Can you talk a bit about the role you see communication playing in both nurturing and dampening desire in long term relationships?
Talking has become the definition of intimacy. And it’s a certain kind of talking that is very Western, in which I talk to you about myself and you are going to be an empathic, validating listener who is going to reflect back to me and in that moment I will feel that I matter and I will transcend my existential aloneness. In this way love becomes this panacea against a life of increasing isolation and a bulwark against the vicissitudes of everyday. That is a very Western way of talking about intimacy and it’s also a definition where people are more alone. They may be more free, but they’re also more alone.
Communication is crucial but people communicate in multiple ways that don’t always have to do with talking. And when we come to the realm of intimacy or sexuality maybe we could say that the first mother tongue we have is our bodies; our touch, our gestures, our eyes. In the domain of intimacy we can say that we, at least, have to be bilingual, if not multi-lingual. If the definition and need for intimacy has become paramount in our relationships, the way we conceive of it has drastically narrowed. No I think we must communicate, but we can communicate in many ways, and when it comes to sexuality the body is a prime language for communicating love, tenderness, connection, dependency, infantile wishes, sexuality, all of it.
We must communicate, that’s a given. But there’s this notion that talking is no longer an option, it’s a mandate. It’s a mandate to share. And the notion that that kind of sharing will actually lead you to desire is an assumption, it sometimes does. But sometimes there’s so many other ways that people feel close or turned on or interested or intrigued or excited.
As you’re talking I’m thinking about the women like Betty Dodson who situated sex in the body, but also made it political, saying that orgasms can set you free. From your perspective we’ve gone far off those rails. What do you think happened?
I think there were two movements in feminism. There was a movement that focused primarily on abuses of power when it came to sexuality. It focused on male privilege and double standards and sought to rectify these abuses and inequalities. But it didn’t focus much on sexual pleasure, it focused on sexual power. And the movement that focused on sexual pleasure, in some way became the secondary one. Ultimately women focusing on sexual pleasure still yielded a certain amount of suspicion and fear that has always been there. Which is why female sexuality has been controlled so often, and in every civilization.
I wonder when people say women want security and men want lust. If women were so secure and homebound why has every culture sought to control their sexuality so much? Nothing has scared people more than the unleashing of female pleasure and female desire. But when it came to the American context, a few things happened. First, that a focus on pleasure took a second role, and also the emphasis was on similarity with the men. It wasn’t a model of complementary, it was a model of equality and similarity. Quite different from the European model. And in that it became a consciousness raising movement, but one that brought women together to discuss matters of women but it didn’t necessarily lay the institutional foundation so that women could have equal chances while being different.
The European countries made less of a consciousness raising movement, but they created a whole host of institutions and social structures that allowed for maternity leave, that allowed for affordable childcare, stuff that would allow women to be women, to be mothers, to be different and to have equal chances. And once you have that complimentarily model then you don’t have women going to work in suits, or women who are trying to neutralize their sexuality when they are at work. The way that it takes place in the American context. You can be smart and pretty and not experience it as a contradiction and you don’t experience a compliment someone would give you as a way of trying to lessen your intelligence. You think it’s part of what you are.
I want to go back to a topic you’ve touched on and comes up often in your book, and that is monogamy.
It’s interesting because my book was about desire not about monogamy. But often that’s the subject people want to lead me to.
There are times when it seems like you’re pretty pessimistic about it.
People always ask me, are you promoting [non-monogamy], because I don’t condemn it flat out. Because I tried to say lets look at this more thoughtfully, let’s try to understand it. We can have a whole conversation about monogamy, but it’s another subject and then we’d have to really go into the layers of it, not simply is it good or bad, am I for or against it.
I don’t think that’s the right way to approach this. Either we really try to understand, why do people cheat, why do people breach, why do they act against their own convictions sometimes. What’s the lure, the vulnerability, what are the complexities. Or we take a categorical stance and we let many sound families, good, caring, loving families, fall to pieces.
So you don’t think monogamy is untenable?
No, not at all. But I think it’s a choice and it needs to be negotiated. You know for most of history monogamy had nothing to do with love. Once it became a matter of love it switched from an imposition on women to a dual gender conviction. And once it becomes a conviction and an expression of commitment, loyalty, emotional engagement and sexual exclusivity it becomes a matter of negotiation rather than an assumption.
Most people in heterosexual relationships assume monogamy and they negotiate it with themselves privately. But all couples need to negotiate boundaries. Any kind of boundaries, and monogamy is the mother of all boundaries. I am not the person who is going to recommend to people what they need to do. Nobody needs a therapist to tell them what to do.