My Morning with Esther Perel: The Therapist, The Myth, The Legend
One of the biggest names in the psychotherapy world right now is Esther Perel. A Belgian couples and sex therapist with a multicultural background, modern style, and a private practice in New York City, Esther Perel is a two-time New York Times bestselling author and the host of the Audible original series “Where Should We Begin?” a podcast which takes listeners on a journey into her real-life couples therapy sessions… something that has never been done in the (very private) field of psychotherapy before.
However, she is perhaps most well-known for her two TEDx talks which garnered over 18 million views since their release in 2013 and 2015. If you haven’t seen these talks online, I highly recommend them. Whether you are single or coupled or somewhere in between, her ideas about love and lust are refreshing. In fact, it is one of the first things I recommend to my couples to watch when they are embarking on the journey of infidelity recovery (“Rethinking Infidelity: A Talk for Anyone who has ever loved”) or those struggling to renew passion and desire in their relationship by not sure where to start (“The Secret to Desire in Long-term Relationships”). See the links below to watch her TED talks.
Esther Perel is an internet celebrity, an inspirational voice for couples, and a darling in the sex therapy world, as her ideas about what makes for passionate AND sustaining relationships are innovative and exciting. When she speaks, you lean in to listen.
I had the privilege of attending seven talks with Esther Perel at the 2017 Evolution of Psychotherapy Conference and to meet her twice in Anaheim, California. She spoke about everything from gender roles, to sex and infidelity, to the changing landscape of therapy and multicultural counseling. Not only is she brilliant and a captivating speaker—did I mention some of these talks were 3.5 hours long and clinicians were still standing in line to talk to her afterwards—but she has a quick tongue and dark sense of humor. She articulates controversial, sometimes taboo ideas with images and analogies that any layperson can relate to and she gets people talking about sex and relationships. If you haven’t noticed yet… I’m a pretty big fan of hers 🙂
That’s why you can imagine how disappointed I was when I was seated 10 rows back for the stage for the much-anticipated talk on “Sex and Intimacy in Couples.” It was 8am on a Friday morning and I was 15 minutes early, but somehow the auditorium was almost completely packed. Cheers erupted when she arrived on stage and the crowd grew quiet as she began to speak.
Unlike 99% of the other speakers at the conference, Esther didn’t stand still. She started walking across the stage, she requested better lighting so she could see the crowd’s faces. At one point, she asked someone in the audience for a piece of paper then proceeded to come down into the crowd to retrieve it from them. What happened next was even more surprising. She crumbled up the paper into a ball shape and she threw it at someone. An unsuspecting therapist in the audience. Thankfully they caught it and the first exercise began.
“What is important to know about you sexually?” she asked. A few audience members laughed. The receiver of the paper ball blinked and looked around nervously. “What should I know about you sexually?” she prompted, maintaining her gaze. “It’s not a trick question.”
“I like it?”
“Interesting answer,” she replied. She retrieved the paper ball, took a few more steps, then tossed it in the opposite direction toward a woman in her mid-50s. This recipient was a little more prepared.
“Do you think your most intense sexual experience has already happened or is yet to come?” she queried.
“Yet to come,” the therapist giggled then tossed the ball back to her.
“Which sense do you or your partner make love with the most?”
“My sense of sight.”
“Visual guy,” she responded while smiling.
“What do you like to do when nobody is watching?”
Esther continued walking the aisles, searching the audience of clinicians for her next victim. It was like a sexy, stress-induced game of Hot Potato and for the first time, therapists were the ones in the hot seat. She was about 4 aisles away from me at this time and just like any other talk she had done earlier that week, I couldn’t look away.
“Which is easiest for you in your sexual relationship? Giving or receiving and what do you desire the most?”
“Giving. I like to give,” announced the older therapist, who was obviously wanting to give that subject and that paper ball right back.
Esther had managed to walk even further into the audience. I blinked and she was standing in front of me. The ball launched through the air in my direction and I felt my heart race. The woman on my right, a psychologist specializing in pediatric mental health, received it. I had spoken to this woman earlier and she admitted that she was less familiar with Esther Perel but had interest in hearing her speak. As quickly as the ball landed in her hand, she passed it to me.
Within a second, all eyes were on me. “She passed it to me.” I stuttered, “Do you still want me to take it?”
The audience laughed.
“I guess it is for you then.”
I gulped. While I have admired Esther’s work for the past 4 years, I wasn’t planning to divulge my sexual preferences to her in front of a crowd of hundreds, maybe thousands of therapists, on a Friday morning. I hadn’t even had my cup of coffee yet.
I will tell you the question that I got: “What do you wish you could change most during sex?”
And the answer that I gave: “Getting out of my own head.”
But I won’t tell you the following SEVEN questions that were directed at me by Esther afterwards—a topic which apparently sparked her interest and kept her throwing that paper ball back into my hands over and over—or the fact that at the end, she handed me the microphone and I was asked to give my name and where I was from, and I ended up with a photo with her to commemorate the experience. Despite the subject matter, she was very polite during the impromptu Q&A and when it was all said and done she jokingly asked me “Was that good for you?”
Minutes after my moment of celebrity, two European women from the audience were selected to come up on stage and provide an analysis of a couple engaging in the next exercise: a body language communication activity with the only rule being “Stand twenty feet away and try to entice your partner to come to you… without saying a word.” The couple was from Egypt and they were visibly charming. Esther proceeded as usual, instructing the girlfriend “You don’t need to make yourself look cutesy for him. Just send him a message. Do what you would normally do.”
And when it was that girlfriend’s turn to process her feelings from the experience, Esther asked: “Did you feel self-conscious? Guilty? Like a caretaker? Did you feel obligated to come to him? What was that like for you and how is it similar to your sexual relationship? What was that like for you to watch him come to you and did you worry that he wouldn’t?” As they processed the experience, an entire commentary on the couple’s intimacy and romantic dynamic was revealed. Therapists’ pens in the audience scribbled frantically, trying to capture what they had just witnessed.
To say Esther Perel’s style and techniques for talking about sex and relationships are innovative would be an understatement. Of the 25 lectures I saw that week, her talks are the ones that stand out most vividly in my mind. Not surprisingly, the other therapists I met expressed the same sentiment. She is a visionary and her desire for daring and playfulness, in the bedroom or in the therapy office, is infectious. If you have opportunity to read her books or hear her speak, I recommend you do so and if she tosses that paper ball at you… you better think fast.
Questions About Sex from Esther Perel:
- When you talk about sex with your partner, are you more or less comfortable than the dentist?
- What is important to know about you sexually?
- Do you think your most intense sexual experience has already happened or is yet to come?
- How would you describe your sex life in two words.
- Pick two objects in the room that represent… a) what it is like to experience sex with your partner b) your sexual history c) your desire/longing
- With which sense do you or your partner make love with the most? How?
- What do you wish you could change during sex?
- Love is a verb. Consider the following list of verbs:
- To ask
- To want
- To receive
- To give
- To take
- To share
- To imagine
- To refuse
- To play
- Which of these verbs are the easiest for you in your sexual relationship?
- Which of these verbs are the hardest for you in your sexual relationship?
- Which are these verbs do you desire the most?
- Are you comfortable __(to ask)___?
- What is it like __(to share)___ ?
- Do you enjoy __(to receive)___?
- Do you know what you want ___(to play)__?
- Do you ever wish to __(to take)___?
For more information about sex therapy or how to improve your communication about sex with your partner, click here.
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