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Erotic Desire: Everybody Wants a Sex Bomb

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Erotic Desire: Everybody Wants a Sex Bomb

Safe and sexy don’t see eye to eye

[quote]We want a lady in the street,
But a freak in the bed.[/quote]

In this haunting verse, the contemporary American poet Ludacris alludes to a basic dilemma that besets many intimate relationships: the demands of erotic ecstasy are often at odds with the dictates of social propriety.

Erotic desire threatens society because it does not obey acceptable social rules and values. On the contrary, the themes that animate our erotic imagination often stand in stark contrast to publicly accepted notions of what is appropriate behavior.  You don’t even have to read through all fifty shades of grey to realize that our erotic imagination includes subversive elements that tend to rebel against what is expected, permissible, and acceptable.

While our social existence depends on our ability to practice restraint, delay gratification, and maintain a broad perspective (think about the future, the kids, etc), erotic experience is preoccupied with the here and now–with what is sensual, not what is sensible. Features that make for a good and pleasant social existence (equality, order, security, fairness) are a recipe for erotic desolation. If we imagine a car on the freeway that suddenly decides to follow its own laws we understand why erotic experience is a threat to the social order.

Profound erotic experience and exploration can also be a threat to the stability of our intimate relationships. A lot of us seek a companion for life whom we know well; a stable, equitable, loyal and respectful partner. Our partner’s role is to help us successfully cope with reality. But in the erotic experience we seek to transcend reality, to buzz at higher voltage. Knowledge of the other, so helpful in coping with everyday life problems, undercuts the erotic experience that depends on mystery, temptation, revelation, and adventure. Thus, partners who are stable, known, and predictable are less likely to generate a sense of surprise, mystery, and danger so crucial for a fully felt erotic experience. Without an element of risk—without access to the dangerous primal forces at the core of our being—it is difficult to experience a thrilling erotic encounter. On the other hand, a dangerous daily life is not exciting but restrictive, repressive, and potentially debilitating. Tension is an unpleasant state in the context of social and marital life. Tension is essential and exciting in the realm of the erotic. Hence the dilemma.

Even as individuals we find it difficult to live in peace with the duality revealed in our erotic yearnings. As humans, we want to be treated with respect, equality, fairness, empathy, and kindness. But the erotic encounter is often charged with other currents. We routinely get an erotic buzz from ‘incorrect’ things—power struggles, manipulation, ambiguity. Sometimes we crave erotically those very things that are shunned by our light-of-day self: pain, submission, bullying, or loss of control. Our erotic tastes are often surprising even to ourselves. Hence the anxiety: Is this me? What does this say about me?

The psychotherapist and writer Esther Perel, who’s been writing on this topic for years, argues that the problem becomes even more acute in the feminist context. The feminist movement’s struggle for genderequality has led to positive and far-reaching changes in the social status of women. Equality in the social realm is a worthy moral and social principle. But the principle of equality is a recipe for erotic boredom, because it imposes limits and dilutes authentic personal expression. Without elements of abandon, aggression, submission, dominance, conflict and risk it is difficult for many of us—women and men—to experience full erotic excitement.

American feminism has famously claimed that ‘the personal is political.’ What happens behind closed doors reflects the political reality. In an important sense, this statement is true. If the slave feels anger, the problem often lies not in him or her but in the unjust social system that enables and affirms the existence of the institution of slavery. But the private and general realms are not synonymous. Beyond a certain point the parallels between the private and the general cease to make sense. A woman who allows her lover to tie her to the bedpost does not surrender in doing so her feminist principles or the right to be treated socially as a full, free, and equal adult. Conversely, a woman who does not allow herself to express an erotic fantasy involving the theme of, say, surrender because that theme is inconsistent with her feminist principles of socio-political equality, sacrifices her erotic freedom—the very erotic freedom that is, ironically, one of the bright flags of the feminist struggle.

Similar dynamics can be identified in the realm of relationship. Many people believe that the erotic encounter is a reflection of their overall relationship with their partner. In this view, relationship problems translate to problems in the erotic realm. And there is some truth to this insight. Our relationship dynamics often radiate onto our erotic encounters. But intimacy and erotic desire are not one and the same. The erotic encounter, argues Perel, is not merely a metaphor for the relationship. In a sense it is a parallel universe with its own rules. Couples who experience difficulties in their relationships can work on communication, on finding ‘we’ time, on coordinating the mutual responsibilities of parenting, on thoughtful communication, and they can improve on all these fronts, and thus improve their relationship. But their erotic encounter will not necessarily improve. Erotic desire has its own laws. According to Perel, closeness and knowledge are constitutive motifs of love and relationships. But the themes of distance and power are constitutive of erotic arousal.

One of the difficulties here is that the tools we use for everyday problem solving are not suitable for tackling the issue of erotic desire. When we think about problems in our lives in other areas—a problem with the boss, with the car, with the knee—we tend to proceed immediately to our Toolbox of Troubleshooting: thinking strategically, studying the parameters of the problem, consulting experts, moving systematically and seeking a broad perspective, engaging in attentive discourse. But with erotic desire, all these measures not only fail to help, they might actually hurt.

Magazines and books are full of tricks and suggestions as to what we should do to increase erotic charge. But this is essentially a pragmatic answer to an existential question, a material approach to a spiritual issue. Because what we seek in the erotic experience is not a trick, or technique, or a healthy norm. We seek the opposite; the mysterious, unknown, elusive and sublime. Eroticism is not a search for answers, but for questions. We are not trying to control the flow, but to get swept away in it. Any attempt to cure the lack of erotic excitement with statistics, techniques, communications, and scholarship is like attempting to find the darkness with a flashlight.

At the end of the day, erotic experience does not live in the territory of reason, does not constitute linear movement or logical argument. Erotic desire is poetry, not didactics. Those who attempt to subordinate the laws of the erotic self to those of the social self, political self, parental self, or professional self, are doomed to failure. The erotic must be met at its own place, on its own terms. The erotic zone is a creative territory in which fantasy is a central actor. Creativity and fantasy need maximum freedom of expression and movement. We recognize that an artist whose work reflects the government’s policy is a conscripted artist. And conscripted art is tedious. But we also recognize that our everyday social existence demands obedience and collective mobilization.

The problem seems insoluble. And perhaps it is. Some paradoxes must be carried through life unresolved.
But Esther Perel offers a possible way out. In her opinion, the sense of deep and absolute knowledge we have of our partner is actually an illusion. We do not really know our intimate partners completely. The human soul is ocean deep. What usually happens to us is not that we get to the bottom of the ocean, but that we run out of breath. The risks of exploration become too high. We convince ourselves that the boundaries of the known territory are the limits of the existing world. Over time we lose our natural curiosity. Those who stop asking after a while lose interest.

Maybe erotic desire can flourish in our world only if we admit a truly frightening and painful truth: that we do not know our partner that well. In doing so we may be forced to give up on a measure of our comfortable illusion of security, but at the same time we’ll be performing an act of deep love–respecting the freedom and full humanity of the other—and creating, in addition, a space for erotic desire. As was eloquently expressed by the late, great Israeli poet Yehuda Amichai:

And now they say of me: “You can count on him.”
It has come to that! How far have I fallen!
Only those who truly love me,
Know that you can’t.

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Noam Shpancer was born and raised on an Israeli kibbutz. Currently he is a professor of psychology at Otterbein University and a practicing clinical psychologist specializing in the treatment of anxiety disorders. He is also a blogger at psychologytoday.com/blog/insight-therapy and an op-ed columnist for the Jewish bimonthly The New Standard. He lives in Columbus, Ohio.

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