Despite romance infusing the February air, vis-à-vis Valentine’s Day, desire seems to be flatlining. Part of the problem is that culturally, our ideas of romance fetishize an ideal of constant, conjoined sweet companionship. The rub? All that codependent harmony can actually squash desire.
Esther Perel, a Belgian-born psychotherapist, renowned relationship expert and author, explains how being overly familiar with each other can be the death knell for the erotic. Whereas intimacy tends to be based on the familiar, desire is fueled by the unknown, says Perel.
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So how do we continue to cultivate the unknown, both in ourselves and in our partner? You must continually be curious about what you want and what you want to want, says Perel. Perel points out how desire as inextricably linked to self-worth.
She describes it as: “For me, desire is to own the wanting. To desire something is to say, ‘I want.’ For that, there needs to be an ‘I’ that has the right to want, is entitled to want, is deserving to want, has the self-worth to give permission for ‘I want.’ Plus, the knowledge of what you want. Desire is really a fundamental expression of freedom and sovereignty—as in identity.”
To have robust, enlivening desire, there needs to be agency—the freedom to choose. And there needs to a self that feels worthy enough to claim what it wants. To cultivate a deeper connection with your partner, a serious conversation with yourself about what you want is in order. (Even if you don’t have a partner, the erotic can be new experiences of yourself in the world and the courage to take risks. It is what Rachel Botsman, a leading expert and author on trust in the modern world, calls a “confident relationship with the unknown.”)
If there is a partner in the picture, erotism serves as the bridge between a relationship to yourself and a relationship to another; Perel actually calls it "a place you go inside yourself with another."
Here are three of Perel’s favorite ways to awaken your erotic intelligence.
1. Expand your definition of sex
What if the most overlooked erogenous zone was your own mind? Perel refers to the mind as the “most overlooked erotic organ.” The mind is the location of our longing, our dreams and the way we make sense of our experiences. Erotic intelligence focuses not on sex per se but the meaning of sex.
Perel explains the difference between sex and eroticism with her signature razor sharp clarity when she says: “If sex is a collection of urges and acts, the erotic is a receptacle for our hopes, fears, expectations and struggles.” Through the lens of the erotic, sex can become a necessarily transgressive and transcendent experience. Without it, it becomes mechanical and unsatisfactory.
No one can light our erotic fire—it’s something we ignite through our own creativity. Our imagination fuels fantasies, boundaries, new realities. This is the novelty we seek, not the novelty of new positions. The real novelty we long for is of new emotional, primal and spiritual stances we can embody. When you harness the erotic, you allow yourself to touch and be touched by the naked body and the naked soul.
Try: Pretend you get the chance to direct your ultimate erotic sex scene. What would it be like? Be specific and excessively granular. The erotic lives in the details.
The erotic also must contain an element of play, which requires safety in order to be able to let go into fun, silliness and enjoyment for its own sake. Play is what makes us feel most alive, this is where sex and play overlap. And play can be synonymous with pleasure, which can be a radical concept for some of us.
Emily Nagoski, a sex educator, researcher and author of the ground-breaking “Come As You Are” says, “We talk so much in our culture about how much we want sex or not, how much we have sex or not. We don't talk enough about how much we like sex. How much we enjoy sex or not. When you put the pleasure piece back in the formula, it makes a whole lot more sense.”
3. Create evocative conversations
Take a deep dive into your fertile imagination to reacquaint yourself with your ever-changing interior erotic landscape. Perel says “I always tell people in my office that I’ve never seen a couple want more sex by discussing why they don’t want it. So I aim to create evocative conversations that help couples reconnect with their sexual selves and erotic energy.”
Try: Take some risks by having conversations that can open a new way to connect and take you into the unknown. Ask yourself how you turn yourself off, which has to do with shutting down, and how you turn yourself on, which is all about permission to feel good and become more alive.