An Intimate Chat with Sex Expert Esther Perel
NPH sits down and bares all with the world-renowned psychotherapist
Esther Perel hardly needs an introduction. But for the roughly 8 readers who don’t yet know who she is, here’s a brief one: Esther is a New York Times bestselling author of books like The State of Affairs: Rethinking Infidelity and Mating in Captivity: Unlocking Erotic Intelligence. Her TED Talks on sex and relationships have been viewed 40 million times. She’s the host of the award-winning Where Should We Begin? podcast (also the name of her super-fun new card game, which we play in this conversation). She’s got a monthly newsletter. She’s also fluent in 9 languages! Helloooo? Smarty-pants alert! It was an honor and joy to chat with her a couple of weeks ago. Below is an edited version of our 45-minute conversation; I hope you enjoy it as much as I did. (Yep, that’s right, it was good for me.)
Neil Patrick Harris: Hello, Esther. It’s a huge pleasure.
Esther Perel: Same here. I’ve been telling people around me that I’m gonna be speaking with you and everybody was like, “Wow!” [laughs]
NPH: Really? Why? Do they worry about my relationships? [laughs]
EP: Well, first of all, I, and they, admire your work. And then I said, “I don’t know so much about him. I did see Hedwig, in its first incarnation way back when, but I don’t really know him.”
NPH: That’s fantastic. The feeling is mutual. My husband David has been a fan of yours for a long time. So this is fantastic.
EP: You wanna bring him on the call? [laughs]
NPH: No, he’s not here. [laughs] Esther, you are the Yoda of relationships. I’ve been deep-diving into your TED Talks, and I think what you have to say is remarkable. And now, your world is expanding.
EP: So, for the first 35 years of my career, I was primarily a clinician in my office. I taught at NYU for many years. I supervised other therapists, and I did lectures across the world, but primarily for professional audiences. After the TED Talks is when I decided that I wanted to leave the confines of the 4 walls of the office. And through those talks and others, I opened up those walls. Then, through my podcast, I brought people into the office. You’re a fly on the wall, listening in on sessions. I still do 2 days of clinical work a week — I think it’s very important to keep my feet on the ground. I do one session for the podcast a week or every 2 weeks. I also work on my card game, I lecture and I just did my first multi-city tour in New Zealand and Australia.
NPH: That’s amazing. And your timing is spectacular, given that for 2 years, everyone was striving for actual relationships — and only getting to do so through a screen.
EP: I talk about how distance and mystery are important for desire, and here we’ve been [during the pandemic] on top of each other 24/7. But there is also the virtualization and the digitalization of our relationships — it’s not just Zoom. It’s the phone, first and foremost.
NPH: Apparently in gay bars now, no one even talks to each other. They just go to the bar because that’s where they’re supposed to meet and —
EP: They are on Grindr next to each other. And it’s just like, lift your head! [laughs]
NPH: Okay. We’re talking about sex — this is the Wondercade Sex Issue, after all! And since it’s a newsletter, we should forego any sort of heavy petting or unnecessary necking.
EP: Okay! Let’s talk about sex.
NPH: So, how do we have better sex? And I’m gonna also say, given that, at least for guys — at least for me — porn is such a different experience. Watching other people have sex, which is a turn-on, used to be, like, going to a section in a video rental store. Then it became DVDs that you would buy at great expense, and hide away in a locked place and watch surreptitiously. And now porn is everywhere and free! So, in a world where guys are able to, at any time without logging into anything, really just scroll through clips of whatever they want, whatever their fetish is — how do you have better sex? Are we just now numbed to too much visceral quick videos of stuff to affect a proper relationship, romantically?
EP: Tell me if I’m mistaken, but I sense that in your question, there is an answer. There’s a part of you that says, “Yes, we are too numbed.” If you can have it ready-made, easily accessible with low stakes, no risks, always available, it feels like, “Why should I make such an effort with the person next to me?”
But in order to want sex, it needs to be sex that is worth wanting. Somebody says, “I want this — I want this between us. I don’t want all my sex to come from porn. I want to make sure that we have our own thing.” Now, that may mean sometimes that I invite you to watch it with me. Or that we bring in other people, for that matter. But the first thing about having better sex with your partner is the decision to actually invest in it — to not just think that it’s going to happen out of nowhere. But, with porn, you’re instantly projected into a whole [other] world. So how do you leave the domestic — the everyday — and turn it into an erotic space with a partner? Can you do it in your own bedroom, or is the bedroom the place where you discuss all the plans for the next day?
If it’s not a very sexy place, then find a countertop or whatever. Go in the shower. Leave the places that have been totally desexualized. Flirt with each other in advance. And if you have sex with a partner, you should be able to sexualize them: that you talk to them like you talk to people that you desire, that you’re attracted to, that make you horny. If you only see your co-parent or your domestic partner or your housemate, then it isn’t interesting. So, a lot of it is sexting and flirting, and remembering who we are when we’re not in these other more domestic roles for that matter. All of that is communication.
NPH: I think sometimes in relationships communication is hard by design. Either in a new relationship, where you’re scared to reveal yourself, or in an extended relationship, where you feel that you know everything about the other person, and you think they feel the same about you.
EP: Yeah. Do you know your desires? Can you express them? And most importantly, in a relationship, what happens when they’re not met? How do you explain to someone, “I would like something else,” without people taking it as, “You’re giving me instructions, you’re criticizing me, it’s never good enough for you”?
NPH: How do you do that? What would be a quick tip?
EP: You can say something like, “Listen, I know how much you enjoy pleasing me. I know how much you like it when I’m into something. Would you want me to tell you a little secret to [turn me on]?” It’s that notion of “I assume you want something good, and let me tell you how that good could actually be even better!” That’s one way to communicate it. Often people communicate from frustration: “I’ve told you 10 times and you’re still touching me there.” [laughs]
NPH: Let’s pivot to your new-ish storytelling card game, Where Should We Begin. It’s part adult party game, part therapy session. I love games, by the way — I’ve created my own board game. In yours, the cards serve as conversational prompts, so I picked a couple of them, and I’m gonna ask you one. And you can ask me one, too. Okay?
EP: All right, let’s go! Let’s be very clear: it’s a storytelling game for friends, couples, first dates, work teams, you name it, because stories connect us. Stories bind us, and relationships are stories.
NPH: All right. First card: “The most scandalous photo that could leak of me…”? Do I…am I…do I give it to you?
EP: We can do each of us. We can each do one. What would you say?
NPH: For me? Oh my gosh. [pauses]
EP: Should I give you mine?
NPH: David and I had the unique experience of riding on the Orient Express, which was very fancy. And as we were living our James Bond experience, we were in our cabin, and I recorded us having amazing sex. There were more than a couple photos — deleted now. I will let you know that that would’ve been fairly scandalous.
EP: [laughs] So, I went in a totally different direction. I’m very distracted, I lose a lot of things — my keys, my wallet, my phone. And one time I lost my shit. I was so upset, and I was screaming. And then…click. Somebody took a picture of me. And I was like, “Oh, no, no, no, no!” I think the scandalous pictures that could leak would be any picture that shows me upset at myself — nobody would know the context of why I’m actually having this fit. And I could imagine a caption that has nothing to do with the truth, and becomes a complete scandal. [laughs]
NPH: All right. Ask me another question?
EP: “A rule I secretly love to break is….” Or “a risk I took that changed my life.” I’m gonna let you pick. Actually, I’ll give you five questions. “A phone number I need to delete….” “I wish someone had told me ____ about sex….” “A text message I fantasize receiving….” “A grudge I’ve been holding onto….”
NPH: I was taught that sex was something that was supposed to be very private. That it was meant to be behind closed doors, in an environment that, to me, was interpreted as something that was —
EP: Hidden. Dark.
NPH: Hidden, yes, and therefore shameful in a certain way. And it’s taken me a lifetime to appreciate that everyone has their kinks, and everyone deserves to have their fetishes. And that while it may not be what turns you on, the fact that it turns someone else on…I just feel like life is too short to pass judgment on those people. You might as well shrug and say, “Well, good for them; they found something that they like.” And to sort of stand proud and tall in what you’re turned on by.
EP: I think sometimes playing with these cards, and remembering once-said things, and telling stories that you never knew about the person that you have been living with for God knows how long, or even someone you just recently met — it all just really adds juice. Stories are juicy, and you never know what story is gonna come next, and you say, “I thought I knew the person I’m with.”
NPH: I do think that sexual relationships can become rote and need to sort of be redefined, as you are with the same person over and over and over. It feels like you are either anticipating what they’re going to do, or think that they will be anticipating what you are going to do.
EP: Yes, sex that is a foregone conclusion — if it’s always the same — is not interesting. I mean, on occasion it’s enjoyable, but it’s not something you’re necessarily looking forward to, that breeds anticipation. So then the thing is, how is the relationship set up? And this is true when you’ve just met a person, or when you’ve been with a person for decades: How do you bring in something new, without being afraid that you’re gonna be judged, that you’re gonna be rejected, that you’re gonna be ridiculed? You [should] really just say there’s an understanding, the same way when one says, “I’m gonna cook a whole new dish that’s not usually what we eat, [because] I wanna try something else.” And without having a whole conversation about it. You just introduce it.
A good relationship is a relationship where that communication is inclusive. Where there is enough trust and enough safety to take risks and to introduce creativity and mischief and everything else. And you need that dance. Just being safe doesn’t make anything more exciting — but just enough safety, so that you can bring in some excitement and novelty. It could be fetish ideas, new people, new places, whatever it is that people wanna do, without thinking, “My relationship is at stake.” The fascinating thing is, the more people know each other, the more scared they become. They’re often much more bold and daring in the beginning — when they just met or are in a hookup, which doesn’t have consequences. Then, with the person that they supposedly trust the most, and that has accepted them the most…[there’s fear]. And that’s a real interesting paradox.
NPH: The spark and the mischief is hot.
EP: Sex doesn’t start at the moment that the act starts. Sexuality is an energy, an aura that exists in a relationship. It’s the way people look at each other, complement each other, touch each other in passing as they go to the kitchen. That is all part of a sexual energy.
NPH: Well, thank you for this. I am now deeply aroused and want to encourage everyone to buy, listen, play the games and I’m apologizing in advance for the sticky cards. Would you be willing to come and see a Broadway show with me sometime?
NPH: That would be an honor.
EP: I would love that.
BONUS: Watch Esther’s brilliant talk from SXSW!
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