Paul Holdengräber, resplendent in a cream-colored suit beneath the spotlights at the South Court Auditorium of the New York Public Library, was caught last Saturday afternoon between an attractive female therapist on his left and an attractive female scourge of therapeutic culture on his right. He did not seem to regret his predicament.
“I have the distinct pleasure … ,” he began in his droll, circumlocutory, Austrian-sounding speech. “I think today is a good day to say ‘pleasure’: I’m sitting between Esther Perel on my right, and Laura Kipnis on my left—I’m feeling like a very happy man today. We’re here to talk about a very serious subject—lust—but before I explore, explode the subject …. ” Then he went on to explain how the session would end: The admonitory opening flourish of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony would interrupt the ensuing colloquy, alerting him and us that 45 minutes (“the length of a psychiatric session,” Mr. Holdengräber said) had elapsed.
Ms. Kipnis and Ms. Perel are two recently minted experts in that perennial subject of journalistic concern: What Do Women Want? And though they spent parts of the session impugning the basic assumptions of each other’s work, they have many things in common.
Ms. Perel is the author of Mating in Captivity, a therapeutic book with an edge that recommends, among other things, fantasy re-enactments of “forced seduction” as a marital aid. Ms. Kipnis is the author of Against Love: A Polemic and, more recently, The Female Thing: Dirt, Sex, Envy, Vulnerability. Both of them parse out the highly contested meanings of sex, love, lust, marriage, romance and adultery in the postmodern, post-feminist age; both of them have a flair for the aphoristic; both stand opposed to the tiresome, indeed destructive, cant of other doctors, pundits and political activists who have taken up the subject before them. Each purports to speak forbidden truths that every honest woman knows.
These, of course, are the obligatory moves by which any would-be bold new voice conscripts itself to the very agenda it denounces (that of continuing a noisy and unedifying pseudo-controversy in the pages of our quality magazines)—which is not to say that either of them lack wit or say only things that are untrue. Poked and prodded by the deliciously hammy Mr. Holdengräber, who runs the library’s public-education program, the two put on a spirited performance that kept the audience engrossed and amused.
The audience consisted of tasteful couples d’un certain age whose attendance at such an event might be interpreted by a smart-alecky observer as a tacit confession. Interspersed in their midst were handfuls of younger, sensitive New Age guys accompanied by the kind of cashmere-clad, carefully groomed women you imagine enunciating with rapid-fire precision around a handsomely varnished seminar table at a college in New England. Ms. Kipnis and Ms. Perel’s provocative rhetorical salvoes had the appealing virtue of resembling genuine thought, without ever quite attaining it.
Ms. Kipnis began: “Will all the adulterers in the room please stand up?”
When no one dared take a stand, Ms. Perel said. “Will all those who have ever thought about adultery please stand up?”
A voice from the front row asked, “Can we just raise our hands?”
Ms. Perel then went on to marvel, in her toothsome French-Israeli accent, that Americans tolerate multiple divorces and remarriages but have “a great intolerance for the concept of renegotiating boundaries for adultery.” This intolerance emerges, Ms. Perel said, from a peculiarly modern—and a peculiarly American—idealism about relationships.
“It feeds into the idea that there is one relationship that can be for everything,” she said. “And if you find out that this relationship isn’t going to do that for you, you will opt out and say, ‘I chose the wrong person and will now look for the person who can really give me everything’—instead of questioning the structure of the relationship.”
Against this model, Ms. Perel made a case for the kind of adultery that can save a marriage.
“Some affairs are the death knell for a gasping relationship that was already on its way out,” Ms. Perel said. “But for many others, it’s the alarm that gets people reinvigorated and re-engaged—nothing like the threat of loss to get people interested in each other again, sexually or otherwise.”
Mr. Holdengräber then asked Ms. Kipnis if Against Love—which advances the quasi-Marxisant (Althusserian, to be precise) notion that modern monogamy, requiring endless work and the intervention of outside experts, is a form of voluntary collective imprisonment—was a pro-adultery polemic. In an oft-quoted passage, she described what she called the “domestic gulag,” spelling out, over eight pages, all the things she can no longer do as a married woman. Ms. Kipnis said that we might think of adultery as a kind of inchoate protest, expressing a “basic utopian impulse” for “something more.”
“Adultery doesn’t need me to be its proponent,” Ms. Kipnis said. “It’s doing quite well on its own.”
“But,” Mr. Holdengräber shot back, “I think it gains some momentum with you behind it!”
Mr. Holdengräber pressed Ms. Perel to explain whether the adultery she advocated was theoretical or active.
“Does the erotic only mean when people have had sex?” Ms. Perel asked. “People can sit with each other like this and discuss books and ideas and be in a completely erotic experience.”
“Indeed, indeed,” Mr. Holdengräber replied. “No, no, I completely agree.”
“I didn’t mean to implicate you!” Ms. Perel said.
“But why not?” asked Mr. Holdengräber. “Well—I’m sorry you don’t want to.”
Ms. Kipnis brought her skepticism to bear on the edifice of what she called the “therapy-industrial complex”: “Can you teach lust or desire at the point at which people go to these consultations?” she asked. “The flogging of something dead in order to instill some iota of life in order to perpetuate it—it’s hard for me to imagine a joyful sort of work of that sort. Is desire renewable?”
“It may look like I’m just another representative of my field, but I am actually a bomb within my field,” said Ms. Perel. “I’m just throwing over a lot of sacred cows and assumptions that have gone unexamined.” Chief among the cows she’s flayed is the therapeutic belief that “intimacy begets sexual desire.” To the contrary, Ms. Perel argued, intimacy and love can sometimes serve as an obstacle to the expression of sexual desire, which is “much more selfish, much more raw, much more objectifying, much less into that caring, protective element—which can be why it is harder to lust in the same place you look for stability and connection.”
The balance of the evening went to Ms. Perel. Mr. Holdengräber seemed to favor her, and every point that Ms. Kipnis made was met with a well-rehearsed speech from Ms. Perel, or with aggressive questioning by Mr. Holdengräber.
“There are all sorts of industries that thrive on trying to solve the problem of declining marital desire, from therapy to sex toys. The therapy-industrial complex is dedicated to producing optimism about this situation,” Ms. Kipnis said early on.
“But what about if Esther is actually helping people?” said Mr. Holdengräber.
“I do!” said Ms. Perel.
“If I was getting $250 an hour, I could produce optimism on demand, too!” Ms. Kipnis shot back.
“You mean because you are paid less, you are not inclined … ,” began Mr. Holdengräber.
“Far less,” said Ms. Kipnis.
“Maybe that’s why you’re not optimistic,” Mr. Holdengräber said.
Ms. Perel’s book is a glib masterpiece of absorption, repackaging the insights of D.H. Lawrence and Norman Mailer into sharp, simple aphorisms for the consumption of a therapeutic readership. Mostly she talked about the tension between adventure and security, and the difficulty of preserving mystery and imagination.
But her “edgier” insights were meant to tell educated, post-feminist men and women the kind of arguably retrograde things that popular entertainment has never ceased to revel in. Which is not to say they’re wrong.
“The democratic values that we cherish in the workplace and in many parts of our relationship don’t always work that way, erotically speaking,” Ms. Perel said. “Neutralizing all power differentials can be contrary to the way that desire operates. There is an element of aggression—that wanting, that hostility, that conquering urge—that is not allowed anymore in the equalizing, egalitarian model,” she added.
“We don’t want to go back to the way things were. But you may want the egalitarian model between 6 to 8 p.m. in the kitchen, and something else in the bedroom after 10 p.m.”
The ultimate paradox, however, of Ms. Perel’s paradox-laden book is the tidiness with which its paeans to ruthlessness, risk and the uncontainable power of the erotic are delivered. She quotes a sex therapist advocating rape fantasies as “healthy dominance and powerful surrender.” In this way, she makes the dangerous safe for all of us who want to derive the benefits of risk-taking without actually exposing ourselves to any potential harm—and all under the beneficent tutelage of a dynamic, well-spoken and fetching European therapist. It seemed an offer that few with the means to accept would want to refuse.
Ms. Kipnis seemed to concur. “I’ve written a lot in The Female Thing about how gender equality, in political and social terms, got mapped onto questions of sexuality such that a demand for men to be more like women became, in America, a kind of political demand. And female desire is much more complicated than that. We are dealing with the confusion.”
At one point toward the end, Ms. Kipnis conceded that for all her fire-breathing polemic against love, she has always been, in fact, and remains a romantic. “I’m intensely romantic,” Ms. Kipnis said. “Too romantic.”
A summary of the afternoon’s back-and-forth might be spelled out as a set of pointers to men like this: Be nice, but not too nice; talk to us, but don’t get mired in everyday triviality; be nurturing, but not smothering; and whatever else you do, however much you respect and treat us like equals in all other settings, in the bedroom, don’t you dare forget to throw us down onto the covers, or up against the wall.