Every Monday, the CSPH takes a look at a book or film focusing on an aspect of sexuality. This week we are featuring Esther Perel’s 2007 book Mating in Captivity: Unlocking Erotic Intelligence.
Mating in Captivity: Unlocking Erotic Intelligence is the paperback version of Perel’s best-selling and award-winning book, Mating in Captivity: Reconciling the Erotic and the Domestic, which has been translated into 24 different languages and examines issues of intimacy and sex in married and/or long-term couples. Perel is a practicing AASECT certified sex therapist in New York City and a well-known voice on couples and sexuality across cultures. She has been a guest on numerous television shows as well as featured in The Washington Post, The New Yorker, and Vogue, among others.
The book opens with a poem by D.H. Lawrence entitled “Wild Things in Captivity,” which states, “Sex is a state of grace – In a cage it can’t take place – Break the cage then, start in and try.” In each chapter, Perel eloquently challenges a reader to reconsider traditional definitions, expectations, and norms of committed relationships and marriage. One major problem she addresses is the absence or dwindling amount of sex between couples who still love each other but have become too busy, too tired, or too involved in other things to have sex. Offering insight into why intimacy and desire are difficult to maintain over time and ways that partners can rediscover their sexual relationships, Perel supports her theories and advice with personal case studies from her experiences as a therapist.
Throughout the book, Perel emphasizes the importance of keeping one’s own individuality within a long-term, committed relationship. She states, “[I]n the course of establishing security, many couples confuse love with merging. To sustain an élan (vigor and liveliness) toward the other, there must be a synapse to cross.” Perel mentions a couple, John and Beatrice, who meet, fall in love, begin a passionate and satisfying sex life, move in together, learn everything about each other, commit to each other, and then essentially stop having sex. Using John and Beatrice’s story as an example of how increased emotional intimacy is often accompanied by decreased sexual desire, Perel claims that the sexual health of a couple stands on its own as a parallel narrative to the couple’s relationship. Sexual pleasure requires a sense of freedom and autonomy that is difficult to reconcile with what is required to maintain emotional intimacy.
Perel challenges couples to embrace their desires and fantasies, even if it feels uncomfortable. In a chapter entitled “Democracy Versus Hot Sex,” she discusses American society’s general unease with kink and bondage, especially in the context of marriage and families with kids. In addition to mentioning how gradual changes in sexual preference or practices are often seen as a result of a pathology or problem within the relationship, she challenges couples to embrace sexual urges that, while always consensual, may not be planned or part of a normal routine.
An important distinction between Perel’s approach to rekindling the sex lives of long-term couples and the mountain of self-help books that claim to have “the secret to great sex,” is that Perel does not offer set advice or simple steps to follow. Instead of consulting a manual to spice up one’s sex life, Perel believes that people should act on their own impulses, whether that is leaving a dirty note for one’s partner to find when they get home or planning an evening alone free of technology. The overriding messages that Mating in Captivity delivers is that good sex does not have to end or dwindle because of time or experience and that lust does not have to devolve into companionship.
This is a great read for anyone searching for ways to create a more fulfilling, liberating, and connected sex life and a must have for anyone working in the realm of sexuality and relationships. For more information about Esther Perel, visit her website.