Mindful Sex and the Thirst for Connection: An Interview with Esther Perel
Psychotherapist and New York Times best-selling author Esther Perel is recognized as one of today’s most insightful and original voices on modern relationships. Her celebrated TED talks have garnered more than 20 million views, and her international best seller Mating in Captivity: Unlocking Erotic Intelligence became a global phenomenon translated into 25 languages. Her newest book is the The State of Affairs: Rethinking Infidelity.
1440: How do you think life in the digital age plays a role in our understanding of love and relationships?
Esther Perel: Let’s start with dating. What does it mean when you have a thousand people at your fingertips? What does it mean to choose a person amid that cacophony? How powerful must that person be? How much must you idealize that person and imbue them with all kinds of magical powers so that he or she will be the one who cures you of your FOMO? For you, I will delete my apps—that becomes the new commitment ritual.
Then there is the fact that people text instead of call.
Voice and touch are the most important, the most soothing elements we share in the presence of others. We are compromising those two fundamental aspects of connection. An emoji will not do what voice can do, and neither will praying hands.
Don’t misunderstand me, I love to text. There’s beauty in that magical phone we hold in our hand, but how many people today are basically going to bed stroking their phone instead of their partner and waking up stroking their phone instead of their partner? It’s the last thing they hold and the first thing they hold. I can’t imagine that doesn’t have an effect.
Our phones are allowing us to ghost people in ways that are utterly gutting. And yet, they are also allowing us to meet people at a frequency and at a range and at an age that many people never had the opportunity to do before. We really are being pulled in very different directions all at once.
1440: Let’s talk about the interplay between mindfulness and self-awareness and intimacy. As we develop greater self-understanding, how does that impact our appetite for fulfillment and validation outside of ourselves in the realms of sexuality and intimacy?
Esther Perel: I would put mindfulness in two categories. One is as an expression of self-awareness and two—as an awareness of the world around us, a manifestation of presence, focus, and slowing down, which in our fast-food culture is very difficult.
Since the early 1900s, and the rise of the futurist movement, we began the remorseless quest for acceleration. At this moment too, everything we’re trying to do is to make things go faster. Hence, we need to rebalance. We need to reclaim time and attention to slow us down and put us in touch with our senses, with our sensory experience, our sensuality, our connection to others. Relationships take time. Cultivating pleasure takes time. Even being in the moment takes time.
I think that we find ourselves with multiple practices these days trying to counter the complete attention hack that we are all subjugated to. In relation to sexuality, for example, there is this notion that performance is the proof that something happened rather than experience and rather than satisfaction. Who cares what you perform necessarily? People, especially women, have had sex for centuries and felt nothing. Doing it isn’t what this is about.
Sex isn’t something you do, sex is a place you go inside yourself or with others or another. So, where do you go? What are the parts of you that you connect with? What do you seek to express through your sexuality?
A mindful description of sex is one not focused on positions and actions, but on qualitative experience—on the trip you take in which you are at the same time fully aware of yourself and fully outside yourself.
It’s like you are inside your inner body and your outer body. You are simultaneously inside another, not their orifices, but their erotic being and it is that moment of joining these dualities that is so unique.
In terms of fulfillment, sexuality today is not about a woman’s marital duty nor strictly about reproduction (at least not in the West). We turn to sex primarily for pleasure and connection. Modern sexuality is rooted in desire and desire is about owning the wanting. It’s about activating your free will. It’s about free choice and sovereignty.
Sex is not a part of your biology only. To experience pleasure and connection you need to be aware of what you are experiencing. It’s very difficult to have pleasure without knowing that you’re experiencing pleasure. It’s very difficult to connect without knowing that you are connecting. In fact, you cannot.
1440: You write in The State of Affairs that “our desires, even our most illicit ones, are a feature of our humanity” and yet it seems so many people struggle to fully understand, own, and satisfy their intimate desires. Why is this? How can we learn to better integrate the more illicit sides of ourselves into the whole?
Esther Perel: To the first question—yes, we have transgressive urges. We all want rules and yet we want to break the rules that we have set up or that have been set up before us. The act of transgression gives people a feeling of freedom, and a sense of self determination.
Trespassing the forbidden can be highly erotic. Sometimes when you are in a place where you’re not supposed to be—even a place you decided was off limits—you feel you’re really doing what you want by transcending rules and achieving autonomy. This feeling of liberation is what many unfaithful people talk about—a sense of feeling alive and experiencing eroticism as an antidote to death, or the deadness within.
To the second question—to experience desire, which is wanting, you need to feel that you deserve to want—there needs to be an I that deserves wanting. Desire is intricately connected to self-worth. Self-worth is intricately connected to feeling lovable. Not loved, but lovable. It goes to the core, to the essence of ourselves. It’s not just about what you’re in the mood for—it’s much deeper.
1440: It sounds as though we need to give ourselves permission to even feel the wanting to begin with?
Esther Perel: Yes—to feel worthy, to feel lovable, to feel desirable. That is not sexual per se, that’s basic and then from there you enter the sexual realm. We need to feel that we deserve to be loved and deserve to be touched, to be delighted, to be cherished, to be adored, to be made love to, to receive, to be given to, to ask, to take our pleasure, to experience permission for that unadulterated greed that you feel in the height of passion. When all of that gets compromised, people experience it in their sexuality or in the way they eat or in the way they work.
We all live in this body. For some, the body is a beautiful château—a castle with multiple rooms where they love to linger and enjoy themselves. For others, the body is a jail from which they cannot wait to escape. So why would they welcome somebody else into a place in which they cannot stand to be?
And between those two extremes, many of us live in a body akin to a home that needs regular upkeep, a home we clean, renew, redecorate, and hope to grow old in.