Esther Perel on Sex, Monogamy, and Who Really Gets Bored First
The road to better sex and happier relationships requires a sharp turn away from many of our most deeply held beliefs about the innate traits of men and women, says the always-revelatory relationship and sexuality therapist Esther Perel. While Perel, the author of Mating in Captivity (and the forthcoming The State of Affairs), suggests that some of society’s most powerful stereotypes about the differences between the genders are false, she also points toward polarities elsewhere that may seem counterintuitive initially but turn out to be surprisingly, poignantly true: Do men want sex more than women? Are women more monogamous than men? After catching up on Perel’s new podcast series, Where Should We Begin?, we had a number of burning relationship questions for her.
First, a note on the podcast, though: If you’ve ever wondered about the kind of arguments and intimate conversations that couples have behind closed doors (are your issues and secrets unique, normal, manageable?)—you will be entirely engrossed by the series (which runs through mid-July). You’re essentially eavesdropping on other couples as they delve into (unscripted) conversations about what’s going wrong in their relationships. It’s brilliant and intense, and there are moments so unexpected that you’ll still be in shock long after an episode has ended.
In our interview with Perel, we covered the topics we haven’t been able to get out of our heads—like the things she finds men have a hard time talking about, the apparent myth that men lose interest first, and the sex shame many of us carry regardless of gender, as well as how we can actually evolve our conversations about sex to benefit our relationships (and even those of others):
A Q&A with Esther Perel
What do men have a hard time talking to female partners about?
I think men have a hard time asking for support and intimacy.
I met a man a few days ago who came from essentially nothing and who has become very successful. He explained that his wife as a “very type-A woman who works very hard.” Not the type to observe when she herself does a good job—because there is always more that can be done, or done better, in the quest for perfection. He told me about what an amazing mother she is and how much he loves her. He then told me about a year in his life that was challenging for him; he went through a major business crisis but managed to pull through. “You know what I really wanted?” he asked me. “I just wanted my wife to put a hand on my shoulder and say, ‘This is really well done, you worked so hard for this.’ I needed her to be tender.”
I think that men want to feel admired—I think all people want to feel admired—and to feel that women are proud of them. Many women are comfortable with self-criticism, which can also mean they’re comfortable with being more vocal about what they don’t like in a partner, as opposed to what they appreciate. Women often need to be on the verge of losing their partners to finally start telling them everything they appreciate about them.
“I need a place where I don’t have to be ‘on’ all the time,” the man continued to tell me. “Where she can on occasion tell me: ‘It’s well done, good enough.’”
Why do you think some women find it hard to show compassion to their male partners?
Women are often afraid that if they put their hand on their men’s shoulders, they’re going to turn into puddles. Men are afraid of women’s tensions, but women are afraid of men’s meltdowns—that they will regress, suddenly going from man to boy to baby. Women believe that men are more fragile on some fundamental level, and they think that if they let loose, they’ll fall apart. Many women don’t trust in the emotional resilience of men. They think they are superior in this realm.
“Men are afraid of women’s tensions, but women are afraid of men’s meltdowns—that they will regress, suddenly going from man to boy to baby.”
Many women are also afraid that if they soften their partner, then they won’t be able lean on him. They fundamentally still want him to be strong, because that allows them to fall apart: I need to know that you can hold me and that you’re strong. If you’re not strong, I can’t let go. This is true in sex and this is true emotionally. If/when for some reason he softens, there is a part of her that feels angry. Instead of becoming compassionate, she becomes angry.
It’s like the man is playing a role in a play that he never auditioned for. The woman has decided—without telling him, and perhaps without admitting it to herself—who she needed him to be for her. Either she wants him to be really tough and imagines him this way; she doesn’t give him the space to not be tough. Or, maybe she does the reverse, and clips him, makes him inoffensive: the safe guy who will never hurt her, never leave, never cheat—like a sweet puppy. Then she says: not interested.
What’s behind the disconnect?
Men don’t explain enough to women that their sexuality is relational and driven by their internal states: If a man feels anxious or depressed, if they are struggling with their self-worth—their sexuality will change. The fear of rejection and inadequacy, the need to feel competent, to know that she’s enjoying him and into it—these are all important and intensely relational qualities of men’s sexuality.
People tend to think of female sexuality as being very complicated, while oversimplifying male sexuality. There’s the assumption that women want to connect and men want to get laid—the idea that women have the monopoly on intimacy and best understand closeness. These are highly gendered stereotypes that really don’t serve anybody, but they are quite tenacious.
“People tend to think of female sexuality as being very complicated, while oversimplifying male sexuality.”
While there are differences between men and women, I think we all fall prey to very old stereotypes and evolutionary ideas that support certain stereotypes even though they’re not necessarily that accurate: Women are told that there is one form of expression for sadness and hurt, and that in the masculine discourse, it’s more acceptable to being angry and to pretend self-sufficiency. We often mistake this kind of difference as essential and innate, when it is much more cultural; then we come up with all kinds of evolutionary and biological theories to support the stereotype.
What about men projecting onto women?
Oh, yes—it’s equal opportunity. We’re more familiar with the projections of men on women than we are with the projections of women on men. For instance:
If a man sees a woman as brittle, he may love her with a sense of extra burden—he must take care of her. He takes on a parental role. This is one trap, or way, that relationships become parental, and it can happen with any gender.
There are long histories of men desexualizing women (think the Madonna complex) and putting them into a mother role. Or, on the flip side, men may clip a woman who is very sexual as someone who won’t stay with him, because his sense of self-worth is put into question: Am I enough? Everybody plays these games: If I’m not enough, if I reduce you a little bit, then I become more.
Do men feel the same amount of shame or is shame typically something that women feel about sex?
Shame is widespread and affects women and men. I think the main difference is that a woman’s shame generally is about claiming sex to begin with. A man’s is about the particular kind of sex that he claims. His shame might be about admitting that he’s not interested.
“She doesn’t have the permission to claim sexuality, and he doesn’t have the permission to claim intimacy.”
Everyone thinks people come to therapy to talk about the sex-less-ness of the woman, when half the time it is the man who is uninterested. But it’s just much more accepted that a woman is not interested. She has the permission not to want, but he doesn’t have the permission not to want. She doesn’t have the permission to claim sexuality, and he doesn’t have the permission to claim intimacy. Each one has been given certain permissions of what they’re allowed to want and what they’re not allowed to want. But I think both groups are given their share of inhibitions, shaming, guilt inductions, and secrets.
So how do you fix it? Is it just starting the conversation?
Yes, but it has to be a particular kind of conversation. I think this topic is very fraught today. In the US, sexuality is looked at through a moral, puritanical lens—America is at war with the concept of pleasure in general. All our pleasures are time-fraught, with overlays of discipline and work. Everything is about control. But sexuality in many ways is a negotiation with your surrendering—it’s about a loss of control. So, it’s a larger question and discussion.
“In the US, sexuality is looked at through a moral, puritanical lens—America is at war with the concept of pleasure in general.”
The conversation is less about what to do and how to fix; first, it needs to be about changing the landscape and the way that we perceive things. It’s not the first time we changed the landscape, and what is permitted to be spoken about, and who is permitted in which conversation. What are the conversations that women are allowed to have, and what are the conversations that men are allowed to have?
Right now, for example, men are allowed to lie by exaggerating and by bragging, and women are allowed to talk by emphasizing self-denial and minimizing. That’s the basic rule around sexuality: Women lie down, and men lie up. The day you go into a men’s locker room and you hear them talking about how their wives are jumping them and they’re not interested…that will be evolution.
Psychotherapist Esther Perel is the bestselling author of Mating in Captivity and the forthcoming book, The State of Affairs. She is also the executive producer and host of the original audio series Where Should We Begin? Sign up for her monthly newsletter and relationship wisdom here.