What Your Upbringing Says About Who You Are in Bed
“Tell me how you were loved and I will tell you how you make love,” sexuality expert, therapist, and author of The State of Affairs, Esther Perel said in a backstage conversation at our In goop Health wellness summit in June. It’s a line that’s stayed with us since, and came again to the surface at an intimate dinner where Perel and GP led a secret, women-only sex talk in celebration of the new Netflix show Gypsy, alongside creator Lisa Rubin; much of the conversation centered around common relationship roadblocks.
Still intrigued, we asked Perel to do a deeper dive into the roots of some of these issues, like: Why is it that many women don’t seem to know what they want? Where does the sense of being disconnected from your own body stem from? How can it be so hard to talk about sex with our partners? As Perel explains, much of our adult sexuality, our current desires, the way we relate to others, how we perceive our self-worth—is the product of the way we were raised and the environment in which our sexuality developed. (If you’re not yet familiar with Perel’s work, start by listening to her podcast Where Should We Begin? and reading our first interview with her on gender differences and stereotypes, or her bestselling Mating in Captivity.) Here, she outlines the concept of erotic blueprints, and paths for moving beyond whatever from your past might be holding you back.
A Q&A with Esther Perel
What’s an example?
I was talking to a couple, two women. The first woman said: “I never know what you want sexually, you never tell me what you like. I know that you want to be left alone when you’re done caring for the kids all day, but you never seek pleasurable, intimate connection with me. Your free time is being free of caretaking duties, but never the pleasure of being physically and affectionately nurtured. The only thing you let me do is make coffee for you in morning.”
“Tell me how you were loved and I will tell you how you MAKE love.”
Then I find out that the other partner grew up taking care of her mother in nearly every sense. She was the dutiful, straight-A student. She learned not to have any needs, so as to not burden her mother. So, as an adult, she has no idea what she needs, wants, or likes. It’s not her mind; but that her body has no idea: You can touch her and ask her, Does this feel good, or does that feel good? And she doesn’t really know the difference.
Is this part of what you call the “erotic blueprint”?
There are various ways to explore people’s erotic blueprints, and you can spend hours drawing them out. (Some of this comes out of the work of a colleague of mine, psychologist Jack Morin, Ph.D., author of The Erotic Mind. Another colleague, Jaiya, often divides the blueprint into four quadrants: mental, physical, emotional, spiritual.)
The blueprint, for me, is: If you tell me some of these details of your emotional history, it helps me to understand how you experience receiving, taking, asking for something, and pleasure in the full sense of the word—the abdication of responsibility, the unselfconsciousness, the freedom, the playfulness, the unproductive nature of the erotic. This all gets at how you experience aliveness. Do you let yourself feel alive, outside of just feeling safe? Safety is the first base, but it’s not yet alive. Feeling truly alive involves risk-taking, mischief, curiosity. All of these experiences we—every man and every woman—have, we experience in our bodies. They are embodied experiences, part of being human.
“Do you let yourself feel alive, outside of just feeling safe?”
Another way of thinking about the blueprint is that it is comprised of whatever thoughts, beliefs, attitudes, and messages you have about your sexuality. You might think sex is dirty, dangerous, fun, power. You might carry negative messages of sex with you: Don’t give it to them; the minute you do, they won’t want you anymore; the only power you have is the power of refusal. There can also be positive messages about turn-on—what entices you, what awakens you. Then there are the feelings: I feel shy, I feel small, I’m afraid, I feel powerful, I feel big.
Can you talk more about the significance of embodiment, and what happens when there’s a disconnect from the body?
Here’s an example from a woman I’ll never forget: She had been married for twenty-something years and never had an orgasm. Her husband really wished she would enjoy sex; the last thing he wanted was a woman who “just took it.”
As I talked to them, I found out that that she always stops when he’s climaxed—she figures “that’s what I’m going to get,” or, “he got what he needed.” And then I find out that as child she had a very hard-working mom who was in a perpetual rush. For instance, her mom would cook for her and feed her, but she was always rushing her daughter: “Finish quick,” or, “Okay, are you done, are you done?”
So, this woman did not know how to take the time to be in her own body, to allow for the mounting sensations, the excitement. She didn’t know how to not worry about taking too long. That’s a concern I’ve heard many women talk about. In order to feel that you’re not taking too long, you need to feel worthy of taking whatever time you take. That means that you’re not thinking about what the other person thinks. It means that you’re not thinking—period—because you’re in your body, experiencing the beauty and pleasures of lovemaking, of erotic intimacy. When someone wonders if they’re taking too long, they’re not in their body.
“In order to feel that you’re not taking too long, you need to feel worthy of taking whatever time you take.”
This is also where we see the fear of greed; and the fear that the other person will not be patient enough for you—the fear that they don’t care enough about you to give you the time that you need, whatever that may be. This goes back to your relationship to desire and the connection to your self-worth. [See this goop piece with Perel on “What Women Need to Hear About Desire.”]
Do you think this is unique to women/mothers?
No: It’s not just about our relationship to our mothers. Relationships with fathers (and others) come into play, too.
Of course, parenthood itself does create a change for many people—both becoming a parent yourself and experiencing your partner as a parent. In my field, we have something called the love/lust split: people who have a certain way of loving that makes it harder for them to make love to the person they love. This can mean that you’re the parentified partner—you become the mother/father of your partner—or vice versa.
For example, here’s what can happen to the parentified person: In order to make love you need to be able to let go—because at some point it is an experience of surrender, an experience of penetration of boundaries. It’s like playing the game where you fall back into someone else’s waiting arms. If you don’t trust that the other person is strong enough to hold you, you don’t let go. If you experience the other person as someone you need to worry about and protect, as fragile or brittle, as someone who doesn’t know how to attend to your needs—you don’t let go.
This isn’t gender specific.
Also, while having children is often a time that couples will point to when they talk about the demise of their sexual relationship, the issues that we are talking about aren’t unique to women with children. The experience of love and caretaking, love and responsibility, the burdens of love, the inability to hold onto oneself—that isn’t owned by parents.
Fear of abandonment is another theme that’s often raised when looking at how early relationships inform later ones—is this something you see?
In couples, you will often find that one person is more in touch with the fear of abandonment, and the other with the fear of being swallowed up or suffocated. So, some people fear losing others. Some people fear losing oneself. Translate that into sexuality: If I come close to you and let you in, I may be afraid that you may never come out, that I’m going to be eaten up, that you’re going to be too needy, that I’m going to need to take care of you. You might not experience your partner as wanting you, but as needing you. We respond sexually when we feel wanted, not needed. Needed elicits mothering, caretaking, selflessness. (You can imagine the flip side of this if you lean toward fear of abandonment.)
How do cultural notions of sex tend to impact our sexuality as adults?
You have a psychological blueprint and a cultural blueprint. In many parts of the world, the cultural messaging around sex is negative, shaming, guilt-inducing, silencing. How can you learn to talk about something that you’ve learned to be silent on your whole life? How do you know that what you’re experiencing is normal if you can never ask the person next to you? If I wanted to know about what people do in the kitchen, I’d ask: Where do you buy your tomatoes? How do you cook chicken?
“How can you learn to talk about something that you’ve learned to be silent on your whole life?”
The majority of people have very, very little sex education that speaks to the overall concept of sexual health, which involves rights, respect, knowledge, and pleasure. The same way that health is not just the absence of disease—sexual health is not the absence of sexual disease. Sexuality is sexual health. It’s not just something you do, an act. It’s a place you go; it taps into various parts of you; it’s a language that you express and experience.
What about our first, or early, experiences of sex—is there typically a lasting impact?
For some, the first experience of sex is lasting, especially if it was traumatic, and/or involved some kind of violation of their boundaries and respect. If someone was over-sexualized in childhood by a person who was not meant to sexualize them, the same holds true.
“Everyone thinks they are doing what the other person wants—and no one is talking about what they actually want.”
When it comes to early experiences of sex, I think we’re going backward in this moment. I’m troubled by the relationship between sex and alcohol, which I’ve seen worsen. If you like something very much, you probably would want to remember it the next day, no? But with sex—people get drunk to the point that they remember nothing. Does that speak about liking sex, or does that speak to masking anxiety?
As mentioned before, I’ve seen a decline in pleasure for women in the “hookup culture.” Too often, casual sex, booty calls, etc. focus on men’s pleasure; we know that women tend to get much less pleasure from these encounters. Why is this—after a generation fought so hard to stop being at the service of men? I think many women still find it hard to say what they want. Sadly, more young women today fake pleasure than I’ve ever seen in the last twenty years. They perform, or often accept the kind of entertainment sex that men have watched on a screen. And you know what: The men aren’t even necessarily interested in the sex that’s taking place in porn, but they think they’re supposed to be. So, everyone thinks they are doing what the other person wants—and no one is talking about what they actually want.
This circles back to communication, then?
People really lack a vocabulary for talking about many of these topics. When we say, you need to be able to communicate with the person you’re having sex with—people don’t necessarily know how to do so. (Let alone bring up conversations on the erotic mind and fantasy, a whole different dimension.)
You first need to feel loveable and to have self-acceptance. Then you have to feel desirable. Only then can you have sexual self-awareness, and that leads to sexual communication. This, hopefully brings you to an encounter with satisfaction—and connection, intimacy, closeness.
What else do you see as potential ways forward, and ways to heal from sexual issues with deep roots in our early experiences?
There are three directions I tend to look in (not in order of importance):
1. Find someone to talk with who is comfortable with these discussions. It can be a friend, a coach, a therapist, a grandmother. Find someone who can show you the conversation—what to talk about and how.
2. That said, there is a limit to how much talking will change the experience in the body. You need a new experience in the body in order to imagine, much less experience other possibilities. You don’t change by just talking about it. (This is why I mix up talk therapy with activities like painting about love and sexuality.) Sexual healing can come from working in all kinds of physical healing environments, depending on what’s right for a particular person. There are so many things that can be done (and there’s way more available for women than for men). For example:
S Factor is very beautiful for many women. It’s a women’s only pole dancing class started by Sheila Kelley where you can experience your erotic persona. It’s not therapy, it doesn’t focus on the problem, and it’s fun. It creates an alternative and a new experience that is embodied.
Tango dancing—you experience power that is safe. You can play with boundary and experience contact without intrusion.
Acroyoga (combines yoga and acrobatics) is also great. You get to be lifted and carried—and you really have to exercise trust with a partner, as well as attunement, playfulness, risk-taking. And you’re doing a lot of this without talking.
For other people, it helps to see a body practitioner who can help you experience touch, trust, breath, receiving, and overcome the frozenness of the body.
3. Watch movies (like Vicky Christina Barcelona, Body Heat) and read good books (like Come as You Are and She Comes First). For some women, just walking into a sex shop or an erotic museum says: I am a sexual woman, I don’t hide this body, I don’t loathe and always criticize it—this can be a very powerful experience itself. So, I go with women, and I also have them talk to women who run places that cater to erotic identity—they are often very comfortable with sexual curiosity, and know it is healthy and normal.
Looking ahead to the sexual health of future generations, what do you say to parents who have children coming into their own sexuality?
I think that a conversation about sexuality is a conversation about relationships, and identity, and power, and society. These aren’t separate things.
I was talking with a twenty-something-year-old young man who told me: “I think I like this woman more than she likes me.” And I said, “I think you might be experiencing falling in love for the first time, because you say that in the past, when girls liked you, you felt stifled, and you wanted more time alone.” He said that he feels very vulnerable right now. I said, “Welcome to love.” You are constantly wondering, does the other person love me, am I good enough? That insecurity is so much a part of falling in love for the first time.
“A conversation about sexuality is a conversation about relationships, and identity, and power, and society.”
The conversations that we should be having with young people should encompass this and much more. But too often, we’re only focused on the dangers of sex. (As an aside, I’ll tell you one thing I did say to my two sons when the time came: I want to know the name of any girl you bring home and I want her there for breakfast the next morning. Meaning, no secret, furtive behavior—with girls running back home to parents who don’t even know where she was.)
I think parents should start talking about sexuality when children are four years old—when they start asking where do people go when they die, where do we come from, and so on. This is the natural developmental age to begin early conversations on love, the feeling of closeness, the fear of rejection, how you feel physically, how you grow. It’s a broad, ongoing conversation—not a conversation about sex in the puritanical definition. It’s a conversation about joy, feeling alive, about fun. It’s saying: It feels so good when I hug you, and one day, you’re going to make someone really lucky when you hug them. Or: The person who discovers that you like circles to be drawn with fingers on your back—they will have a key to your heart.
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.