want -- this same generation doesn't feel like having sex as much and they don't know why.
Modern life is ironic.
Yes, it is.
So how can people with long-term relationships and/or a lot of experience under their belts negotiate this crisis of desire? How do they make themselves "willing to be open," to quote you?
I see many people with tremendous sexual longing and hunger in relationships, be they men or women. Many people are essentially blocked or uninterested, unresponsive. Many may have only a year left before their youngest child leaves home -- or maybe they've already left home -- and they're basically saying, "now what?"
What's important is getting in touch with the difference between sexuality and eroticism. That's the thing that I'm interested in. Eroticism is what gives sex meaning. When people talk about an affair, for example, the one word that they universally use is the word "alive." When people have an affair they say it was because they wanted to feel alive. And when people lack sex or affectionate connection and erotic connection with themselves or with their partner -- and it has nothing to do with frequency or type of sex or statistics -- what they talk about is a sense of deadness. More than anything else, across all cultures, people want to feel alive. Ultimately, that's what everyone wants.