Letters From Esther #37: Eroticism is an Art. But It’s Also a Practice.

Esther Perel and Mary Alice Miller

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Shall We Begin?

As you can imagine, people frequently tell me about their sex life, not just in my therapy office, but on the street. Just as often, they tell me of their sex-less life. Time and time again, I’m told about unintentional celibacy—from the married couple in a rut to the young dater who, frustrated by bad sex, has chosen to give it up altogether…for now. The lack of sex can be anxiety-inducing. I am often asked: is this normal? How often should we be having sex? Will it ever change? Are we not right for each other? Am I doing it wrong? Do I have a hormonal deficiency? What is asexuality? How do I fix this?

Innovative prescriptions abound, from Viagra and sex therapy to tantric workshops and psychedelic ceremonies—to the unvarnished direct advice of just do it. I loathe that particular piece of advice. Sure, we can just “do it” but will we feel anything? Will we connect? Will it be anti-climactic? What if we can’t just “do it”? What if physical or psychological challenges prevent us from engaging in the pleasure and connection we want to experience most? 

When we reduce sex to a function, we also imply dysfunction. We are no longer talking about the art of sex; we are talking about the mechanics of sex. In my experience, placing a premium on performance often makes the problems worse—and it misses the most important factor of what actually makes us feel good: the erotic. Eroticism is an art. But it’s also a practice. And when we’re out of practice, even taking the first step—simply granting ourself permission to explore the pleasurable dimension of life—can feel daunting, especially when it involves another person. 

More often than not, the beauty and flow of a sexual encounter unfurl in a safe, noncompetitive, and non-result-oriented atmosphere, a place in which we can feel present, alive, and curious. And yet, when we’re stuck in a cycle of sexlessness, all we can think about are numbers, whether its frequency or time. We only did it once last month. We haven’t done it in a year. It only lasted two minutes. Sensuality simply doesn’t lend itself to the rigors of scorekeeping. Some of us can’t bear to bring it up with our partners in conversation. Others can’t stop talking about it. Spoiler alert: no one has ever had more sex by talking about how much sex they are not having.

If the first step of getting out of a rut is giving yourself permission to explore the erotic, the second step is really committing to giving up the numbers game. It’s not about increasing frequency, it’s about creating a new vibe. And, contrary to popular belief, erotic practice doesn’t begin in the bedroom. Eroticism can come from the welcome touch of your lover or it can come from noticing how late summer rain feels on your skin and inviting your lover outside to experience it with you.

Eroticism is trying new things, going new places, making new friends. It’s also remembering the ancient things you’ve long forgotten. I love to ask couples: do you have a song for your relationship? It may be their wedding song or the song that was playing when they met. Recently, one partner told me “You Send Me,” by Sam Cooke. The other said “My Baby Just Cares for Me” by Nina Simone. We played both. I wanted to bring in something more evocative and poetic—something that could get us away from numbers and words and into experiencing.

From there, our conversation opened up: what do you enjoy doing together? Where do you find energy? What is something beautiful you notice today about your partner? Tell them. I can tell you, when it comes to feeling good, half of it happens between our legs; the other half happens between our ears. This is erotic practice. It’s a practice of exploration, curiosity, connection—not just physically, but energetically, emotionally, and psychologically. The more we engage in eroticism outside of the bedroom, the more the bedroom becomes simply another location for eroticism to take place. Sex isn’t just something we do; it’s a place we go—inside ourselves or with another.

Let’s Turn the Lens on You 

Questions for Erotic Practice

  • What is erotic for you? 
  • What is an erotic experience you had that was not sexual?
  • When do you feel most free?
  • Do you prefer hot or cold water and where on your body do you like to feel it?
  • Do you prefer giving or receiving? Why?
  • What sense guides your erotic experiences the most? Visual, auditory, tactile, etc.?
  • What parts of yourself do you connect with in sex? The rebel? The caregiver? The dominant? The submissive? 
  • Where do you go in sex? A place of abandon? To feel safely powerful? To transcend? To commune? A place where you can be mischievous? 

More From Esther

“Finding Freedom in What Feels Good” / a blog article

It’s a common misconception that foreplay is just checking off the boxes and putting parts in motion to get us ready for sex and orgasms. Through this lens, foreplay is just not that interesting—at best—and full of pressure at worst. In this blog, we adjust the lens and embrace foreplay as the freedom to experience what feels good, for no other goal than pure pleasure—from a quick warmup to lasting erotic energy.

“How to Introduce Role Play Ideas To Your Partner” / a blog article

Role play is so much more than elaborate accouterment and a cheesy script. It’s about tapping into your erotic mind and temporarily transforming yourself and the environment around you to give new life to your desires and connection.

“Why Eroticism Should Be Part of your Self-Care Plan” / a blog article

Eroticism blooms from the tension between excitation and inhibition and manifests in the things we say and do, by how we act, and by how we think. We tend to think of eroticism as a sexual state shared by two or more people, but really, it starts with the individual. And it requires practice. ​​

Conversation Starters

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