On this episode of Recode Decode, hosted by Kara Swisher, sex and relationship therapist Esther Perel talks onstage with Kara at South By Southwest 2018. Her new book “The State of Affairs” sets out to change the popular conversation about sexual infidelity, but she says many partners are cheating on each other with their phones.
You can read a write-up of the interview here or listen to the whole thing in the audio player above. Below, we’ve also provided a lightly edited complete transcript of their conversation.
If you like this, be sure to subscribe to Recode Decode on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Pocket Casts, Overcast or wherever you listen to podcasts.
Kara Swisher: Hi, I’m Kara Swisher, executive editor of Recode. You’re listening to Recode Decode, a podcast about tech and media’s key players, big ideas and how they’re changing the world we live in. Today, we’re gonna play an interview I conducted at South By Southwest in Austin, Texas, at Vox Media’s The Deep End. I talked to psychotherapist and best-selling author Esther Perel. She wrote “The State of Affairs: Rethinking Infidelity” and is the host of the popular podcast, Where Should We Begin? Let’s take a listen.
All right, Esther. I pronounced it correctly, right? You’re married to a southern man, and they call it ... What do they call it in the south? Do your American voice for us, please.
Esther Perel: Hey, Esther.
Okay. Fantastic. I like it that way. I was telling her she’s lucky we don’t call her Essie, which is really a horrible name. Sorry to all the Essies in the house, but it is. We’re going to talk about a lot of things. We’re going to focus obviously on tech, because Esther has a lot of thoughts about this, but we’re gonna have a wide-ranging interview, and I just literally got off the stage with Christiane Amanpour where she has a new series called, on the main stage, called Sex and Love Across the World or something like that, and literally all we talked about were orgasms, and so I’m ready for this discussion. She complimented Esther onstage quite a bit on the work you’ve done.
Let’s start just in general. Everyone knows who you are, but talk about what your focus is now, and then we’ll get into tech and all, and questions from the audience, and things like that.
There is different focus. I just finished a book called “The State of Affairs.” I just yesterday launched the new second season of my podcast, Where Should We Begin?
Which is unscripted, anonymous, couples therapy sessions, so it was the first attempt to bring a therapist’s work into a digital form. I said three years ago that my next subject would be men, and people didn’t find it very interesting, and now they do.
That’s where I’m beginning to ... I’m creating conversations. Much of my work is about creating conversations about the stuff that we don’t talk about. One of the conversations that needs to happen is a conversation about power and sex, and all this power exchange structure that has existed between men and women, but together.
Let’s talk first about ... We’re gonna get to #MeToo, for sure, but let’s talk about this idea of you first doing digital conversations. Tell me how that came about, because people have been ... We’ve had Dr. Ruth, we’ve had all kinds of sex therapists around, around the globe. How did you think about doing that, and why that, in that format?
My transition from the work of a couple’s therapist, working in my practice and working primarily in the clinical world, to entering this digital world is literally three years. It’s actually very short. But I had done tele-classes. I used to teach therapists all over the world, I’ve trained therapists for umpteen years. Then at one point, I met with my co-founder and I said, “Why don’t we once do something like that for the general audience?” I can’t see all the people who want to meet, I know that from the TED Talk. People are writing to me from all over the world in places where there is no information, and that all over the world is inside the United States too, and I think I have, I can offer something. How do I do it without losing my soul?
How do you trade scale for intimate integrity? We launched the first webinar. From the webinar, we began to develop online courses, and in those courses, these are the conversations that people are not having around love and sex, in its multiple nuances.
Bringing them on was innovative, bringing the couples on. Was that difficult to get people to do that, or what was ...
The Rekindling Desire course doesn’t have live couples. The podcast, we partnered with Audible, and the first time we just posted on social, and we had maybe a hundred-something people or maybe more, but they hadn’t heard it.
These are not my patients, so that I’m not beholden by the confidentiality. They know exactly what they sign up for, and they often wanted the opportunity to work with me, and it was a way to work with me for free and to be brought to New York, and for me to have the opportunity to work with people from all over the U.S., not just urban Americans as well, and really cover a diversity of backgrounds in every aspect. Straight couples, trans couples, gay couples, every color and every class, which you don’t always get to do that much. I used to have it at NYU and I missed that.
Now, we have it.
It’s just like over-bred New Yorkers you were helping, right?
Yes, yes, yes. Yeah, and then ...
I know them.
It’s in the thousands. It’s thousands of people who want to participate, and now they’ve heard it. The second season, it’s people who heard it and then they said, “I want something like that. I want to experience this.” It’s a very different experience. The ones who applied without having known what this was gonna become, and the ones who applied because they had been immersed in the experience, and they said, “Maybe this could help us.”
Right. Let’s talk about that, because I want to get into the online space, the idea, because we’re gonna talk about tech pros and relationships. I got a great question online about why maybe there’s a lot of sexism, because they can’t have relationships, which I think is a bit of a canard. I’m not clear. Talk about the commonalities of what you found, because you’re getting a wider audience, and we’ll get to your new book about ... It’s about infidelity, correct?
It’s about relationships through the lens of infidelity.
Okay. All right.
It’s really the broad ...
Okay. Talk a little about the commonalities that you’ve found getting to this broader audience, and I hate to use the term “scalable,” but you’ve made yourself scalable, essentially.
It’s millions of people in 180-something countries and territories. It’s very interesting to know that almost more than 40 percent of listeners are men, and they’re in every remote country from Chad to ... I mean, it’s just like, that is incredible, because it is a public health campaign on relationships. It started out as a creative project, but it actually became something way, way, way bigger. That and the TED Talks.
I wish to say I’ve kind of ... You know, it’s thousands of letters as well, so I hear it, I see. I work internationally. I work in seven languages. I don’t need translation, so I actually have access to diversity. It’s everything. The commonalities, the human experiences, the major dramas of our life are not different. But what changes are the way we narrate our pain, the interpretation we give to it, what gets weight and what doesn’t, the extent to which we think we should suffer, or the extent we think we’re entitled to be happy. The larger values that are dominant within the West individualistic cultures and the more collective cultures is what really translates all the way straight into your sheets.
Talk about those relationships. Talk about those relationships. What do you think the predominant thing you’re dealing with now ... And we’ll get to online, because I think online has sort of messed up everything. Or maybe it hasn’t. Maybe from your perspective it hasn’t. How do you look at the way relationships have changed in the past few years?
By the way, my keynote just today was on that and it’s up on YouTube, but it’s an incredible ... In a very short amount of time, massive changes have taken place. People marry for love. People tie sexual satisfaction with marital happiness. We have contraception. We can separate sex from reproduction for the first time. We root sexuality in desire within long-term relationships. Male privilege and double standards, by which they have always had a license to cheat, and nine countries still will kill women just for straying.
For the first time, actually, infidelity rates have changed, primarily because the rate of women has gone up by 40 percent, because we have divorce laws, because we have economic independence on women. Monogamy used to mean one person for life. Today, monogamy is one person at a time. I mean, it just is ...
That’s how I look at it.
If you travel the world, you literally see the changes along every one of these dimensions of relationships. The place of children, the number of children, the meaning of sex as it associates to children. It’s not the same when you have eight kids and when you have one or two. There is just about no unit that has transformed more in a hundred years than the couple.
Talk about that. Where are we now? I want to get to the online part of it, because I think it has ... All the Grindrs, the Tinders, all the various things that happened to the way people meet and communicate online. Talk a little bit about that, how that has transformed ... Because maybe you don’t think that’s the case, that relationships remain the same online and off.
No, no, no, no. I mean, there is a conversation about that. Is the dating different but the mating is the same? Or, when the dating changes, does it also change the mating? I don’t think that we know all these answers at this moment, but what we do know is if I have a choice between two people, it’s rather limiting. In the village, I had a choice between two people. Later, I had a choice between six or 10 or 15 people, and that was a lot better. When I have a choice between a thousand people, it’s crippling.
I’m, on the one hand, looking for the soulmate. We’re looking today for the one and only. That one and only is supposed to be the one that’s gonna cure you of your case of FOMO, with whom ... You have never called anybody soulmate besides God, now it’s become your partner that is going to fulfill you. It’s not just the person with whom you are going to have the basic needs of Maslow, not even the belonging needs of Maslow. It’s the self-fulfillment needs that are gonna come on, and you’re doing it with a romantic consumerism whereby you’re constantly doing this, checking if there is nothing better there, and basically the ritual of commitment becomes deleting the apps.
Ritual of commitment meaning ...
Meaning, “I found the one. I can stop searching. I can delete my app.”
Right. Does that happen?
No, it doesn’t. It does not. It does not, just because it creates ... What is that change in the way people relate to each other, then, in that environment, with endless choice, essentially?
I think that it has created one ... It does a lot of things, but one of the phenomenons that it has created what is very, very interesting, which is what I have come to call stable ambiguity. I meet you, I date you, I like you, I can kind of simmer you, so we can meet on occasion, but I’m simmering a few others as well.
Yeah, simmering. It’s like cooking a pretty food, as we say in French.
No, I know what simmering is. I can simmer. I can simmer cooking. The other one I can’t do.
I am with you just enough so I don’t have to feel lonely. I’ve got this relationship in New York but it isn’t really going anywhere, and I have another one in LA, and it’s nice when I’m in LA but it isn’t also going ... This stable ambiguity is just enough consistency and just enough involvement so that I don’t have to feel the loneliness that pervades my life, and not too much so that I don’t feel that I have made a commitment by which I have forgone my freedom. That stable ambiguity becomes one very common dating pattern in the moment.
Is this a good thing, or you don’t have judgment, Esther, I’m guessing?
I think that ...
I can see you going, “Uh ...”
No, no, no. It’s because the world isn’t dividing good and bad. I think I can say that I have rarely heard people tell me, “It’s phenomenal. It feels great.” I don’t. But they can’t really say it’s degrading. It actually is half full. It’s fast food, and fast food feeds you but afterwards leaves you with a bad taste, because it’s not okay to say these things today. You have to be able to pretend that you can be a happy consumer.
Right, with that. What has to change in them? I mean, what do you think of when you look at the Tinders, which becomes gamification of dating essentially, or gamification of relationships?
Look, it’s been a long time since we shifted from procreative to recreative. I think there’s always been a moratorium period. The moratorium period today has extended from about 15 years of sexual nomadism. If you do it with apps, or if you do it in bars it does make a difference, but the fundamental is experimentation without outcome.
After that, you still, most people still at some point want to build a story with a person, and love stories are one thing, and life stories are something else. At that moment, the question is, “To what extent has the 15 years of nomadism helped me in creating a more committed relationship with whom I’m gonna build something, versus it actually has on some small level fucked me up?”
Right. Right. Okay. Yeah. Yeah. I’d say the latter.
I think that it varies by the people.
By the people.
I think it varies by the people.
How do people look at relationship with couples now, once they get past the nomad period of their life?
They have unrealistic expectations. It goes from a period of such disaffiliated relationships, in which you are meant to have ... It’s like a race to the bottom. “How can I have connections with people with whom I feel the least?”
And then go to the finding of the soulmate, and the one.
This is the two extremes, I think, in which a lot of people live. Do you relate to this, people?
Yeah. Oh, yeah.
I just want to make sense of this for ...
No, they’re all totally happy in their relationships.
I can’t see them. I don’t have my glasses.
No. We’re gonna ask them questions in a minute. We’re gonna ask in groups of questions because Esther wants to see a theme. Do you blame technology for this, or do you think it’s just humanity, as they just get more tools, define more, or should something be fixed about it in order to get people?
I think technology is a manifestation of the world of options. Our world of relationships has shifted from a model that was organized around duty and obligation, to a model that is around freedom and choice. The choice just keeps getting bigger. None of us seem to want to go back to the previous era.
But we all understand that the massive amounts of choices that we have have left us with a tremendous sense of uncertainty, a chronic ailment of self-doubt, and constantly is, “How do I know? How do I know it is the person?” Because now I only have myself to rely upon. I have to make all the big decisions that used to be made for me,” and this is actually a psychological shift.
It’s not for nothing that people feel exhausted, is just not because they’ve been swiping, swiping. You know, that doesn’t tire you. It’s the knowing, it’s the figuring out, “Who am I? What do I want? What do I need? Is it really what I need? Is what I need what I think I need?”
“How happy am I when I need this thing? And when I find it, how do I know it is the thing I was looking for?”
That was just one of Esther’s sessions, just now. Okay, I’m exhausted by that. How do you get to that successful ... And then I want to talk about the mistakes we’ve made, and I do want to talk about #MeToo also. Even though we’ve talked about it a lot, I think we need to talk about it all the time until everyone’s completely exhausted by it. But talk about what then ... How do you move into a successful relationship?
I think that the first thing is, there is no perfection. There is no “the one.” There is a one that you meet at some point with whom you are gonna write the story, and you could have written another one. The beauty is that today we can actually write two or three stories in the course of our life, and many for that matter. Sometimes with more than one person at a time as well. That’s the first thing.
Then you understand that optimization is not the only model. Contentment goes a long way. What they call satisfizers, as my friend just said. You know, there is something about, “Let me see where this takes me,” rather than, “Is this it?” And then go with it and explore yourself and don’t think that you know it all immediately just because of the picture, or just because of the first date.
Relationships take time. They are experiences that are iterative processes. I say, you respond. I check and you respond. I gauge you, I bring in something else. It’s iterative and reiterative, and this is the thing that we have really lost with the digital. The digital is flat, it’s two-dimensional. You don’t have to see. You don’t have to sense, and we know that people’s communication online is massively distorted. They think they are sure they understood what the other person said, and all the sociolinguistic studies tell you they don’t.
This is part of what you lose. Once you get off the app, you meet a person, and then the rest is your experience with the person, but more and more we have lost skills. We lose skills.
Yeah, I agree. It’s an interesting thing. My son met his first girlfriend on Snapchat, which I found disturbing in every single fashion. Then they met in person and it was a disaster. Although now he refuses to call anyone a girlfriend, but that’s another ... I’ll bring him in.
I have two.
Yeah, yeah. But no one’s a girlfriend. I don’t even understand it anymore. But it was interesting, because I was like, “You can’t really get to know someone on Snapchat,” but he did feel like he had a connection. It was an interesting ... Because there are connections. There are connections you make online with people that are very rich, can be very rich.
We’re gonna take a quick break now for a word from our sponsors. We’ll return to this live interview from South By Southwest 2018 in a minute.
Let’s talk about also, not just that this is a flat communications tool, but it also gets in the way of relationships now. I have an issue with my phone. I admit it. I use it all the time. I like it near me. I pet it a lot. It’s not the best relationship I’ve ever had, but it is. This gets in the way, this idea, and you see it around South By Southwest. Can you just talk about it?
Yes. It’s technology in the bedroom. The amount of people, the last thing they stroke before they go to bed is their phone, and the first thing they stroke before they go when they wake up is their phone. It’s a choreography. Basically, I am here. I take the phone, and when I wake up in the morning I do this instead of actually spooning you. Or as one of my patients recently said, it’s like, “Every night I go to bed and she’s on Instagram in the bed, and it’s like, I’m lonely. I just want to talk, to chat, to connect, and she’s just getting lost and zoned.”
It creates a new definition of loneliness. They talk about loneliness all the time at this moment. It is the public health crisis No. 1. But what they really are distinguishing is that it no longer has to do with being socially isolated. It has to do with experiencing kind of a loss of trust and a loss of capital while you are next to the person with whom you’re supposed to not be lonely with. You’re lying there. You know when your partner went to work and stayed at work till midnight, you knew that they were not there. Now, they’re home, but they’re not really present. We call this, in psychology we call it ambiguous loss. Ambiguous loss is what you feel when a person is physically present but psychologically gone, like Alzheimer’s, but the same thing happens when your person is lost ...
Looking at Instagram.
They’re lost. You talk to them and they don’t hear you, and they don’t answer you and they’re physically present, and that is a very confusing experience. Ambiguous loss is also the reverse, is when somebody is psychologically present but physically gone, like when they’re kidnapped.
Like when they’re kidnapped?
Yes, like in situations ... But the point is, then you don’t know if you need to let go or if you have to hold on.
That’s why it is such a stressing thing. “Should I call for attention while you’re in your Insta, lost, or should I actually just accept that I’m on my own?” You stay and you wait for them to end, to close it, to turn around, to turn off the light, to connect with you, and they don’t. When that happens, night after night ...
What do you advise, then? What do you do? Do you grab the phone and run? What do you do? That’s a psychological tool.
In this case, I basically said, the first thing I think I said, which wasn’t so clear, because he didn’t say it like that either. He just says, “It annoys me.” I just said, “You’re lonely. You’re lonely. You know, to sit there next to someone ...” Because it’s gone on. Then I said to her, “Do you know he’s lonely? Does it matter to you? Because I can’t imagine that that’s actually what you intend to do. What would happen if instead of watching what everybody else is posting, you actually checked in with him for a moment? Do you worry that you’re going to lose yourself or anything?”
You just engage in a conversation that is not about blame, that allows people to reflect, that allows people to take responsibility, that banks on their good intention, and then you say you’re going to try three things differently, and let’s see which one of them works, because I don’t know what will work better, but I can tell you that if you continue this, I can tell you where you’re going to end up.
What was the response from your perspective? It’s so common. This is such a common issue now.
You know, look, the greatest invention that was ever made in western civilization was the invention of the Sabbath. Somebody understood, in one of the oldest creation stories, that you needed a day off, because when you stop, it’s not just that you take a break. It’s that you recharge. You restore, and you build back. When you never stop, something begins to happen to your brain.
This is like couch neuroscience, but it’s kind of out there at this point. You basically explain the same way, how do you tell people that it’s not healthy to eat McDonald’s every day? It’s a whole education. You basically say, “It’s gonna destroy your relationship. Do you want that? If you don’t, I can actually give you a few ideas. Get an alarm clock. When you go for dinner with him, leave your phone in your bag. Don’t put it on the table, and certainly don’t take it with you when you go to the bathroom, because you end up staying there 20 minutes.” You know? While he’s sitting ...
Right. Yeah. That is the national emergency. Bathroom lines, because of Instagram.
Instead of texting back and forth 50 times, the amount of times that takes, just pick up the phone and talk for three minutes and arrange it. The voice, the loss of the voice. The voice is really the first thing that a baby hears in utero. We need the voice. It’s the most soothing things. People don’t hear the voice. Call. Call. You basically say, “Would you do that with me for a week? I am trying to write an article, and I would like to see if it would make a difference. Would you like to be a participant in my study?” Then after a week they come back, and you say, “Did it make a difference?” And then you say, “What will it take for you to continue and do that?”
Right. DO most people come back to you and say, “No, I really do like my phone better”?
No. Actually, the majority of people feel calmer. The first thing is they feel calmer. They’re not constantly thinking that there’s something important that they need to be in touch with. It allows them to be more present. It allows them to learn to self-soothe. It does a lot of things.
There’s nothing wrong with the phone. I love my phone, too, but there is something about ... Basically, at this point, people are primarily in triangular situations. They are rarely just with the person that they’re with.
Right, so they’re cheating on their partner with their phone.
All the time. All the time.
Yeah. With their phone. Yeah.
Talk about the infidelity book. What were you trying to get to? I don’t want to call it ... You said it’s beyond that. Can you talk about what you were trying to do? Your last book was “Mating in Captivity.”
I’ve written “Mating in Captivity.” I’ve written “The State of Affairs.” Primarily, what I do is I study modern relationships. I study, also, “What are the expectations that we bring to relationships? How have our mentalities changed? And what is the dance between love and desire in relationships?” And particularly I study desire, because it is one of the most organizing principles of our western societies, so too in everything that technology does.
“Mating in Captivity” was about the dilemmas of desire inside the relationship, and “The State of Affairs” looked at what happens when desire goes looking elsewhere. Here is this subject called infidelity. It has existed since marriage was invented — so too, the taboo against it — and it is treated in the most reductionistic, black-and-white, victim-perpetrator model, something that affects almost half the population worldwide, in every model of marriage.
Probably more than half of them. Yeah.
We will never know, because men lie up and women lie down. Men exaggerate in their lying, and women diminish in their lying, so we will actually never really know, and the questions that are asked are very misleading, so I wanted the stories behind it and I wanted to create a new conversation for the oldest sin, that embraces the complexities of infidelity and does justice to the millions of people who are in the throes of it and in the pains of it.
What is the most difficult part of that? Because a lot of it has to do not just with the infidelity but it’s the lying, and the hurt, and the cruelty a lot of the time that can go with it.
Yes. What is so difficult around infidelity, like in many other aspects of relationships, is that it’s two people experiencing one event in completely differentiated ways. There’s nothing that they can share about it. Sometimes I am lying to you, but I have the experience that maybe for the first time, I’ve stopped lying to myself.
How do I tell you that? The difficulty around the subject is, how do you create a dual perspective? What it did to you and what it meant for me? At the heart of affairs, there is lying and deception and gaslighting and a breach of trust and a violation and all of that. But at the heart of affairs is also often yearning and longing and loss for the person that I once was and have not met in so many decades. For reconnecting with a sense of aliveness, for vitality, for intensity, for ...
Right. In a good way.
In a good way. We should give Donald Trump a break on the porn star. I think we should. Don’t laugh at me, Esther. No, we should not? We should not give him a break on the porn star? No? Okay. All right.
Infidelity is one thing.
This is a different thing, which I will let you name.
I don’t know. I want you to name it. You’re the relationship expert.
Crass. Okay. All right. Okay. That’s a good word. When that happens, when you have that, what are some of ...
Power trips. Misogyny.
Power trips. Well, let’s get to that.
I mean, it has names. It’s not new.
Talk about that, what’s happening now with the people talking out. What happened with Donald Trump happened millions of times, and people paid off, and kept people quiet, and same thing with #MeToo. When you look at what’s happening now, is that very different? The voices of #MeToo? The voices of Time’s Up? What do you imagine is occurring now, because it feels like an earthquake in male-female relationships?
It’s interesting, because when you write about infidelity, you write about consensual relationships.
It is really not a situation of harassment. That’s kind of ... Seduction is one thing.
Right. They’re often conflated, though.
Yes, mistakenly. Mistakenly. I mean, infidelities are generally consensual experiences, and they are experiences of seduction. They’re not experiences of harassment. That is where they part. Now, I think that there’s something very beautiful — as in powerful and important — happening in us challenging or taking on or putting on the intense scrutiny, the oldest power exchange system, which was that forever, men traded social power for sex.
Often, sex that they would not have been able to have if they could not compensate, which is why I think there’s something ... And I’ll finish my thought first. Women traded the power that was available to them, which often was youth and beauty and sex for access to the social status and power that was denied to them. This has been an old economy, and what’s important about that to understand is that sexually powerful men don’t harass. They seduce. It’s the insecure men who needs to use power in order to leverage the insecurity and the inaccessibility or the unavailability of the woman. Women may fear rape, and men fear humiliation.
You’re saying these people are insecure, the ones, the stories ... It’s based in ...
Yes. That underneath the use of power lies a deep sense of powerlessness, and then you manipulate and you exploit the power that you have in order to cover that. The way I look at power dynamics is the way that you play pool. If you want one ball to hit the hole, it is never that one that you need to kick. Things are not pushed by the stuff that is linear. It’s something else that needs to push this thing. This is the way power dynamics work. What you see on the surface is a powerful man. What is in reality is a man that is suffering from — “suffering” is maybe a nice word — but from lack of ...
And then uses the power available in ... Basically harassment is a form of erotic sadism.
That’s a great way of putting it. What happens?
That is what it is, because it’s the difference from rape.
It’s interesting that you ... But you’re not casting them as a victim, because I think most people just want to kick them.
That doesn’t victimize the person at all. It just gives a more accurate description of what’s maybe activating this. Why would a person put you in a situation in which every day when you come to work, you don’t really know what you’re going to expect?
Will it at least be a normal day, or will this be one of these complete, slimy, icky days, in which the entire time you want to take a shower?
I think you understand the difference.
The whole sadism is that you don’t know.
Right. Right. What’s gonna happen next? Then we’ll get to questions from the audience. What do you imagine happening next with this? Where does it go? Is it unprecedented, or has it happened before and then it dies down? You’re talking about it as an economy, and you’re absolutely right, that this is a power economy. How does the economy shift? Because economies have shifted many times.
Always. I mean, for me, when I try to understand it, I look at other norms that have changed. Powerful social norms that shifted. Corporal punishment. Many people, maybe even in this room, may still have been part of a system that believed that if you get your butt kicked, it builds character. That is no longer the norm.
How do we shift a norm like this? You watch norms.
You literally took it out of my mouth. For me, those are two very powerful examples, because it’s multifactorial. You don’t change it from one place. For me, it is about two things. We have done a lot of work for the past 40 years helping women, girls, find their voice and their power. But it needs to be matched with helping boys. Not helping. It is our responsibility as a society to stop stripping boys of their emotionality starting at age four. Mothers first.
We touch our boys less than we touch our girls. We strip them, literally, of their connectivity, of their need for others, so that we can instead put in there a making of a performance-based masculinity about fearlessness, competitiveness, self-reliance, and all the stuff that we then know has all kinds of deleterious effects just on themselves, regardless of harassment.
The lives of women will not change until the lives of men changes too.
Right. I agree.
These things are interdependent, and so the notion for me that is maybe a little different, where we say, “They need to be quiet now. This is their time to listen and to shut up.” No, this is their time to finally have the right to have conversations about themselves and about masculinity, and the making of manhood and the definitional voids that is pervasive around manhood, so that we can create a more true ...
No, you’re 100 percent correct. I think it’s hard to get ... Because right now, in Silicon Valley for instance, “I can’t say anything.” I have so many men saying that to me, which I’m like, “Stop it. You certainly can ...”
I’ve done the conversations like that. I’ve led a bunch of these conversations, from 80 to 1,000 people, where I literally create fishbowls and have the conversations about the stuff. Listen, often when men end up talking like this, it’s not just that they’ve never said it to anybody else. In the majority of cases, they’ve never even uttered it out loud to themselves. It is powerful. That is, for me, where the intersection is for ...
And with each other, and talking about it with each other, which is interesting.
Yes, with each other. With each other.
Yeah. I just had an instance with my son, I was just talking to him walking over here, and one of his friends did something to a girl that wasn’t welcome, and his friend’s first thing was, “I didn’t do it that way.” And my son — which honestly I think, as I’ve said before, all men should be raised by lesbians, it’s true — he said, “Well, you really have to stop treating women badly, and here’s why.” And he had a discussion with his friend. I thought that was much more powerful than the woman who bothered trying.
Of course. Of course.
I thought it was a really interesting ...
I’m going to companies, and I work on relationships, and I work on relational intelligence, and I do it with co-founders, and my way is true conversation, because if you no longer have rules and set up structures of power and social hierarchies, the only thing you have to deal with relationships is conversations, negotiations. That needs to be learned. Those things are not innate.
Some things are, though. The talking and the way people communicate. The way the companies are set up are much more aggressive. I mean, they just are.
It’s innate that we learn vocabulary. It’s not innate that we learn to express our vocabulary to someone who, in your presence, is having another experience than you.
All right. Let’s get questions from the audience. Let’s get three or four questions quickly. Hands up. Come on, I know you have relationship questions. Right here?
Speaker 3: Hey there. Just starting from where we are, you speak a lot in both of your books about the effects of feminism, I think, on intimate relationships. I don’t want to mis-paraphrase you, but ...
Put the mic a little closer to you?
Speaker 3: Yeah. Just, you talk about the way that, I think, that feminism in society possibly affects relationships between men and women, and that equality or equanimity is not necessarily the thing that makes for good sex. Is that fair to say, that you, in your books, that’s something you ... Then looking at where society is going now, I mean, this kind of amazing moment, do you currently see, in your practice, the way that the either #MeToo movements, or sort of the sea change change that’s going on, do you see that trickle down into practice yet, or do you have an anticipation about how that might either positively or negatively affect intimate relationships?
KS: Okay. Just a sec. Is there another question, so we can see if there’s another ... Right there, behind you.
Speaker 4: Hi.
Speaker 4: I have a question. I’m a chef, and I usually work in an environment with a lot of men that behave with this macho culture that you’re describing. How do you go to talk about these men and how you feel without them feeling that you’re attacking in any way? That you just want to create a better environment for the future generations? How do you go and express yourself in a way that they don’t perceive that you’re a threat?
KS: Yeah. The attack thing.
Great. Great question. Great question. Yeah.
KS: All right. Let’s do those two.
Okay. What I have said is not at all something that links feminism to desire. What I have said is that sexual desire is not always politically correct, and it doesn’t always abide by the rules of good citizenship, meaning that ... But when you’re talking about desire, when you’re talking about sexuality, you can’t strip power from sex, but it is a play on power. That is the complete difference. You know, everybody’s wondering, “Why is it that some people would demonstrate during the day against certain things that they would totally delight in at night?” Because that is the difference between reality and play.
You know, we do in our fantasies sometimes want to experiment with the very same things that, for the life of us, we wouldn’t want to experience in reality. That juxtaposition is very important to keep in mind. I want equality in my salaries, in the responsibilities that I get, in what people think I’m capable of, etc., etc., and when I am in a sexual interaction, I want to be able to experience a different hierarchy, in which there is no more powerful position than voluntary surrender.
But the key word is “voluntary.” Giving yourself to somebody is an absolute experience of sovereignty and autonomy and freedom. That’s the interplay between ... Feminism in itself is only an issue when people wonder, “How can I say this and want that?” Because every child that plays being a prisoner and a guard, for example, knows the difference between when they’re playing. Nobody would want to be a prisoner, but there is something fun about playing the prisoner, for example, or the fireman, or the teacher, all of that.
KS: Or whatever you like.
Whatever you like.
KS: We don’t judge. We judge a little bit, but we’re not gonna say.
Then the question about how you talk to men, I think that for me, when I begin to think about that question, it’s really this. We are born women and we become men, from chromosome on. Masculinity is a fragile identity. It constantly has to prove itself. It has to test itself. It has to go out into the woods. In every culture, there’s not a single culture where women have to go prove that they have now become women. That makes the issue of being the threat so important. Why is it such a vernacular to say, “How do I talk to them without them feeling that it’s a threat?” Because there is a fragility underneath, otherwise you wouldn’t be threatening.
You are not the issue. The threat is not the issue. It’s the fragility that is the issue. That’s why I said probably the deepest ache is humiliation. It’s the humiliation. The word “emasculation” does not exist in the feminine, and neither does the word “loser.” How do you talk? You talk in a way that doesn’t put people down. The same way that we want to be talked to, too. You talk in a way that lets the other person maintain a sense of dignity, that they can still have their ... You can say “no” in a way that doesn’t make them feel that small. “No” to anything. “No, I don’t want to do this or that.” It doesn’t matter, but a certain way that leaves people not instantly diminished. Neither women nor men want to feel diminished or degraded by the aggression of somebody else.
KS: But you’ve got to naturally assume there’s some moment where you don’t ... Sometimes I feel, as a gay person, you’re always allowing for that, making sure that they feel comfortable, and it’s not returned in the same way, and that if they can feel badly for a minute, maybe it’s okay, because of ...
Oh, feeling bad is fine.
KS: What I mean is, you make them feel under attack. Is that a problem?
KS: It just won’t work.
No, but I also want to protect myself.
I’m not interested in creating the wrath of somebody else.
There’s a way in which you set a limit that doesn’t create an escalation. I don’t want it.
KS: Sure. Sure, but my point being is that right now, with all ... The backlash happened rather quickly, like two minutes into it.
She’s not talking about ...
KS: Right, but she has to worry about how she talks versus how they receive, and why in the world do we have to be so fucking polite to people all the time? You know what I mean? So what if they feel ...?
I don’t think you have to be polite to people. I think that you want to do something that actually serves you well.
KS: Okay. All right. To get to what you want, but it often seems like women and people of color always have to, say, be forgiving, but that’s a different issue.
Oh, no. See, I know that can be taken this way, but that’s not ...
KS: All right. We’re going to disagree on that one. I used to have to apologize for people being gay, and I’m fucking sick of it. All right. Two more questions.
Two more quick questions.
Speaker 5: I don’t have a question. I just want to thank you because I’ve listened to both seasons of your Audible podcast, and your insight is so beautiful, and your common sense is just right there.
I think really there are two crises going on. One is raising young men and boys with a feminine side, which is so crucial, and the whole social media. I have two young adult children, and the things you were saying about turning the phone off and don’t let that be the last thing you stroke. I’ve raised my kids day after day after day that relationships are the most important things in our lives. I wish you could be in all of our schools, teaching our children to get off their phones. I mean, they are wonderful tools, but they don’t build relationships.
KS: But it’s hard, because it’s irresistible. They’re irresistible.
Speaker 5: Absolutely, but we need to teach it.
KS: One back there.
KS: Oh, another question?
Speaker 6: Hello, Esther. I just wanted to thank you so much for you work, and my question relates to ... There can be people who, particularly men, maybe they’re male allies, so they understand what you’re talking about, but how do you deal with that hypermasculine ... people are going to see this as weakness, and who are going to be dismissive of it. How do you reach them and not kind of create a gulf between the male allies and men who are just going to see them as cowards, and then it’s going to create an even bigger barrier?
Right. Numbers. It used to be that there was one divorced child, one child of a divorced family in a classroom, and so they felt very, very different. But once it was more than half the classroom, it became actually much more normative. I used to work for many, many years with interracial, intercultural, interreligious couples. That was my specialty. They were the only ones, often. The only ones in their whole neighborhood. Well, then you feel like you are the “other.”
But once it becomes a number, then the balance shifts. For that, you need to build the capital of people who gradually begin to stand up to the other men, and you first do it quietly, then you bring it into the public sphere, and gradually the volume rises on your side and diminishes on the other side. But that takes a decade.
For this to ... For what takes a decade? To get that?
Once it gets going, it can’t be stopped. That’s the important thing. Every one of those changes that took place, what once was the norm now becomes the stigma.
Mm-hmm. No, absolutely. I want to finish up. No more time left, but when you talk about that idea of how you do make changes and shifts, you said you’re optimistic. Are you hopeful that this is a moment held by ... Whatever. Everybody’s talking about it, for sure, and social media helps that. Technology helps that and hurts it. Do you think it’s one of these great moments?
You know why I’m optimistic? In an interesting way, if I make it personal, I have been working on relationships for 35 years. I rarely went into companies before. Only if there was a crisis, and it usually was called “soft skills.”
The soft what?
The soft skills.
I thought, “What’s soft about it?” But now, I’m constantly going to work on this subject, and in varieties of ways, the fact that relational intelligence, which implies power dynamics, implies trust, implies communication, implies listening, implies accountability, implies the whole relationship with the founders and all of that, that for me says something’s shifting.
That they’re interested in it?
They’re interested. They understand that product performance, all of this matters. Data matters, but there is a whole other reality that has to do with relationships, and big data won’t capture that.
That’s how I know something’s happening, and I’m not the only one. There is something about psychologists, or whatever, people who have delved into this thing called relationships, that has become essential to an economy of experience. People want to understand relationships, and I think that’s what has happened that I see that makes me be positive.
I think anything that takes apart, that dismantles the system of oppression, which this is a system of oppression, the harassment thing we talk about, I can not think it will not be good.
But you can see it, because people are talking about it.
Because I am a child of two Holocaust survivor parents and I know oppression. It’s like, when fascism sets in, that’s why he can’t be let off the hook.
Right. I don’t want to ... I don’t know if you’ve seen my Twitter, but I’m not a pal.
I knew it. We do agree. You know it. There’s certain things that when you’ve grown up with some things, it’s in your veins. It’s in your blood.
That’s why I am positive, because I don’t mind a roar. I think it’s very good.
All right. I’m going to say the funniest question at the end. It is related to Trump. If you had advised him and Melania, what would you do? What would be your first move? She looks unhappy. I don’t know if it’s just me, but you’d be great.
Nobody asked her for her opinion. I don’t know a clue about this woman, but I have a feeling from the little bit that I’ve listened to her in some of the interviews that she actually ... This is the way I sometimes say it. When you pick a person, you pick a story. Sometimes you are recruited for a play that you didn’t audition for.
I see this woman, like she’s in the wrong play every time. It’s not the character she wants to be. Like, how the hell did she find herself ... She just wanted a green card, and I’ve been there. I also wanted a green card one day. Then she maybe had wanted someone with whom she could have an arrangement, and everybody’s entitled to their relational arrangement. But this, this is not a play that ... she didn’t audition for it.
What would you advise her? What would you say? “Get out”?
No. This would not happen. If she wants to get out, she wouldn’t come to me.
If she comes to me, she would be asking me, “How do I tolerate this for another ...” I hope not six years.
Yeah. What about to him? What would you say to him? Look, everyone needs redemption. Presumably not him, but okay.
I would say to him, “You know, I’m in a bit of a bind, because when I work with men like you, I often feel that I overwork. You make me want to say all kinds of things while you’re looking at me with contempt, and contempt is the number one killer of relationships. You have no intention to change because you have no incentive to change, because that is what happens to men like you. I’m not sure I’m gonna be able to help you, but if one day you really want some help, just give me a call.”
All right, then. On that note, Esther Perel. [applause]
This article originally appeared on Recode.net.