October 8th, 2006


Oyster pearl

Despite being "the pornographer of the phonograph" and "the tender pervert", I actually write very little about sex and relationships on Click Opera. Sure, I'm attracted to topics like yesterday's discussion of a sex-and-ecology magazine edited by Ryuichi Sakamoto. But I very seldom write about my own sex life. And for pretty obvious reasons, surely; this stuff is fucking dynamite. It destroys the foundations of any kind of stability in life.

My sexual and emotional life is dramatic, to say the least. It's undoubtedly the centre of everything I do, the most important thing in the world for me. But if, as a result, I ride an emotional rollercoaster, I try to make sure that all people see on the outside is a gently undulating golf course. I've got very good at dissembling, although some truth peeps through in my records; art is, after all, "the lie that tells the truth".

Anyway, let's not talk about me. I want to talk about someone called Esther Perel. Nice name: it sounds like "oyster pearl", which in turn is an excellent metaphor for a hidden, but very precious, sex life. Esther Perel is a writer and sex therapist with an office on 5th Avenue in New York. Her new book is called "Mating in Captivity: Reconciling the Erotic and the Domestic". Polly Vernon has an interesting interview with her in today's Observer. I found myself agreeing with just about everything Perel said, despite the fact that she overturns many of today's axioms and truisms about love and sex.

"Love," says Perel, "needs closeness and intimacy and familiarity to flourish. Desire does not. Desire needs distance, insecurity, novelty and surprise. Desire needs tension, breaches and repairs."

Check. Sometimes, given a situation in which a sexual relationship threatens to turn into a friendship, I act like a drama queen. I engineer a crisis. I try to keep that tension. Every passionate, angry breach is potentially erotic.

"Love is not comfortable with fights, but desire needs fights," says Perel. "Fights generate energy, erotic energy - and this is not just desire for sex, but a general exuberance and vitality, an élan, an aliveness! We often judge couples on the amount they fight, like: "Oh, they have such a good relationship! They never fight!" And yes, I know of couples who never fight and do have a very good relationship - but they also have a sex life that is somewhat flat. Desire needs fights! Intimacy - that is, emotional intimacy - inhibits erotic expression. Desire needs edge!"

Perel has a good line about how you don't tend to desire your longterm partner when you're eyeball to eyeball, but when you catch them about to deliver a lecture, or preparing to windsurf or something. In other words, when you see them almost as a stranger, a person out there in public, inciting desire in other people.

"Love needs absence of sexual threat, but desire? Desire needs to know there are other options out there for your partner, that your partner moves out there in a sexual world when they are not with you, a world of other people who look at them, sexually. Love needs talk. Desire needs not to talk. Eroticism thrives in the space between the self and the other. In order to maintain a sexual edge in our relationships, we must learn to tolerate this void, these uncertainties."

Some people think there's a contradiction between the size of Japan's sex industry and the fact that Japanese people have some of the least sex in the world. But the reason that reported rates of intercourse are so low in Japan is that married couples there stop fucking. And Perel thinks this happens everywhere:

"I wrote this book," she says, "because, in 22 years of practice in six different languages, I've met couples over and over again who were having a good relationship, who love each other, but who have no sex, no tingle! I met couples who had a bad relationship, and who I helped to have a good relationship again, and the expectation was that the sex would just come back - but it didn't. I began to think there's something in this premise - that if sex is wrong, the relationship is wrong; and equally that more talk, intimacy and closeness will equal more sex, better sex - that just doesn't work."

It's not comfort that defines love, although comfort may define marriage. We love, often, in conditions of turbulence.

And it isn't always good to talk. Perel mocks "this idea that the only way a couple can be healthy, or can heal themselves, is with absolute honesty. Come on! We need secrets! We can never know our partner completely, and they can never know us completely, and that's good."


"Fantasy... is never politically correct, it's transgressive and about power, which is why it's so hot. It's about surrender, revenge, aggression, abandonment. You can transcend moral and social boundaries. But this idea that you should share your fantasy with your partner... I think that's very risky."

Check! I've been having this fantasy recently in which you're -- oh, some other time.

"Talking is overrated. Especially talking to just one person".

Yes. The most enduring relationships are the ones where you can spend long periods of time just being together without talking.

"I cannot stand this tendency to identify a victim and a perpetrator in an affair."

Quite. It always takes two to tango, whatever convenient stories we may choose to tell ourselves after the event.

"This idea that tenderness and emotional intimacy leads to good sex - I'm afraid it became current when women came into my profession."

Good sex comes from having a good line to your unconscious desires. And there's some scary stuff down there.

"Couples are the best theatre around! What two people do to each other, it can be sublime, and it can be evil."

God, tell me about it!

This week is proving to be a very bad week for affairs, according to Perel. "I dunno why! It's a bad week. Ouf! You know, the phone was ringing all night, all night, I had about four hours sleep I think!"

And what the hell am I doing up at this time in the morning, anyway, my head racing, thinking about love and sex? I'm a happily-coupled man. Back to bed.