A few years ago, I attended a presentation at a national conference, demonstrating work with a couple who had come to therapy in part because of a sharp decline in their sexual activity. Previously, the couple had engaged in light sado-masochism; now, following the birth of their second child, the wife wanted more conventional sex. But the husband was attached to their old style of lovemaking, so they were stuck.
The presenter took the approach that resolving the couple's sexual difficulty first required working through the emotional dynamics of their marriage and new status as parents. But the discussion afterward indicated that the audience was far less interested in the couple's overall relationship than in the issue of sado-masochistic sex. What pathology, several questioners wanted to know, might underlie the man's need to sexually objectify his wife and her desire for bondage in the first place? Perhaps, some people speculated, motherhood had restored her sense of dignity, so that now she refused to be so demeaned. Some suggested the impasse reflected long-standing gender differences: men tended to pursue separateness, power, and control, while women yearned for loving affiliation and connection. Still others were certain that couples like this needed more empathic connection to counteract their tendency to engage in an implicitly abusive, power-driven relationship.
After two hours of talking about sex, the group had not once mentioned the words pleasure or eroticism, so I finally spoke up. Was I alone in my surprise at this omission? I asked. Their form of sex had been entirely consensual, after all. Maybe the woman no longer wanted to be tied up by her husband because she now had a baby constantly attached to her breasts, binding her more effectively than ropes ever could. Didn't people in the audience have their own sexual preferences, preferences they didn't feel the need to interpret or justify? Why automatically assume that there had to be something degrading and pathological about this couple's sex play?
More to the point, I wondered, was a woman's ready participation in S & M too great a challenge for the politically correct? Was it too threatening to conceive of a strong, secure woman enjoying acting out sexual fantasies of submission? Perhaps conference participants were afraid that if women did reveal such desires, they'd somehow sanction male dominance everywhere--in business, professional life, politics, economics? Maybe, in this era, the very ideas of sexual dominance and submission, conquest and subjugation, aggression and surrender (regardless of which partner plays which part) couldn't be squared with the ideals of fairness, compromise, and equality that undergird American marital therapy today.
As an outsider to American society--I grew up in Europe and have lived and worked in many countries--I wondered if the attitudes I saw in this meeting reflected deep cultural differences. I couldn't help wondering whether the clinicians in the room believed that the couple's sexual preferences--even though consensual and completely nonviolent--were too wild and "kinky," therefore inappropriate and irresponsible, for the ponderously serious business of maintaining a marriage and raising a family. It was as if sexual pleasure and eroticism that strayed onto slightly outre´ paths of fantasy and play--particularly games involving aggression and power--must be stricken from the repertoire of responsible adults in intimate, committed relationships.
After the conference, I engaged in many intense conversations with other European friends and therapists, as well as Brazilian and Israeli colleagues who'd been at the meeting. We realized that we all felt somewhat out of step with the sexual attitudes of our American colleagues. From these conversations, it became clear that putting our finger on what was culturally different wasn't easy. …