TBR: Mating in Captivity

This week we’ve got a guest reviewer for the Tuesday Book Review — my husband.  HarperCollins sent me a copy of Esther Perel’s Mating in Captivity: Unlocking Erotic Intelligence to review, but before I could get around to reading it, T. had borrowed it.  So I asked him if he wanted to write the review….

Esther Perel’s book, Mating in
Captivity, takes on the tricky intertwining of love and romance.  Just
by addressing the divide, by saying "Love is not the same as romance,
caring is not the same as passion," the book accomplishes a worthy and
important goal (in ways that I’ll return to at the end of the review).
The whole book returns, frequently and powerfully, to supporting that
central claim.  It gives the appearance that the central claim needs to
be hammered home with great force.  Personally, I agreed on page xiv of
the introduction (well before page 1 of the book proper).  That said,
I’m sure there are many people more thoroughly indoctrinated in the
idea that romance and sex can only possibly be good as a reflection of
deep, world-shaking love.  For them, the whole book (and several
re-readings) might not be enough to quell the arguments instilled in
them by parents, friends and culture.  They might need every argument
in the book in order to believe a message that is (quite frankly)
freeing and relaxing to embrace.  So I don’t object to the 220 pages on
the subject, even though a snappy pamphlet might have served me better.

Sadly, while Perel’s arguments for her central point are compelling,
once she steps beyond that central point, the effort to convince
suddenly fades away.  She seems to think that the central point is,
itself, the argument for all the others.  "(a) Love is not romance *and
therefore* (b) understanding and closeness are sexual turnoffs," for
example, is asserted with pretty much no convincing argument.  I don’t
agree that (a) implies (b).  In fact, I don’t agree with (b) at all.
But the idea that emotional intimacy and passion are mutually exclusive
is the foundation of more than one of her chapters … chapters that,
therefore, I pretty much had to write off as a loss.

The "central insight surrounded by dubious pronouncements" is a
pattern that I’ve seen before, in self-help books.  Indeed, this book
so strongly resembles a self-help book in both tone and structure (with
chapters deliberately assigned to the various troubles that can afflict
your sex-life) that it was quite remarkable to hear, over and over
again, that Perel has no advice for what you -should- do, only advice
for things that you -shouldn’t- do … or at least shouldn’t do as a
knee-jerk reflex.  It was like reading a book that purported to be
about keeping your house clean, but which in fact only said "Don’t let
clutter accumulate on your tables, or your shelves, and don’t let the
floor get dirty, and don’t pour orange juice on the piano."  Those are
all behaviors to avoid, but it doesn’t tell what behaviors to put in
their place.  Like a demolition crew taking down an old building, Perel
gleefully tears down aged and rickety structures … and then, like the
demolition crew, she packs up and goes home, leaving the job of
building something new to the reader.

I find this immensely surprising, and more than a little
disappointing.  The central message of the book (as I said above) is
that "Romance is not love, nor love romance."  Romance and sex are
their own emotional field, and while the technical aspects of the act
have been … ahem … adequately explored in many fine books, the
emotional aspects of passion have long been overshadowed by those of
love.  We don’t talk about how it feels to be wanted, because we’re
supposed to be talking about how it feels to be valued and trusted.
But I pretty well understand how it feels to be valued and trusted,
whereas I’d like to spend some time talking about how it feels to be
wanted:  That strange combination of egotism and desire and fear that
can result from someone making it clear that they desire you.

Perel claims that there are no common factors that all people feel
about romance.  It’s totally unique, and there’s nothing in the
experience of one person that would apply to another.  But I don’t
think that passion and romance are completely unique to each couple.  I
think that there are powerful commonalities, patterns in the ways that
we think and feel about sex and romance and desire.  Not everyone gets
turned on by the same things, but the feeling of getting turned on is
universal.  Not everyone fears the same things, but the way fear can
both suppress and magnify lust is familiar to everyone.

That’s really interesting emotional territory, and I wish the book
had explored it.  As I said, I think that the initial message of
"There’s something there to be explored" is immensely important.  I do
appreciate being handed the keys to the kingdom, being told "There’s a
whole internal world here, just waiting for you to turn your mind to
it!"  I’d have been a lot happier, though, with the keys to the kingdom
PLUS an artful map of interesting destinations for the curious

2 Responses to “TBR: Mating in Captivity”

  1. jen Says:

    I can’t help but wonder (perhaps a bit snidely) what would drive a person to write this book. It practically screams “don’t let your sex life die after marriage like mine did”.
    OK, that’s more than a little bit snide.

  2. Nan Says:

    Kudos to T for his review. He got me thinking!

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