I read an interview today with Esther Perel. If you don’t know her, you should definitely watch her Ted Talk on Youtube, it’s great. This article though was amazing. I felt like I read it and it screamed so many truths I felt I had to share. How often do we get our partners desire cues wrong in a relationship? How often do we struggle to truly communicate what it is we want sexually and emotionally from our partner? How many messages have we received about what each gender is “supposed” to want in their romantic relationship? This article helps highlight some of the ways we complicate our relationships for ourselves and for our partner. Check out the first part of the interview below and then click on the link to keep reading.
A Q&A with Esther Perel
How is desire affected by the way it is traditionally thought of as gendered?
One way to influence desire is with the institutionalization of the relationship. My thinking on this topic is drawn directly from the research of my colleague Marta Meana, Ph.D.: Once a relationship becomes institutionalized, women might no longer feel activated by their own will, but by the dictates of society. Now she is married, here is what she is expected to do, this is what the world wants from her, this is what a wife should be doing, this is the right marital duty. The moment she institutionalizes something that she felt she owned, that was hers, that was her choice, it becomes what I’m supposed to do, versus what I want to do. She loses the activation of her own autonomous will. Autonomous will is essential to desire; desire means to own the wanting. People can be massively attracted, but have no desire. Desire is a motivation.
“The moment she institutionalizes something that she felt she owned, that was hers, that was her choice, it becomes what I’m supposed to do,versus what I want to do.”
Another factor: Typically, we like to think of women’s desire as more discriminating. If a woman wants a man, the man can be pretty sure that it is him she wants. But if a man wants a woman, she wants proof that it’s her he wants.
But what we don’t admit often is that women get bored with monogamy sooner than men. Research shows that men remain much more interested sexually in a partner for a longer time, with shifts being more gradual. Women tend to lose their interest in a shorter amount of time and rather precipitously.
In very interesting ways, men in committed relationships are often much more generous. They genuinely appreciate the quality of their partner’s excitement. Men in committed relationships generally talk a lot about how much they enjoy pleasing their partner. The quality of their experience very often depends on the quality of her experience; seeing her into it, seeing her enjoy it. You rarely hear a woman say: What turns me on the most is to see him really into it. What turns her on the most, is to be the turn on. The secret of female sexuality is how narcissistic it is. It’s the antidote to a woman’s social world, which is so much about tending to the needs of others. In order to actually be sexual—which means to be inside her own mounting pleasures, sensations, excitement and connection—she needs to be able to not think about others. To think about others will take her outside the woman role and into the care-taking and mother role.
“The secret of female sexuality is how narcissistic it is.”
A third factor is the de-sexualization of the roles. The roles that she inhabits (mother, caretaker, head of domestic responsibilities) are not roles that appeal to her sexuality, to her sense of pleasure, or the selfishness that is inherent in pleasure. Women often struggle to experience that sense of pleasure in the context of other relationships and family—how to hold onto themselves in the context of others.
Traditionally we have interpreted a woman’s desire as less—she must have less of an interest in sex. But no, it’s that women become less interested in the sex they can have. Put that same woman with a new person, in a new story, and suddenly she doesn’t need a role replacement. Because she’s interested in who she is, in what she’s feeling, in how she’s looking at herself and how she’s thinking—she’s turning herself on. So desire generally doesn’t have much to do with sexuality, but with inner criticism, lack of sense of self-worth, lack of vitality, bad body image, you name it—because desire is to own the wanting.