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Mating in CaptivityReview - Mating in Captivity
Unlocking Erotic Intelligence
by Esther Perel
Harper, 2006
Review by Robert Scott Stewart, Ph.D.
Jan 22nd 2008 (Volume 12, Issue 4)

One of the many iconic characters introduced in Seinfeld was the 'close-talker' who has no sense of personal space.  Speaking with such a person is surprisingly uncomfortable, and you typically find yourself backing into walls in a vein attempt to regain your separation, which is typically measured by the length of your arm.

Reflecting upon the discomfort the close talker produces reminds us that we rarely let others into our personal space. Surely part of the explanation for this is evolutionary: we are more vulnerable to attack the closer others get. Interestingly, sex is one of the few exceptions to this rule where we drop our guard and (sometimes literally) let another in. Herein lies both the danger and excitement of sex: the exposure, the loss of control, and  the unknown possibilities. According to Perel, it is also what often gets lost in our sex lives as our relationships become loving and we settle into domesticity.

Love enjoys knowing everything about you; desire needs mystery. Loves likes to shrink the distance that exists between me and you, while desire is energized by it. If intimacy grows through repetition and familiarity, eroticism is numbed by repetition. It thrives on the mysterious, the novel, and the unexpected.... An expression of longing, desire requires ongoing elusiveness.... [T]oo often, as couples settle into the comforts of love, they cease to fan the flame of desire. They forget that fire needs air (37).

In supporting her main thesis, Perel makes use primarily of the clinical insights she has garnered from her years as a therapist treating a wide variety of patients -- straight, gay, religious, secular, conservative and liberal. She also refers to the work of others, although mostly to other therapists: there is surprisingly little reference to evidence that could legitimately be called empirically based. She is, however, refreshingly willing to take positions counter to the accepted view of the therapeutic community. For example, she argues that far too much emphasis is placed on the importance of verbal, as opposed to bodily, communication. While talking is of course important in loving relationships, we must also realize that the body has a language of its own and our erotic lives suffer when we neglect its 'voice'.  Similarly, she critically analyzes the concept of egalitarianism in relationships. While it is essential in sustaining a contemporary loving relationship, equality can be stultifying in the erotic realm: "The very dynamics of power and control that can be a challenging in an emotional relationship can, when eroticized, become highly desirable. In the crucible of the erotic mind, we bring the more vexing components of love -- dependency, surrender, jealousy, aggression, even hostility -- and transform them into powerful sources of excitement" (60). Ch. 5 contains an interesting examination of the pride Americans take in hard work and efficiency and the ways in which this attitude can hamper our erotic lives. Contrary to what the "sexual performance perfection industry" (74) maintains, sex is not about setting goals (e.g., orgasm) and constructing means of achieving those goals. Sex is (or ought) rather to be thought of as a form of play, and play can be described as inefficiency in the sense that it isn't interested in reaching its goals efficiently: the erotic seeks pleasure but it lingers when and wherever it finds it.

Ch. 10 is perhaps the most controversial as it suggests the need to rethink fidelity. Once demanded of women as a way for men to ensure their paternity, monogamy has come to be thought of as the necessary foundation of a stable loving relationship. As one therapist put it: "Open marriage doesn't work.... We tried it in the seventies and it was a disaster" (192). That may be true enough, but we must also realize, Perel insists, that the institution of marriage itself is in trouble with 50% of first marriages and 65% of second marriages ending in divorce. It may be, then, that we need to rethink it from the foundation up, including our (alleged) commitment to fidelity. Actually, though, Perel's position does not endorse adultery per se. Rather, her position follows from Marcel Proust (via Alain de Botten) in thinking it's the "threat of [infidelity] ... not the act itself.... Jealousy is the only thing capable of rescuing a relationship ruined by habit" (175). That is, there exists what Perel calls "the third" (194) that we need at least to recognize if we are to deal with it. For some, this will mean a type of open marriage, but for most, it will mean simply being aware that people other than our partners find us attractive and also that we too find a host of other people desirable. Given the mimetic nature of our desires, this recognition can make our mates appear less familiar to us by casting them through the eyes of another. As such, they can reacquire for us an eroticism often lost in our domestic lives.

Creating a psychical distance towards our partners by making them somehow less familiar is the main theme of the book's last chapter. This requires some effort and planning. Indeed, according to Perel, one of the main mistakes we make when it comes to sex with our partners is that we rely far too much on spontaneity, thinking, incorrectly, that back in our 'pre-domestic' days we had sex with wild abandon and planned absolutely nothing. "Whatever used to happen 'in the moment' was often the result of hours, if not days, of preparation. What outfit, what conversation, which restaurant, which music... My aim is to help patients become comfortable with sexuality as a consciously acknowledged and enthusiastically welcomed part of their lives -- something that demands full engagement" 213). 

Perel has some wonderful insights and her discussion of her patients makes for fascinating reading. I particularly applaud her willingness to critique some of the cherished beliefs of her own profession. Mating in Captivity is, nonetheless, thoroughly steeped in the biomedical model, and every problem, to the extent that it is solvable, is to be resolved within the context of a therapeutic paradigm. Hence, she says of her practice that she aims "to create a sex-friendly place, free of judgment and moralizing ..." (166), and she often assumes that taking a moral stance about anything is both puritanical and unhelpful. While morality can be both of these things, it surely isn't always so. Consider, just as a simple example, that some of the primary vales within the therapeutic model, such as autonomy and beneficence, are themselves moral principles emanating from moral thought about the world. It thus seems that discounting such a view of things a priori is extraordinarily limiting at least.

Having said that, however, Mating in Captivity is a wonderful read because Perel is an astute observer on human sexual behavior -- the ways it can go 'wrong', and the ways in which we can work to 'right' it. I recommend it highly.

© 2008 Robert Scott Stewart

Robert Scott Stewart, Professor of Philosophy, Cape Breton University

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