A heavily accented Belgian ‘sex therapist’ Esther Perel (she sounded French to me) had me chuckling when she said half way through a popular Ted talk, “I know what you’re thinking . . . ” That got me vocal (a rarity) with a, “No you don’t honey!” but she continued with what she thought we were all thinking “… I’m French and pro-affairs!” After an appropriate pregnant pause, her response to that challenge, “Well I’m not French!” brought the house down – and me chuckling too! She actually likens affairs to cancer – not the sort of thing you would wish upon another having to help people work through the consequences of betrayal, but they are an opportunity to learn and grow. Read on for more sage advice from the Good Book.
Esther Perel was born the same year as me, in 1958, and is a Belgian psychotherapist of Polish-Jewish descent. Wikipedia says that she has “explored the tension between the need for security (love, belonging and closeness) and the need for freedom (erotic desire, adventure and distance) in human relationships”. [https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Esther_Perel]. That’s a poofy way of saying that she’s basically a ‘sex therapist’ – well to most Western male minds anyway.
Esther’s Take on Sex, etc
In an older PDF I retrieved from Archive.org (it is no longer at the original location) Esther speaks with a high degree of confidence sharing her experiences with cross cultural psychotherapy – noting the difference in European vs American approaches. Having lived a lot of my life in cross-cultural environments I also understand these things from personal experience. Esther is indeed a smart cookie!
Let’s dive into some of her words:
What struck most of the non-Americans I talked with was that America, in matters of sex as in much else, was a goal-oriented society that preferred explicit meanings, candor, and “plain speech” to ambiguity and allusion. In America, this predilection for clarity and unvarnished directness, often associated with honesty and openness, is encouraged by many therapists in their patients: “If you want to make love to your wife/husband, why don’t you say it clearly? . . . And tell him/her exactly
what you want.”
She continues explaining the American culture vs European. Chasing the dream vs experiencing life!
But I often suggest an alternative with my clients: “There’s so much direct talk already in the everyday conversations couples have with each other,” I tell them. “If you want to create more passion in your relationship, why don’t you play a little more with the natural ambiguity of gesture and words, and the rich nuances inherent in communication.”
She’s got an uphill battle with that one – trying to help New Yorkers with “rich nuances”, especially in the bedroom – but she tries:
Ironically, some of America’s best features—the belief in democracy, equality, consensus-building, compromise,
fairness, and mutual tolerance— can, when carried too punctiliously into the bedroom, result in very boring sex. Sexual desire doesn’t play by the same rules of good citizenship that maintain peace and contentment in the social relations between partners. Sexual excitement is politically incorrect, often thriving on power plays, role reversals, unfair advantages, imperious
demands, seductive manipulations, and subtle cruelties. American couples therapists, shaped by the legacy of egalitarian ideals, often find themselves challenged by these contradictions.
And good on her too for speaking it out like it is, I say!
She continues, explaining that she doesn’t approve of manipulation but ends this section of her post with a couple of interesting quotes:
The writer Daphne Merkin writes: “No bill of sexual rights can hold its own against the lawless, untamable landscape of the erotic imagination.” Or as Luis Bunuel put it more bluntly: “Sex without sin is like an egg without salt.”
Ouch! Cute though.
I’m fully cognisant of this reality but if the Master taught that even thinking about bonking my neighbour’s wife is adultery, then there has to be a better way.
[She] battles the age-old repressions of female sexuality that have trapped a woman into passivity and dependence on men to seduce and initiate her into sexuality, to intuit what she likes and to bring her to fulfillment … I invite her to engage with her fantasies, to own her wanting, and to take responsibility for her sexual fulfillment. I remind her that sex often evokes unreasoning obsessions rather than clear judgment, selfish desires rather than thoughtful consideration … I suggest to Mitch and Laura that they’re trapped in a language with too little imagination, a language too limited to contain their erotic life.
These are the words of a seasoned, experienced professional giving advice to people in deep need of understanding.
Mitch bursts into tears. “I’m not angry,” he says of all the times that his frustration has led to mean, hurtful words. “I’m heartbroken.”
Yup and I’ve been there a million times myself. Perhaps you have too? The point is one of understanding – of being listened to and listening to another. That’s what intimacy is all about. We love, and risk. Yeah sure we don’t always get it back and sh*t happens but the heartache of betrayal is very real. I recall learning though that while in a divorce or a separation the pain is real due to that betrayal, the deeper sadness is the loss of the opportunity to love; the loss of opportunity to give.
Paradoxically, the erotic realm offers Mitch—and many men—a restorative experience of his softer, more dependent, side.
For Mitch and Laura, the issues that generate conflict in their relationship—control, power, dependency, and vulnerability—can yield sexual desire and mutual pleasure when eroticized. Mitch often resents Laura’s overpowering personality in daily life, but would like very much to see its erotic expression. Laura, angered by Mitch’s apparent “insensitivity,” his power ploys, can find this sexuality erotically appealing when she realizes that sex is a language he wants to speak only with her—that it’s she who touches him most deeply and personally. Eroticism is the fuel for that curiosity, the experience of desire transfigured by the imagination.
Esther completes her treatise with a final quote about eroticism:
As Mexican essayist Octavio Paz has written, eroticism is “the poetry of the body, the testimony of the senses. Like a poem, it is not linear, it meanders and twists back on itself, shows us what we do not see with our eyes, but in the eyes of our spirit. Eroticism reveals to us another world, inside this world. The senses become servants of the imagination, and let us see the invisible and hear the inaudible.”
Esther’s commentary on infidelity, a 2015 Ted talk referenced earlier has the largest viewing of anything I remember – a staggering 11m views:
I’ll just quote from her briefly here:
Death and mortality often live in the shadow of an affair, because they raise these questions, “Is this it? Is there more? Am I going on for another 25 years like this? Will I ever feel that thing again?” and it has led me to think that perhaps these questions are the ones that propel people across the line, and that some affairs are an attempt to beat back deadness, in an antidote to death.
While her life philosophy rejects the power of a living Jesus, today, here now that can deal with it permanently, like many observant souls she too notes the forces of temptation:
We still seem to be lured by the power of the forbidden, that if we do that which we are not supposed to do, then we feel like we are really doing what we want to.
One of the reasons I have hung in with the Christian world-view is that in all my decades of research, thinking and observations, nothing has contradicted the core tenets that God made good and mankind screwed up. This temptation is exposed so perfectly with this sentiment, it is when we do what we are told not to do something, and we do it, that we “feel” so cool and in control!
Nothing can be further from the truth as there is always accountability; there IS a price to pay. There is a God and He will not be mocked. Only pride and arrogance counters this reality.
So what then, say this white man about a women’s role in His ‘perfect’ world?
A Woman’s Role
The first step in applying wisdom is to acknowledge that there is design so therefore logically there is a Designer. It is patent nonsense to believe otherwise. People can reject the organised religions with aplomb, often with good justification and they can think that they are cool as much as they like, but we all know that the name of Jesus can really upset us. That’s because He is real. My take is that He was straight up and indeed lives today.
The next thing is to listen up to what He says. If He came to show us the way then it is incumbent upon us to take a bit of interest in what He says. A little humility goes a long way in this regard. I have yet to find His words wanting . . . sure I, like most, have a few questions but His claims to be the Truth, the Son of God and the Answer seem pretty solid to me.
In His day and age, His approach to women was revolutionary in that He stood up for their rights when this was NOT the norm back then. Paul writes in ways that causes trauma for the arrogant but the principles that Jesus taught have been proven over the ages, starting with the creation account in Genesis when God formed woman from man’s rib. It doesn’t matter whether one reads this as a literal event or a figurative one – the point is well made that the Creator designed a woman to be a help-meet to a man.
Now a combination of translation, old English and the desire to control makes this concept a little confusing but the key is not to understand the word ‘help-meet’ per se, it is to understand the context in which it is used. In Scripture it is explained that mankind is given authority (i.e. dominion) over creation and therefore is accountable to the giver of that authority, i.e. God.
God asked the man what was up when things went skew-whiff in the Garden of Eden, not the woman. There was a reason for that – despite the popular culture of the current day, that reason still exists today – accountability.
I learned this the hard way when as a son of a male chauvinist I took that patterned learning into my first marriage. I paid the price. I later learned that giving my wife too much freedom (my knee-jerk opposite reaction attempting to avoid chauvinism) actually avoided taking responsibility. It was only when I stood up and said, “Sorry, this ain’t going to happen on my watch!” that maturity came (and my ex departed!).
Interestingly God seems to have a sense of humour because for psychiatric reasons my next wife (yeah there have been a few!) required what I could best put it, ‘a firm hand’. The full circle was completed where I started life being taught that a woman had to do what the man told her to. I learned that this was not a man’s ‘right as of right’. I then learned the folly of the opposite – giving up that right. Eventually I learned that there are times and places where it is important for a man to stand up for something of value.
The balance of power in a relationship can only be properly understood in this context – responsibility and authority go hand in hand. If one has responsibility one must have authority, and visa versa – if one has authority, one has the responsibility.
Biblically speaking, a woman’s role in supporting a man, is equal in value, but differs in nature.
Esther talks of this in an intimate setting, sex being at the top of the tree. OMG, are we back to the tree again and that fruit? Little wonder then that the first sin was one of a sexual nature!
Let’s go about our day today then, understanding that a woman’s role from a biblical perspective is to support her man. If this then is the case, when this happens good and godly things will happen . . . things like peace, contentment, fulfillment, meaning, purpose . . . and procreation, of course!