Sex in America: Can We Change The Conversation?

Who knows what really happens in the privacy of the Obamas' bedroom, but there is an unmistakable erotic tension that emanates from Michelle and Barack Obama. And by "erotic," I don't mean sex. I mean a sense of aliveness, vibrancy, and vitality.
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Esther Perel will join Amy Sohn, Leonore Tiefer, Ian Kerner, and Cory Silverberg for a conversation called "Sex in America: Can The Conversation Change?" The symposium is co-sponsored by the Huffington Post and Open Center and will take place in New York City on Friday, February 20th. Click here to register.

Since arriving in the U.S. 25 years ago, I have seen four presidential couples parade in front of me. As a couples therapist, I am keen to observe the subtle nuances of verbal and physical communication between partners and to my eyes' delight, this is the first president and first lady that seem to relate to each other as sexual beings. Sex, as I see it, isn't just something we do, it is a way of being in the world.

Who knows what really happens in the privacy of the Obamas' bedroom, but there is an unmistakable erotic tension that emanates from Michelle and Barack Obama. I mean "eroticism" not in its reductionist modern meaning of sex, but rather as a sense of aliveness, vibrancy, and vitality that communicates the message: "This couple is alive, not just surviving."

There's a sentence in an interview the Obamas gave to the French newspaper Le Monde in 1996 that could have been a quote straight out of my book Mating in Captivity: Reconciling the Erotic and the Domestic. In it, I probe the nature of erotic desire, why so many couples become erotically alienated, and how to sustain an élan over the long haul.

Here's what Obama said: "Sometimes, when we're lying together, I look at her and I feel dizzy with the realization that here is another distinct person from me, who has memories, origins, thoughts, [and] feelings that are different from my own. That tension between familiarity and mystery meshes something strong between us. Even if one builds a life together based on trust, attentiveness and mutual support, I think that it's important that a partner continues to surprise."

Which means Obama and I agree that longing springs from distance, and that, ironically, proximity can kill sex faster than fainting.

I have long wanted America to engage in a conversation about sexuality as a serious topic of inquiry that goes beyond what sex columnist Lara Riscol terms "Smut or Sanctimony." Looks like the time has come.

I'd love to discuss the way this society vacillates between excessive license and fear-based tactics, how our profound national discomfort with sexuality is all around us so that when we don't moralize, we normalize. When we are taught that sex is dirty, but save it for the one you love, is it any surprise that so many couples become erotically alienated?

Then I also would like to address how despite living in a time of unprecedented sexual freedom in America, the practice of policing sexuality has continued unabated since the days of the Puritans.

I would include abstinence campaigns, abortion laws, restrictions on homosexual choices, the criminalization of infidelity, and the face that sex ed is reduced to plumbing; I'd further add to the list the black and white attitude towards pornography, the consequences of egalitarianism on the sexual lives of couples, and the double standard of family values. Many Americans still see sex as a risk factor, in contrast to European countries where sex is seen as a normal stage of development and being irresponsible is the risk factor.

And last but not least, I'd include the recent developments of the sexual performance perfection industry which delivers an unending supply of tips while contributing to mass-produced feelings of inadequacy. Add to that the quantification and obsession with frequency, and the medicalization of sexuality, as issues that are putting sex everywhere except in sex.

I can't talk directly with Obama, so I designed a panel which brings together a fabulous group of thinkers, sex educators, authors, and sex therapists to start a new conversation about sex in America.