Mating in Captivity
By Esther Perel
244 pp. Yellow Kite. $18.
When it comes to relationships, a sensible American will turn to the experts — the Europeans.
Let’s face it, we Americans aren’t exactly known the world over for our relationship expertise. We are, instead, regarded as something of a case study in how NOT to do relationships. And deservedly so. We are, to use a homegrown word, rather puritanical.
And you don’t have to go back as far as those days in decidedly unmerry New England to get a whiff of the fear that accompanied the idea of sex for something other than reproduction, or the witchcraft you (if you were female) might get accused of if word got around you were seducing the menfolk. Dastardly.
This is still a land where schools in certain backward regions, like Texas, teach abstinence in schools, where a presidential blowjob can have national consequences (as long as they’re a Democrat).
I was raised, like millions of other Americans, in a religious family. A very religious family, come to think of it … And while I rejected all that long ago, a little chill still runs down my spine when I hear words like “premarital sex” and “promise ring” uttered aloud.
A promise ring = a ring you wear until your wedding day that symbolizes the pact between you, God, and your future wife (the only acceptable threesome) that you won’t have sex with anyone until your wedding night. Because God obviously exists to regulate what goes on in your nether regions.
And no, I never did wear it — even the intense fear of hell I felt at 13 paled in comparison to the embarrassment I knew wearing such a thing would cause me.
So here comes Esther Perel, saying things that really aren’t all that groundbreaking to people who just haven’t heard them before. Off with the chastity belts! Down with the taboos! Embrace that kinky fantasy! (providing you’re not, like, the Marquis de Sade.)
But wow, scroll down the list here and you see a plethora of one-star reviews for this one! The almost universal gripe seems to be that Esther Perel is decrying intimacy, telling couples that the more their partner knows, the worse their sex life will be.
That is, of course, a gross oversimplification and outright misreading of what Perel is saying here, but it shouldn’t come as a surprise that a society that devours Marvel movies and worships celebrities should get it so wrong — this book has no pictures!
When it comes to intimacy, Perel is not adopting a one-size-fits-all stance here. But a bit of mystery, a bit of individuality, never hurts.
After all, do you want to be perfectly comfortable taking a dump while your partner is at the sink a few feet away brushing their teeth? Is that desirable?
Absence sometimes does make the heart grow fonder, but a proclivity to engage in flatulence in front of your lover most decidedly does not.
Or else I’m just really out of step with what’s desirable these days.
That’s not to say you should hide who you are, just that not every bowel movement and natural inclination need be aired in front of the person you also want to have sex with. Unless that’s your kink.
There’s really a lot more here than that, including a real dressing down of a culture that believes monogamy is everything and that an affair can, and should, overshadow everything else about that relationship.
There are some things that Perel doesn’t touch on here, like the significant role that capitalism can play in undermining relationships, but that subject could easily fill a book of its own.
Largely, you get out of this what you put in. If you don’t like to be told that alternative lifestyles — i.e. nonmonogamous ones — are ok too, so long as you and your partner are on the same page, then you’re not going to like this much. If you’re liable to get offended at the thought that your partner might not want to see you picking your teeth at the table, or otherwise just taking him or her for granted, then you better toss this aside because this book won’t fit into your safe space.
For everyone else, “Mating in Captivity” offers plenty of enlightenment.