3 Things I Learned About Sex from Esther Perel

Come as you are.

By Camille Styles
Farm dinner in Santa Ynez with Jenni Kayne

I’ll never forget the first time I heard an interview with sex and relationship therapist Esther Perel – her frank approach to frequently taboo topics like sex, desire, and intimacy is all about openness and exploration – with shame completely removed from the discussion. Esther manages to always say just the thing to shift my perspective, and as a result her books, interviews, and her own addictive podcast have become my favorite sources for all things intimacy-related.

So you can imagine my total fangirl delight when I heard that I’d be having dinner with Esther Perel at last week’s retreat hosted by my friend Jenni Kayne and team. Honestly, I didn’t fully believe it until our dusky sunset happy hour. We were gathered around a campfire and I heard that unmistakeable Belgian accent – and the next thing I knew, I was at a table for 10 sitting shoulder-to-shoulder and actually sharing a cozy blanket with none other than E.P. herself.

Farm dinner in Santa Ynez with Jenni Kayne

It was a casual, intimate conversation unintended for publication, but let’s be real: you don’t have dinner with the world’s greatest living sex therapist and not take a few notes. Since I haven’t been able to stop talking about this incredible evening to my friends back home (“You guys, I HAVE TO TELL YOU what Esther Perel told me about desire…”) I figured I better share it with you guys, too. Read on for 3 things I learned about sex from Esther Perel. Side note – while we talked around the table, I delightedly observed how she devoured her entire serving of handmade pasta with total gusto, even going back for seconds – the woman knows a thing or two about pleasure. 😉

Cheese and charcuterie board

The difference between wanting and needing is the difference between sex and care taking.

When these words came out of Esther’s mouth towards the beginning of dinner, I swear every girl whipped out her phone so she could make a note-to-self to remember. I think this point is best summed up with a quote from her book, Mating in Captivity.

“It is too easily assumed that problems with sex are the result of a lack of closeness. But … perhaps the way we construct closeness reduces the sense of freedom and autonomy needed for sexual pleasure. When intimacy collapses into fusion, it is not a lack of closeness but too much closeness that impedes desire.

Love rests on two pillars: surrender and autonomy. Our need for togetherness exists alongside our need for separateness. One does not exist without the other. With too much distance, there can be no connection. But too much merging eradicates the separateness of two distinct individuals. Then there is nothing more to transcend, no bridge to walk on, no one to visit on the other side, no other internal world to enter. When people become fused — when two become one — connection can no longer happen. There is no one to connect with. Thus separateness is a precondition for connection: this is the essential paradox of intimacy and sex.”

Farm dinner in Santa Ynez with Jenni Kayne

Simply being open to sex can awaken desire that you didn’t know was there.

A lot of women (myself included) have days when they don’t feel a major desire for sex – we’re tired, we’ve had a really busy day, and there’s a lot of other stuff on our minds. But according to Esther, desire is usually responsive in nature rather than spontaneous. This means that if sex is on the table but you’re not feeling it, you can choose to stay in the moment, be open to the experience, and suddenly you may feel the energy shift and your desire for sex actually awakens. She likened it to working out. Think about all the times you get up in the morning and don’t feel like working out, but you choose to lace up your sneakers anyway. By the time you start moving your body, you get into a flow that feels good… and let’s face it, you never regret working out after the fact because of the good energy it brings everyone involved.

Farm dinner in Santa Ynez with Jenni Kayne

People are most drawn to their partners when there is a distinct separation between them.

Esther posed the question to the table: “Can you want what you already have?”

It was an interesting question because, at first I thought – yes, definitely. I want my husband, I want my family and my friends. But then she elaborated on the difference between truly “having” someone, and I realized that when I desire my husband most is when I’m reminded that he’s another – we’re not one and the same, and he doesn’t belong to me. She shared that in her hundreds of interviews with couples, there are three scenarios that come up over and over describing when people are most drawn to their partners:

1. When I see my partner through the eyes of another.

I actually heard Esther share this in an interview about a year ago, and it was game-changing for me. The sheer act of intentionally viewing my husband through the eyes of someone else made me see him in a whole new light and those feelings I had when I first met him came flooding back in a fresh way. Sometimes when we’re at a party, I view him talking to friends across a room, totally unaware that I’m watching him, and – it’s sexy. It’s amazing that simply choosing a mindset shift can be such an aphrodisiac.

2. When I see them in their element.

Think about those times when your partner is in their “flow” state, whether it’s killing it in a meeting at work or playing a sport or musical instrument that they love. It’s a reminder that they’re separate from you and they have passions that are separate from you – and it’s a total desire awakener.

3. When we’re apart.

Adam and I are actually one of those couples that likes to be together all the time, but I will admit that when one of us has to go on a business trip, even for a day or two, there’s something exciting about being reunited. That time spent apart can make it easier to overlook the little annoyances and remind you of all the reasons you love and appreciate your partner. Plus, reunion sex.