Esther Perel wants to improve your sex life. So listen to her.
Her lucid insights fill two books (her classic, Mating in Captivity, and her hot new one, The State of Affairs, out Oct. 10), mesmerizing TED Talks, and a voyeuristic new podcast (Where Should We Begin?) featuring her real couples-therapy sessions.
“To think that men are physical creatures and women are psychological creatures is a joke,” she says. “The level of rejection men have to prepare for, the fear of inadequacy they have to deal with—no woman has to prove herself a woman the way a man has to prove himself a man.” Right? Thank you!
So what can you do to make your partner want you as desperately as she did in the early days? Easy: You give yourself permission to learn. Your goal: to raise what she calls your “erotic intelligence.” We called her up to ask how.
Men’s Health: What is “erotic intelligence”?
Animals have sex. We have eroticism. Erotic intelligence is the imagination, the curiosity, the playfulness, the mystery, the connection, the presence—it’s what turns an act into an experience, and then enhances the experience.
We can have sex and feel nothing. Erotic intelligence is everything that adds the poetic to sexuality, that gives us a feeling of renewal, aliveness, and vitality. It’s everything that takes this thing called sex and gives it, basically, a meaning. It heightens the experience and makes it more exciting, pleasurable, and memorable.
You can eat fast food and you will have been fed, but you won’t remember it. On the other hand, if you make a beautiful meal—you pair various ingredients, tastes, textures, the palate, the wine—you will remember.
For many of us, sex is too often a performance, with a goal to achieve. In the erotic, there is no goal; pleasure is the measure. Erotic intimacy is quite different from sex, the act. It is a language through which you reveal yourself, at your most raw and intimate.
MH: What can you do to improve yours?
When you make a beautiful meal, you make a list of ingredients and then go out and find them. You learn by going, by trying, by tasting. It’s the same sexually.
Ask yourself, what does sex mean for you? Where does it touch you? What do you seek to experience in sex? Union? Escape? Transcendence? Power? Domination? The full surrender of your partner? Abandon? Being handled? What are the senses with which you most experience sex?
We are all born sensuous; we become erotic. It is learned. That is why it is called an intelligence.
Men learn that they have an entire body to experience sexual pleasure, not just their genitals. They learn to give touch, to receive touch, to decode their partner’s body. Too often men are indoctrinated to believe they don’t need to learn to be sexual; supposedly, they know simply because they are men. Men are told they are these sexual creatures, biologically driven with spontaneous erections, and that if they need to learn they are not “real men.” And this is a curse for the guys, and sadly a disaster for the women.
You become a good lover through practice, by reading, watching (not just porn), asking for feedback and being open to receiving feedback. You learn by true interaction, by watching the movements of another body, by learning to improvise together, creating an intimate groove, by sensing, by smelling, by listening, by following her breath, by understanding touch, positions, and personalities.
MH: Are there any small acts a guy can do?
You have so many! I’ve scrolled the Tinder feeds of so many guys and basically coached them on how to talk. Erotic intelligence is also about how you cultivate a language that builds seduction, anticipation, flirtation, excitement, and interest.
I had a guy last week who wanted to go on a date, and at 7 on Friday the woman tells him she has a meeting. I’m like, seriously? Is she that not into you? He goes, “I know, but I like a woman who has a life and who’s busy.” That’s the new thing, right? People are too busy to have a relationship. So I said to him, “What do you want to do? Are you interested in her?” He says yes. I say, okay, you want a piece of erotic intelligence? Here’s what you write [to her]. Tell her “I’m happy to take a rain check—but you give me double the time tomorrow.” It says I can accept the rejection, but you need to know I’m really interested in you. And it’s cool and it’s playful.
“Most women want to know that the guy desires her, not just it.”
She liked it. Because he was assertive. He wasn’t whining—he was pursuing and wooing her. And it was a tease. A lot of it is about how you tease, how you flirt. Too many men want the score; they don’t want to flirt.
[Erotically intelligent couples will] play together. They practice pacing. You come close, then move away, then come close again—you show some interest, then turn your head. That’s pacing. Animals understand pacing. It’s a game of seduction, of approach and avoidance. And the point is to make it last, not to close the gap as fast as possible and be immediately satiated.
Most women want to know that the guy desires her, not just it. She does not want to feel that she was used as a masturbation prop. So be a mensch. She may be just as up for recreational sex, but she likes to know she was the protagonist.
After a date or even a hookup, send a note that says “I’ll take your smile with me” or “I still see those beautiful eyes”—acknowledge her. Send her breakfast, a text, and if you want to see her again, even a flower. But do something kind that says you know you’ve been with a human being. No acknowledgment, and she may feel the bad aftertaste of fast food; a kind note and she enjoys her fullness.
MH: Your new podcast, Where Should We Begin?—what can a couple learn from listening to another couple’s therapy session?
You think you are listening to another couple, but you realize very quickly you’re actually standing in front of your own mirror. It’s like a bridge—the couples give you a language for a conversation you would like to have.
You experience what it’s like to hear a guy tell his wife, “For all these years when I was having sex with you, I felt like I was having sex with a corpse.” And to have the woman answer him, “But all these years, I felt like you were just going in and out and leaving me hanging there dry after you came.” And then he says, “You think coming is all I want?” And she says, “Well, at least that’s more than I ever got!”
Sadly, that is a conversation that is happening in many relationships—and nobody is a winner in that conversation; both people are feeling completely dissatisfied and deprived. Yet they didn’t say anything to each other for years—10 years! Listening to that, I would hope many couples would not have to wait that long.
MH: What is your message for men?
The sexuality of men is often overly simplified and stereotypically misunderstood. This idea that men are always up for it—that men are biological creatures in perpetual motion, always in search of an outlet—is a real disfavor to men. It’s time we begin to layer male sexuality with more nuance. I would like men to stop bragging, and playing into the pressure of boosting their sexual exploits. It’s a lie. You have everything to gain from rejecting these pressures. If you only knew how many guys live with shame, anxiety, and major feelings of inadequacy, if only because of the focus on performance. And you have no idea that that guy is your best friend. Men and women are in dire need of a more honest and truthful conversation about their sexual feelings and needs.
To think that men are physical creatures and women are psychological creatures is a joke. The level of rejection men have to prepare for, the fear of inadequacy they have to deal with—no woman has to prove herself a woman the way a man has to prove himself a man.
MH: What can men do to relieve all that pressure?
Men have to go against the sexual stereotype of being omnipotent, vested with power and mastery, with a large, powerful, untiring dick attached to a very cool male that is long on self-control, competent, and knowledgeable enough to make any woman crazy with desire—and that anything short of that, he’s not really a man.
People are quick to say “She’s not interested in sex.” In the therapist’s office, the sexual stalemate of a couple is, 50 percent of the time, induced by a man.
[When it is induced by a woman] half the time, it’s not because she’s not interested in sex, but because she’s not interested in the sex she can have. It’s just not interesting enough for her. For a woman to want sex, the sex needs to be worth wanting. Because the same woman—and this I learned for my new book [The State of Affairs]—who is sexually numb in her marriage may find herself sexually passionate in her affair. It’s not another woman—it’s the same one. It’s very important to understand that.
MH: So the takeaway there would be to experiment?
Yes, but not with positions. Experiment with the story.
You know what erotic intelligence is? It’s the plot—it’s what gives sex a plot. We are story-driven people, and when the story is compelling, the experience is a lot better. If the story is “We were drunk” or “We were checked out,” then the plot is not particularly interesting, and the experience is not particularly remarkable.
If I go to the supermarket and hear a song, I don’t notice it. But if I am sitting in a car next to you, and there is no noise and we are just driving at 6 o’clock in the evening and it’s a beautiful night and this song comes on the radio, I will forever remember listening to that song when I was on that highway.
The story, the plot, is what feeds the memory and makes the experience interesting. That is erotic intelligence.
MH: Helpful insights. But they can feel a bit abstract or philosophical. Any way to make them concrete?
You drop off your kids at their friends’ for a couple hours. You tell your wife you have the house to yourselves. She comes home. You’ve prepared the room. And you just tell her “Let me massage your feet.” And at some point you start sucking her toes. And then she opens herself to you, she gives herself to you, because you’ve just made her feel utterly special and like a queen. And you’ve cleared the house so that, for once, she can think of herself without having to hear “Mama!”
Aside from date nights, when you are often exhausted, you arrange to be alone in the morning. And you can actually wake up and linger and play. And just hang and be with each other and stay connected.
For the woman, a lot of it is actually helping her to give to herself. Most straight guys in committed relationships are actually quite generous. They will tell you, “Nothing turns me on more than to see my woman turned on.” A woman will tell you, “Nothing turns me on more than to be the turn-on.” That’s because anything that has to do with taking responsibility and caring for others is going to shut her down. By giving her permission to be totally self-focused, you allow her to give in to her own pleasure.
So I don’t always think it’s about tips and tricks, because I actually think if it was so simple, we wouldn’t be repeating them every month in every magazine on page 108. You want me to give the same damn tips that everybody else is, and they don’t seem to work or we would already have learned it and you wouldn’t have to repeat them, not in Cosmo nor Men’s Health nor any other [magazine] on a monthly basis. It is not about that—it’s about truth, not tricks.
“Sex is intentional. It doesn’t just happen. Your fridge isn’t just full. You have to shop.”
I can tell you, I really like people writing to each other. I think that since people are texting to each other all the time, why don’t they have a separate text where they can actually talk not about the shopping list but about what they fancy in each other and how they’re thinking of each other. And it becomes kind of an erotic mailbox.
But that only works if both people are into it and are playful about it. If it becomes a test where I want to see if you’re going to answer me when I write to you, then it doesn’t really matter what I’m going to do. That’s what we need to understand—if the context isn’t right, the greatest idea will fall flat.
But on the whole, make sure your room is not a pigsty. Make sure you do at some point leave the bedroom. Because at this point, the bedroom is where the last thing you stroke is your phone and the first thing you stroke is your phone. Leave the damn phone out of the room. Maybe you’ll actually put your hands on your partner.
And try to imagine that foreplay isn’t just the three things before sex. Foreplay really starts at the end of the previous orgasm. That means you create the mood. And the mood is not just for having sex. The mood is where you eroticize each other as people, you sexualize each other as people—you’re not just talking to your wife or your husband, you’re also talking to your lover. Sex is intentional. It doesn’t just happen. Your fridge isn’t just full. You have to shop.
MH: Now that you’ve called us out, is there one tip that you see published over and over in magazines that you hate?
The tips are fine, actually. There’s nothing wrong with the tips. It’s just that they leave out the context. “Put on sexy lingerie.” Do you know how many women have put on sexy lingerie only to have their partner say “What is that?” or barely notice? You know how humiliating that is? You need the context. I don’t want people to be set up for failure.
And I have learned, after spending 10 years now studying affairs, that the same people who don’t know what to do at home seem to know damn well what to do with their lovers. So obviously they know. And they knew in the beginning [of their relationship] what to do with their own partners. So I don’t think the issue is what to do. I think the issue is how to motivate people to do it—and to do it non-contingently.
It’s not “I’m going to get up this morning and take care of the kids so maybe tonight I’ll get some.” That “I’ll get some” mentality goes with her “I gave him some” mentality. Which is another way of saying “Come as fast as you can so I can be done.” If something needs to change to make your sex life better, it’s that.