We will not fulfill any book request that does not come through the book request page or does not follow the rules of requesting books. NO EXCEPTIONS.

Comments are manually approved by us. Thus, if you don't see your comment immediately after leaving a comment, understand that it is held for moderation. There is no need to submit another comment. Even that will be put in the moderation queue.

Please avoid leaving disrespectful comments towards other users/readers. Those who use such cheap and derogatory language will have their comments deleted. Repeat offenders will be blocked from accessing this website (and its sister site). This instruction specifically applies to those who think they are too smart. Behave or be set aside!

Mating in Captivity: Chapter 11

Putting the X Back in Sex: Bringing the Erotic Home

Love never dies a natural death. It dies because we don’t know how to replenish its source.

—Anaïs Nin


It takes courage to push yourself to places that you have never been before…to test your limits…to break through barriers. And the day came when the risk it took to remain tight inside the bud was more painful than the risk it took to blossom.

—Anaïs Nin


IT ALWAYS AMAZES ME HOW much people are willing to experiment sexually outside their relationships, yet how tame and puritanical they are at home with their partners. Many of my patients have, by their own account, domestic lives devoid of excitement and eroticism, yet they are consumed and aroused by a richly imaginative sexual life beyond domesticity—affairs, pornography, cybersex, feverish daydreams. For them, sexual love becomes compromised in the making of a family, even a family of two. They numb themselves erotically. Then, having denied themselves freedom, and freedom of imagination, in their relationships, they go outside to reimagine themselves liberated from the constraints of commitment. Security inside, adventure and passion outside. So when the media frantically (yet regularly) announce that couples are not having sex, I can’t help thinking that they may be having plenty of sex, but not with each other.

Passion may fuel the initial stages of a relationship, or it may not. Either way, the volatility of passionate eroticism is expected to evolve into a more staid, stable, and manageable alternative: mature love. Even the biochemistry of passion is known to be short-lived. The evolutionary anthropologist Helen Fisher says that the hormonal cocktail of romance (dopamine, norepineprine, and PEA) is known to last no more than a few years at best. Oxytocin, the cuddling hormone, outlasts them all. The fruits of this ripening love—companionship, deep respect, mutuality, and care—are considered by many to be a fair trade for erotic heat. If attraction and desire were the central actors in your courtship, now they retreat backstage to make way for the main act: building a life together.

Eroticism is conspicuously absent from our idea of marriage. Of course, committed couples are expected to have sex, and even to enjoy it these days. Sex solely for the sake of reproduction is, theoretically, passé. But sex and eroticism are not the same, and the lascivious, intimate, ardent, needful, frivolous, erotic sex of lovers becomes rare after the housewarming party. In spite of the sexually saturated media that promise unfettered excitement provided we follow the ten ideas suggested in this week’s issue, there is still some anti-hedonism surrounding domesticated sex. Could it be that we’re inundated with articles about how to make sex hot with our partners because we don’t actually believe it can be hot with our partners? More to the point, could we believe deep down that it’s not supposed to be? Could we believe that regardless of how sexually free we might have been before tying the knot, marriage is no place for the naughtiness of lust?

If marriage is about love, as we like to believe, then married sex must be a declaration of love. It has to be meaningful. But, the sex therapist Dagmar O’Connor says:


For [married] sex to be “meaningful,” it must always be an expression of love—preferably of lifelong, abiding love—every time we climb into bed with one another. And what an incredible burden that is! It eliminates sex stimulated by a whole array of other emotions and sensations: playful sex and angry sex, quick, “mindless” sex and “naughty” sex. It eliminates, in fact, just about every occasion for having sex there is. After all, who can feel “lifelong, abiding love” that regularly—especially at eleven o’clock at night?


Marriage, we’ve been taught, is about commitment, security, comfort, and family. It’s a serious business, a responsible and purposeful enterprise; it’s all the things we need, and all the things we need to do. Play and its playmates (risk, seduction, naughtiness, transgression) are left to fend for themselves outside the solid architecture of our homes.

Many people in my field assume that the intensity that shapes the early stages of romance is a sort of temporary insanity, destined to be cured by the rigors of the long haul. Clinicians often interpret the lust for sexual adventure—ranging from simple flirting to infatuation, from maintaining contact with previous lovers to cross-dressing, threesomes, and fetishes—as an infantile fantasy or a fear of commitment. They favor a model of love as a companionate, intimate, collaborative partnership. What we are left with is a relationship that is strong on cooperation and communication but weak on complicity and playfulness. But dispassionate friendship is a problematic ecology for cultivating eroticism.


The Day I Got That Ring…


Jacqueline and Philip are trying to rekindle the spark they once had. Married for ten years, they are finally emerging from the haze of parenting young children. This fall their youngest son began kindergarten, and his new schedule put some order back into theirs. At the same time, in the past year their friends have gone through an epidemic of divorces. “All these couples we used to hang out with, who got married right around the same time as us, are throwing in the towel,” Philip tells me. “It makes you think about what you value, and it puts you face to face with the fatal flaws in your own relationship.”

“And your fatal flaw?” I ask them.

“Sex,” he answers.

“Cheating,” she says.

When they met, Jacqueline was the winning prize for Philip. “Jackie was smart, beautiful, and sexy. I couldn’t believe she was interested in me. I was really into her. I was all over her, too. We had great sex for a long time. Right up until I asked her to marry me,” he recalls.

“What happened when she said yes?” I inquire.

“Nothing happened, but something did change when I got that ring. I didn’t make the connection at the time, but now I see it pretty clearly. Entering a family shut me down fast. I didn’t tell her about it. In fact, I even tried to deny to myself that anything was different. But pretty soon, I couldn’t get turned on by her. Eventually, every time she left town, or even if she was just out for the night, I was logging on or trolling the bars.”

Eight years of transgressions followed, some discovered, some disclosed, some mercifully kept secret. The sequence became repetitive, the resolution of one episode led to the next wave of transgression. Philip’s shame at cheating was always followed by remorse and repentance. He felt terrible about hurting Jackie, and vowed to change. He would make a big show of being an upstanding man and a good husband, and she would forgive him and take him back. Then he would become restless, and a lecherous escalation would always follow. During these years they also had two sons, Jackie finished her first novel, Philip got tenure at a university, and they moved to New York. All these developments helped them put off dealing with the problem. But the latest round was, for Jackie, one too many.

To understand Philip’s sexuality, I followed the link to his parents, whose marriage strikingly represented the cultural division between “safe” domesticity and “dangerous” eroticism. While his mother raised five kids, his father engaged in a continuous series of affairs, none of which he made great efforts to hide. Philip’s grandfather, as it turns out, had done the same. “My father, who was actually a very likable man, went about it without much regard for how it made the rest of us feel—least of all my mom,” Philip told me. His mother, whose suffering was severe, was nonetheless a practical woman who never forgot that she had five kids to feed. “She never spoke about it, but we all knew she needed us as much as we needed her.”

In order not to upset her any further, Philip tried to be as different from his father as possible. He became what he calls an asexual wunderkind. “I was intensely moralistic and judgmental,” Philip said ruefully. “On the surface I was the nice, safe guy girls went out with because they knew they could trust me not to take advantage of them; but underneath I was all over the place, and I hated myself for it.” As an adolescent, Philip developed a compelling secret taste for pornography. When he became older, and actual sex became an option, he looked for women he could pick up on the fly for brief, inconsequential one-night stands. “Somehow, those rigid morals just fueled my obsession to break the rules.” For Philip, defiance of ordinary decency was the key to his inner system of arousal. Sex, objectification, and transgression became one. Ironically, by segregating his sexuality outside the boundaries of his relationship with Jackie, Phillip hopes to protect her from the dangers of his desire.

Needless to say, Jackie was very disturbed by the loss of intensity in their sex life. Never very confident about her own magnetism, she, too, had been amazed by Philip’s attraction to her. When it dwindled, she assumed he’d simply lost interest, and that this was to be expected. Growing up with a brother who was in and out of psychiatric institutions, she was accustomed to keeping her own needs to a minimum. She had learned not to impose herself and instead to take what she could get.

While Philip seeks affirmation on the outside, Jackie’s self-affirmation rests solely on him and his response to her. She highlights a common way women order their sexuality, in that she makes him, and his desire for her, the centerpiece of her sexual identity. In the early days, when Philip was all over her, she blossomed. There was no issue. She felt open, daring, sexy, and wanted. Today, a good student of her own childhood, she avoids putting herself out there for fear of rejection. When she does get up the courage to make advances, Philip feels pressure to be responsive and to take care of her. “Whenever Jackie comes on to me, I’m paralyzed,” he confides. “Which heightens Jackie’s insecurity,” I add.

Arguably, male desire runs the gamut between two extremes: those who plead for their partner to come on to them, thereby confirming their desirability; and those who balk when their mate initiates, fearful that their passivity isn’t adequately masculine. Forever unsure of their power as Mom’s little ward, the come-on averse walk a fine line between boyhood and manhood. Predictably, Philip takes Jackie’s overtures as needy demands rather than tempting invitations.

Philip feels guilty because he can’t be more erotically involved with his wife. When I ask him for a sexual image that includes her, he conjures up a picture of the two of them kissing romantically in the sunset. He adds that he has difficulty, now, imagining Jackie in a passionate, erotic way. He tells her openly, “I just can’t see you in my mind as a sexual woman, and I feel bad about it, but it’s the truth.” Philip yearns for ardor with Jackie, but he believes that the tug-of-war within himself won’t allow it. He dreads the rough edge of his desire within the bonds of holy matrimony, and is embarrassed by his need for objectified sex. To his thinking, love is no place for these wanton inclinations.


“You Don’t Do That with Your Wife”


Many of my patients are afraid to express their intense sexual excitement with the one they love and respect. Philip is not alone in hiding his lack of desire behind the decency alibi. You may recognize some of these comments: “I can’t imagine him saying what I want to hear. He’d wonder what happened to his wife.” “I don’t even want to think about, let alone talk about, what I was into before we met.” “I can’t do that with my wife.” Domestic eroticism is wrapped in a veil of appropriateness.

When Philip tells me that Jackie would never go for this stuff, I ask him, “And the stuff is what exactly?” I am prepared for a long list of hard-core kink, and I am surprised when he reveals the basic menu of his sexual imagination. “I’m not one for subtleties. I like the blatant stuff. I like toys, lingerie, porn, a lot of graphic talk. Straightforward, honest fucking.”

“All of which you and Jackie enjoyed before the ring?” I ask.

“Yeah.” He shrugs.

“And now Jackie won’t go for it? Or you won’t go for it with her? I don’t get a sense that she’s changed all that much. But I wonder to what extent you feel that this is not stuff you do with your wife. You seem to believe that it’s wrong to objectify someone you love.”

“Are you saying it’s not?” he asks.

“I’m saying it doesn’t have to be. You know, a lot of couples play with objectification as a way to superimpose otherness on a partner who’s become too familiar. It is often dismissed as lacking intimacy, but I think that when both of you are into it, it’s another kind of closeness. You have to trust people a lot to let yourself forget them.”

We segregate lust for psychological as well as cultural reasons. Any experience of love holds within it a dimension of dependence. In fact, dependence is an essential ingredient of connection. But it’s a producer of terrific anxiety, because it implies that the one we love wields power over us. This is the power to love us, but also to abandon us. Fear—of judgment, of rejection, of loss—is embedded in romantic love. Sexual rejection at the hands of the one we love is particularly hurtful. We are therefore less inclined to be erotically adventurous with the person we depend on for so much and whose opinion is paramount. We’d rather edit ourselves, maintaining a tightly negotiated, acceptable, even boring erotic script, than risk injury. It is no surprise that some of us can freely engage in the perils and adventures of sex only when the emotional stakes are lower—when we love less or, more important, when we are less afraid to lose love. Stephen Mitchell writes, “It is not that romance necessarily fades over time, but it does become riskier.”

Jackie has been listening attentively, and is patiently awaiting her turn. “I hear all this talk about edginess,” she begins, “but with me he’s almost giddy, more like a twelve-year-old boy than a man. It’s hard to really unleash my sexuality with an adolescent. Why does he think he has to go out for this? Maybe I should buy a wig and belly up to the bar,” she jokes.

“Not a bad idea,” I answer.


I-Chat with Your Spouse


I point out that the way Philip has compartmentalized his sexuality, with loving sex at home and hot sex reserved for strangers, has banned eroticism from their relationship. Their repertoire is limited. But he isn’t the only one at fault. For her part, Jackie has transferred her sense of sexual self-worth to him, and I recommend that she take it back. He should not have a monopoly on her sexuality. “Jackie, how long has it been since you flirted?” I ask her. “Can you open yourself up to the eyes of other men, so that Philip isn’t the sole source of your sexual validation?” Philip starts to twitch in his chair.

“Just a minute,” he says.

“Don’t worry, I’m not suggesting tit for tat here,” I reassure him. “But your wife is a very attractive woman, and if you can’t see that, why shouldn’t she hear it from someone else?”

Along these same lines, I also suggest that they create new E-mail accounts reserved exclusively for erotic exchanges between them—their thoughts, memories, fantasies, and seductions. I point out that this correspondence is not meant to be about the problems in their relationship, it is meant to be a space for play. I want them to use cyberspace to elicit curiosity, a sense of intrigue, and a kind of wholesome anxiety. Writing has many advantages over talking. You get to say your fill, craft your response, and give voice in writing to things your lips dare not utter. It provides a built-in distance, and I hope this will help dismantle their inhibitions.

By Valentine’s Day Jackie has eased into the art of seduction. She’s playful and daring, not only in her E-mails with Philip, but with other men as well. Several months later she tells me, “Your urging me to get a sense of myself from other men besides Philip has been very good for me.” She started doing things with her male friends, going to concerts and galleries, and she has generally been more flirtatious. “Nothing big, you know, but it’s been fun to be out there again, talking to men who are not my husband, knowing they enjoy my company. And now, Philip’s every word or look isn’t the most important thing in my life.”

Jackie’s new confidence has left Philip slightly unmoored, and that turns out to be a good thing. He is intrigued by the way she writes to him, and is surprised to find that in the graphic lexicon of sex, she can certainly hold her own. All this sexualizes her in his eyes. Freed from the predictability of a script, he takes a second look. The pseudo anonymity of their E-mails has allowed him to see her as a subject with her own desires, turning her into the object of his desire. “I’m saying things to her that I never thought I could. I expected she’d be turned off, but she’s not. She needs a lot less taking care of than I projected onto her,” Philip admits. “I realized I put a lot of stuff on her that doesn’t belong to her. It belongs to me, or at least to my family.”

“I don’t get how your flings were supposed to be taking care of me, though I know in your mind it makes sense,” Jackie tells him. “It’s not OK, but I understand it. Still, I was always surprised at how easily you let yourself be caught. Like you were asking for it, so you could come to Mommy and get punished. I’m not interested in replaying your family drama. I’ll leave you first, and you know it.” To me she says, “Realizing I had the strength to leave helped me make the choice to stay. I have a lot more freedom. When I initiate sex now, I can feel almost brazen, and I like that. ‘You want this, Philip? Take it!’ It doesn’t have to be romantic or even particularly personal. I like a lot of different things. I prefer tender love, but sometimes greedy is good, too.”

I’ve worked with Jackie and Philip on and off for years. Philip has stopped acting out, and over time he has searched for ways to undo the deeply ingrained belief that hot sex can’t happen at home. By finding ways to experience himself as a sexual man who is also a faithful man, he was able to undo family patterns that were at least three generations old. In the past, Philip’s fascination with porn was a haven for him, a fantasy of immediacy where the moment of desire and satisfaction merged. The women on the screen offered no resistance and required no effort on his part. Hence the tension between wanting and getting was nullified, and Philip never had to reconcile desire in the context of love. Gradually, he has allowed the dislocated parts of his sexuality to come home, and has been more able to remain present with his wife.

The ongoing challenge for Jackie and Philip is to continue to bring the erotic home—to experience small transgressions, illicit striving, and passionate idealization in the midst of their intimate lives. The English analyst Adam Phillips underscores this point in his book Monogamy:


If it is the forbidden that is exciting—if desire is fundamentally transgressive—then the monogamous are like the very rich. They have to find their poverty. They have to starve themselves enough. In other words they have to work, if only to keep what is always too available sufficiently illicit to be interesting.


Can You Want What You Have?


Oscar Wilde wrote, “In this world there are only two tragedies. One is getting what one wants, and the other is not getting it.” When our desires are unfulfilled, we are disappointed. It’s frustrating to be denied a raise, a college acceptance, an audition. When the object of our desire is a person, her rejection leaves us feeling lonely, unworthy, unloved, or—worse—unlovable. But fulfilled desire carries its own brand of loss. Getting what we want undermines the thrill of wanting it. The deliciousness of yearning, the elaborate strategies of pursuit, the charged fantasies, in short all the activity and energy that went into wanting give way to the foreclosure of having. Just think about the last thing you had to have until you owned it. Now that it’s yours, you may enjoy it, you may love it, but do you still want it? Do you even remember how much you wanted it in the first place? Gail Godwin wrote, “The act of longing will always be more intense than the requiting of it.”

Is it harder to want what you already have? The law of diminishing returns tells us that increased frequency leads to decreased satisfaction. The more you use a product, the less satisfying each subsequent use will be. Paris just isn’t the same on your fifteenth trip as it was on the first. Fortunately, the logic of this argument breaks down when it is applied to love, for it is based on the erroneous assumption that we can own a person in the same way that we can own an iPod or a new pair of Prada heels. When my friend Jane said, “Perhaps I only want what I can’t have,” I responded, “What makes you think you have your husband?”

The grand illusion of committed love is that we think our partners are ours. In truth, their separateness is unassailable, and their mystery is forever ungraspable. As soon as we can begin to acknowledge this, sustained desire becomes a real possibility. It’s remarkable to me how a sudden threat to the status quo (an affair, an infatuation, a prolonged absence, or even a really good fight) can suddenly ignite desire. There’s nothing like the fear of loss to make those old shoes look new again.

The counterargument to the law of diminishing returns is the principle that consistent investment leads to increased satisfaction. The more you do something, and the better you get at it, the more you’re going to enjoy it. The weekly tennis player who continues to improve his game would argue for the positive effects of frequency. For her, Paris just keeps getting better. The more she practices, the stronger her skills. The stronger her skills, the deeper her confidence. The more confident she feels, the more risks she takes. The more risks she takes, the more exciting the game. Of course, all this practice takes effort and discipline. It is not just a matter of being in the mood; it requires patience and sustained attention. The tennis player knows intuitively that growth is rarely linear; she may experience some plateaus and some slowdowns, but the reward is worth the effort.

Unfortunately, all too often we associate effort with work, and discipline with pain. But there’s a different way to think of work. It can be creative and life-affirming, sparking a heightened sense of vitality rather than a bone-deep exhaustion. If we want sex to be fulfilling, then we have to apply effort in just this artful way.


The Myth of Spontaneity


There is a powerful ideal operating in many people’s view of sex—that it’s an instant fit, a hand-in-pocket, skin-to-skin compatibility that is perfect from the start. Good sex is supposed to be easy, tension-free, and uninhibited. Either you have it or you don’t. This idea is often accompanied by its good neighbor, the myth of spontaneity. The word “spontaneity” comes up like a mantra whenever men and women in my office talk about what constitutes, for them, exciting, thrilling, can’t-wait, truly erotic sex. It is hard to overstate their enthusiastic conviction that really sexy sex is supposed to be spur-of-the-moment.

We like to believe that sex arises from an impulse or inclination that is natural, unprompted, and artless. We talk about being swept away. “I couldn’t resist…I felt such a rush through my veins…It was bigger than both of us…I was completely taken over.” This infatuation with the big bang theory of sex suggests our impatience with seduction and playful eroticism, which take up too much time, require too much effort, and—most important—demand full consciousness of what we are doing. For many of us, premeditated sex is suspicious. It threatens our belief that sex is subject only to the machinations of magic and chemistry. The idea that sex must be spontaneous keeps us one step removed from having to will sex, to own our desire, and to express it with intent. As long as sex is something that just happens, you don’t have to claim it. It’s ironic that in such a willful society, willfully conjuring up sex seems obvious and crass. It embarrasses us, as if we’ve been caught doing something inappropriate.

When my patients wax nostalgic about the early days of rapid ignition sex, I remind them that even in the beginning, spontaneity was a myth. 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? All that planning—that highly detailed, imaginative production—was part of the buildup and part of the denouement.

For this reason, I urge my patients not to be spontaneous about sex. Spontaneity is a fabulous idea, but in an ongoing relationship whatever is going to “just happen” already has. Now they have to make it happen. Committed sex is intentional sex. “I couldn’t resist” has to become “I don’t want to resist.” “We just fell into each other’s arms” has to become “Let me take you in my arms.” “We just click” has to become “Can we click tonight?” 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.

The idea of planning is a hurdle many couples need to cross. They associate planning with scheduling, scheduling with work, and work with obligation. Often, therapy is a process of dismantling these beliefs.


Bringing Intentionality to Sex


Dominick and Raoul complain about their lackluster sex life. In the early days of their romance, when Raoul still lived in Miami, distance precluded routine. Their weekends were much anticipated and never dull. But now, living together, they spend their downtime doing housework and running errands. I can’t help noticing the discrepancy between the attention they devote to these chores and the lack of attention they bring to their sex life—as if sex operates according to a different principle.

“The laundry won’t just do itself, you know,” Dominick says defensively.

“And sex will?” I ask.

Dominick pretends not to understand what I mean by planned sex. “You want me to put it in my BlackBerry? Thursday night, ten o’clock? That seems so pathetic,” he says.

“If you don’t want sex to be another item on your to-do list, don’t treat it like one,” I respond. “I’m not talking about scheduling sex, I’m talking about creating an erotic space, and that takes time. What will occur in that space is open-ended, but the space itself is marked by intentionality. Like that osso buco you made for Raoul last weekend—it didn’t just happen.”

Dominick is a gourmet. On Saturday, he cooked Raoul a classic Italian stew. It started as a thought—that he’d like to do something nice. He played around with various ideas until he settled on the veal. Then he went to Little Italy for the finest meat, to a bakery in the Village for his favorite semolina bread, and to a specialty shop in SoHo for the chocolate cannoli. Finally, he schlepped all the way uptown for the perfect bottle of Montepulciano. The meal took most of the day, but in the end it was an epicurean delight, even an erotic experience. It was all planned for pleasure.

“Yeah, it’s a lot of work,” Dominick admits, “but I enjoy it, so it doesn’t feel like drudgery.”

“How is it that sex has come to feel like work to you? You seem reluctant to bring the same intent to your erotic life that you do to your cooking,” I point out.

“It seems so contrived when it comes to sex,” Dominick says.

Like Dominick and Raoul, quite a few of my patients balk at the idea of deliberateness when it comes to sex. They find these strategies too laborious for the long haul, believing they should no longer be necessary after the initial conquest. “Seducing my partner? Do I still have to do that?” This reluctance is often a covert expression of an infantile wish to be loved just as we are, without any effort whatsoever on our part, because we’re so special. It’s the grandiosity of the baby, and we all carry it inside. “I don’t want to! Why should I? You’re supposed to love me no matter what!” The sex therapist Margaret Nichols observes that though your partner may still love you if you gain fifty pounds and shuffle around the house in bunny slippers and a stained T-shirt, he probably won’t get hard for you (and she won’t get wet).

“Is the titillation of seduction only the privilege of those who date?” I ask Dominick. “Just because you live with someone doesn’t necessarily mean he’s readily available. If anything, he requires more attention, not less. If you want sex to remain humid, this is the kind of attention you have to bring to it. No, not every day, but once in a while can you make a meal of Raoul?”


Planning Creates Anticipation


Anticipation implies that we are looking forward to something. It is an important ingredient of desire, and planning for sex helps to generate it. When Dominick prepares his osso buco, he can almost taste it in advance. He imagines Raoul’s surprise and pleasure. He hopes it will make his boyfriend feel special, and he envisions Raoul’s gratitude. Fantasy is the mortar of anticipation. It’s a way of imagining what something is going to be like. It’s a kind of foreplay that takes place outside the couple’s direct interaction. Anticipation is part of building a plot; that is why romance novels and soap operas are filled with it.

I believe that longing, waiting, and yearning are fundamental elements of desire that can be generated with forethought, even in long-term relationships. When Nile and Sarah go out on Saturday, they often have a few things planned. Dinner, music, and—later—sex. In the past, an entire evening’s worth of wooing was undone the instant Sarah had to pay the babysitter. “All of a sudden, I’d be the mother again, and all that tension we worked to build up would just vanish. Now, Nile deals with the babysitter and I go straight to the bedroom. It’s an arrangement that lets me keep up the momentum.” Sarah and Nile have three kids who keep her running all day, every day. She has made it very clear to Nile that it takes a lot to get her out of that role, and very little for her to slip back in. “I used to think that it was a matter of being in the mood, but I was disabused of that idea a long time ago. Waiting for the mood is like waiting for the Second Coming. I like the planning. It gives me something to look forward to when I’m playing with Barbies and checking homework.”

What Sarah looks forward to is more than the sex; it’s the ritual. Spending ample time together, woman to man, they temporarily slip out of the chains of reality. Their foreplay lasts hours. They’ve been at this for twelve years, and like a mastered discipline, they miss it when they skip it. They know that great sex generally demands more than fifteen minutes right after the eleven o’clock news.


Cultivating Play


When couples complain that their sex life is listless, I know it isn’t mere frequency they’re after. They may want more, but they certainly want better. For this reason, I prefer to talk about their erotic life rather than about their sex life. The physical act of sex is too narrow a subject, which easily degenerates into a conversation about numbers. Human nature abhors a vacuum of intensity. People long for radiance. They want to feel alive. If given half a chance, loving partners can fill the intensity void with transcendence.

Animals have sex; eroticism is exclusively human. It is sexuality transformed by the imagination. In fact, you don’t even need the act of sex to have a full erotic experience, though sex is often hinted at, envisioned. Eroticism is the cultivation of excitement, a purposeful quest for pleasure. Octavio Paz likens eroticism to the poetry of the body, the testimony of the senses. Like a poem, it is not linear; it meanders and twists back on itself. It shows us what we see not with our eyes but with the eyes of our spirit. Eroticism reveals to us another world inside this world. The senses become servants of the imagination, letting us see the invisible and hear the inaudible.

Eroticism, intertwined as it is with imagination, is another form of play. I think of play as an alternative reality midway between the actual and the fictitious, a safe space where we experiment, reinvent ourselves, and take chances. Through play we suspend disbelief—we pretend something is real even when we damn well know it is not. Earnestness has no place here.

Play, by definition, is carefree and unself-conscious. The great theoretician of play, Johan Huizinga, maintained that a fundamental feature of play is that it serves no other purpose. The purposelessness associated with play is hard to reconcile with our culture of high efficiency and constant accountability. More and more, we measure play by its benefits. We play squash for cardiovascular conditioning; we take our kids to dinner to expand their palates; we go on vacation to recharge. Yet if we’re plagued by self-awareness, obsessed with outcomes, or fearful of judgment, our enjoyment is inevitably compromised.

When we are children, play comes to us naturally, but our capacity for play collapses as we age. Sex often remains the last arena of play we can permit ourselves, a bridge to our childhood. Long after the mind has been filled with injunctions to be serious, the body remains a free zone, unencumbered by reason and judgment. In lovemaking, we can recapture the utterly uninhibited movement of the child, who has not yet developed self-consciousness before the judging gaze of others.


Erotic Intelligence


Every so often, I meet couples who get it, who maintain a sense of playfulness with each other, in and out of the bedroom. They are physically and sensually alive—two people whose desire for one another hasn’t been left to languish. Even in our culture of immediate gratification, they’re able to see seduction as an end in itself. Johanna continues to bewitch her boyfriend of ten years by setting up rendezvous in motels in a nearby suburb. Darnell and his lover pretend not to know each other when they go to a party. Eric describes making love to his wife in the alley of their apartment building when they come home late at night, a furtive pleasure they indulge in before checking on the kids. Every year, Ivan and Rachel go away for a long weekend of consensual adultery with other swingers. “Instead of having secrets from each other, we have secrets from the world.” Jessica has rescued her husband from many lonesome stretches on the road by teasing him on the CB radio. Every morning, Leo tells his wife how lucky he is to be married to her, and he still means it after more than fifty years.

For all these couples, playfulness is central to their relationship, and eroticism extends beyond the sexual act. Their lovemaking can be ceremonious or sudden, soulful or utilitarian, vanilla or transgressive, warm or hot. The point is that sex is pleasurable and inviting, not dutiful. They revere the erotic, yet they delight in its irreverence. They like sex, they especially like it with each other, and they take the time to nurture an erotic space.

Like all couples, they go through periods when desire is dormant—when they are estranged from each other, or simply immersed in their own projects and in their own lives—but they don’t panic, terrified that something is fundamentally wrong with them. They know that erotic intensity waxes and wanes, that desire suffers periodic eclipses and intermittent disappearances. But given sufficient attention, they can bring the frisson back.

For them, love is a vessel that contains both security and adventure, and commitment offers one of the great luxuries of life: time. Marriage is not the end of their romance, it’s the beginning. They know that they have years in which to deepen their connection, to experiment, to regress, and even to fail. They see their relationship as something alive and ongoing, not a fait accompli. It’s a story that they are writing together, one with many chapters, and neither partner knows how it will end. There’s always a place they haven’t gone yet, always something about the other still to be discovered.


Modern relationships are cauldrons of contradictory longings: safety and excitement, grounding and transcendence, the comfort of love and the heat of passion. We want it all, and we want it with one person. Reconciling the domestic and the erotic is a delicate balancing act that we achieve intermittently at best. It requires knowing your partner while recognizing his persistent mystery; creating security while remaining open to the unknown; cultivating intimacy that respects privacy. Separateness and togetherness alternate, or proceed in counterpoint. Desire resists confinement, and commitment mustn’t swallow freedom whole.

At the same time, eroticism in the home requires active engagement and willful intent. It is an ongoing resistance to the message that marriage is serious, more work than play; and that passion is for teenagers and the immature. We must unpack our ambivalence about pleasure, and challenge our pervasive discomfort with sexuality, particularly in the context of family. Complaining of sexual boredom is easy and conventional. Nurturing eroticism in the home is an act of open defiance.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.


not work with dark mode