Love & Desire: Six ways to increase our erotic intelligence

There are few words that hold more power than ‘love’ in the English language. As a cultural phenomenon, it has only been more exaggerated with time. Many, such as Robert Johnson [1], would argue that it has taken the place where religion once resided, from which we find ecstasy, wholeness, transcendence and meaning. In our neoliberal times, we are instructed to enjoy ourselves, have fun and to have a nice day. The perennial goal is to be happy and what could feel better than being in love, with all its intoxicating hormones and warm, fuzzy emotions? 

When we talk about love, at least in the Anglophone parts of the world, we are more often talking about a certain kind of love: i.e. a romantic love that is situated between people. It promises to relieve us from our aloneness by taking us out of ourselves and merging with another. Countless poems (very much mine included!), big screen films and pop songs have been devoted to this one idea. This environment in which we have been brought up takes it for granted that we are innately built to love and be loved. However, this contradicts the significant number of failed partnerships and marriages, affairs and other forms of escape from coupling. Although we are probably realistic in recognising the contingency and significance of how labour-intensive the process is of romantic partnering, we are in large part left to our own devices to figure it out.

I would argue that the art of loving – especially, of the romantic kind – needs help and support beyond the microcosm of a partnership. It is a practice in which some have had better training than others, some are wiser than others and in which we can always better ourselves. The following lays out six points that I believe are worth thinking about in order to sustain a healthy love relationship not only with each other, but also with ourselves. I have taken these from my own reading about the subject by leading experts (key references will be given at the end), as a result of addressing my own problematic relationship with love and sex.

The six points centre on the erotic and so hence these are six ways that I think can increase erotic intelligence. The erotic is a term that comes from the ancient Greek god of love and sex, Eros, whose name has come to mean ‘life energy’ in wider philosophy and psychology. The erotic therefore can be best understood as vibrant, creative energy rather than sex itself. It has a mystical quality of what it means to be alive. We can always tap into it as it resides in our bodies. It can add richness, zest and a pathway to freedom. It also holds many emotional truths that words obscure or cannot properly express. Importantly, through our parents, social conditioning and complex personal histories, our erotic selves can so easily be shaped, repressed and banished. If they are not properly nurtured and honoured, they can be forgotten, ignored, or, much worse, can become violent and hostile.

  1. The logic of the erotic is its own. It cannot be harnessed through rationality and it is not always faithful to our emotions and strongest worldviews. Jack Morin’s [2] simple equation is a useful starting point in understanding this: eroticism = arousal and obstacle(s). If you think about your most erotic experiences, did they present some kind of difficulty in attaining what you wanted, whether it be a public setting, a long distance relationship, a third person, someone who was ‘hard to get’ and so on? This push-pull of eroticism, the tension between reasons to hope and reasons to doubt, the promise of a solution amid persistent problems, can produce a heady cocktail that is hard to resist.

    Practically speaking, you could create this dynamic even in a stable long-term relationship. The key is to appreciate the other person as a separate, sovereign being and not to take each other’s actions and behaviour for granted or as predictable. There needs to be room for surprise, mystery, freedom and often, privacy. This of course can counter what we have come to know as essential in building commitment and intimacy in which we rather value togetherness, repetition and familiarity. However, the erotic is turned off by repetition and so to keep the relationship from stagnating, – to veritably keep it alive – there has to be a rhythm alternating between equilibrium and growth. It is almost like two opposing forces always looking for the point in which they balance but, importantly, they can never reach it. An erotically healthy and committed relationship can hence be thought of as respiration. We can’t rely only on breathing in fresh oxygen or else we would suffocate by a build-up of carbon dioxide; so we must also exhale. The point is not to choose one or the other, or to find a middle-ground in which they can blend together, but rather to give space to both albeit at different times. We have to be aware of each polarity – intimacy and passion – so that we can more easily ebb and flow between them.

  2. Fantasy is the playground of desire. Extending the concept of the erotic, desire is likewise a useful device to embrace. It is hard to pin down. It forms a fully subjective state that is bodily but also incorporates past experiences, anticipation, imagination and the state of one’s life as it happens. Fantasy is the place in which desire is allowed to form and flourish. It is more accurately a verb than a noun in that it is a creative process. Fantasy, or fantasising, represents unbridled freedom and a pure expression of the individual. We can transcend reality and go anywhere in our imagination. By this token, it tells us a lot about our erotic selves, revealing glimpses of some of our darkest depths. As mysterious as fantasies are, they can express truths that are otherwise hard to penetrate, showing who we are at our most bare by conveying our deepest wishes. They can sometimes be experienced problematically, contradicting our self-image, moral code or ideological alignments. For example, the staunch feminist may fantasise about being raped by men, the capitalist boss may dream about being submissive and humiliated in the bedroom and the jealous husband may secretly wish to watch his wife having sex with somebody else.

    One way to use fantasy is as a learning tool. We can learn about ourselves by attending to what we want in the safety of our imagination. Whether this is realised and in what form can then be scrutinised and negotiated. The point is to understand better who we are and how we express our aliveness. It has to be emphasised that fantasising is about pretending. It is thus not necessarily a desire for the real thing, such as actual rape, so although it is paradoxical, it is does not need to present an insurmountable conflict in real life. As already mentioned, the erotic has its own logic and so the point is to understand it and attend to it. This may involve simulating or performing a fantasy scene within a safe space with clear parameters in order to keep elements of the erotic fantasy while controlling the risks of harm. At the same time, it may instead reside only in the imagination, which is still a powerful tool to harness. Fantasising both presents the problem and the solution in Morin’s equation.  

  3. Romance and otherness. Related to the earlier discussion about how the erotic relies on recognising the partner as a separate, sovereign being, a romantic attraction likewise needs to retain some distance between the self and the other. The craving for a mutual passionate bond can only get off the ground if the other person can be distinguished from the self. This quality of otherness is also essential for import and export to occur in relationships. Import is admiring qualities in the other (that one wishes to possess) while export is wanting the other to see qualities in ourselves (as a form of validation). This can be thought of as a search for the idealised self or a pursuit of wholeness and completion. What this can mean in practice is not only to take measures to ensure otherness, but also to select partners who compensate for our weaknesses and value our strengths. Furthermore, it can be even more rewarding to be desired for parts of ourselves that we are otherwise insecure about.   

  4. Infantile characteristics of love. The romantic attraction just described is a movement towards a fusion of individuals. There is an inherent and perhaps unavoidable danger that it takes as its blueprint the original fusion, i.e. of the mother-child. The problem of wanting to be loved completely and unconditionally, beyond unrealistic expectations, is that in our adult state, it is practically impossible to completely depend on somebody else for our survival, emotional stability, prosperity, intellectual growth and so on. Romantic bonds also make us feel chosen and special just for being us. The danger here is that we become complacent and feel we do not need to put in effort to make a relationship work. On the other hand, if we honestly acknowledge our fallibilities, weaknesses and limitations, then we can witness and admit areas in which we still need to carry out the work. Finally, romantic love protects us against loneliness. While this protection is secured by fidelity and monogamy, the erotic needs space to be free. The point is not to substitute or compensate one for the other, but rather to constantly negotiate the dynamic between the two. Addressing directly the need to protect ourselves from loneliness and the attendant fear of abandonment is not an automatic subscription to sexual fidelity and monogamy. At the very least, these terms should be clearly defined between partners. Is sex outside of a relationship permissible within the confines of fidelity if it is empty of emotion and intimacy? How about during times when one partner is incapacitated or absent? How about flirting, sexting, using dating apps or pornography? How much space do we allow ourselves to fantasise, even if it is only in the privacy of our imagination, without feeling guilty? The point, I think, is to adapt our more infantile view of unconditional love to a more adult meeting of people.

  5. Erotic energy can be produced in transgressing norms, rules and prohibitions. As I hope you have by now appreciated, the erotic has its own logic that can quite easily contradict established societal and personal conventions. Indeed, it can be this very contradiction that produces erotic energy. Violating prohibitions can be a way in which we establish our autonomy, assert and affirm ourselves, and so build up our self-esteem and confidence. Through our sexual socialisation, we have had to keep secret our pleasures. Our upbringing taught us what we could and could not do, whether by instruction, scorn or punishment. Our dependence on our primary caregivers was so great that it surpassed our own (erotic) desires. We were hence readily able to submit control, renounce our needs, become self-reliant and even take the blame for abuse, in order to survive by preserving this primary bond. Now we are more self-reliant as adults, we can thus liberate our erotic selves by crossing these imposed boundaries. Of course this does not mean we should completely let go and purposefully break as many rules as we can. The codes of conduct in public spaces do not allow us to pleasure ourselves without restraint, for one thing. The key could be to explore ways of harnessing this energy, whether in role play, taking a certain level of acceptable risk or having sexual adventures to overcome inhibitions. In this way, sexual inhibitions can provide a valuable condition from which liberation and, importantly, erotic vitality can spring.

  6. The problem with guilt, shame and self-policing. While I have tried to show that sexual inhibitions can be subverted and used as a way to enhance our erotic selves, there is a real danger associated with inhibiting our erotic selves, whether reflexively or by imposition. Those parts of ourselves that we recognise, attend to and honour move in a predictable way. Our other parts, on the other hand, tend to take unexpected directions. The feelings that are held onto tightly are the ones that cause us harm. At the same time, those feelings which we resist or ignore, tend to become an obsession. Sex play and the erotic can be politically incorrect, being based on objectification, power plays, seductive manipulations and unfair demands. Being guilty about having socially questionable desires or shamed about being ‘deviant’ will only damage one’s erotic wellbeing and so likely express it in harmful ways. It is important to appreciate the different logic of the erotic and so be open-minded to the point of reconnecting with our child self that explored their bodies before being or feeling judged for it. While self-policing served the purpose of preventing love being withdrawn from our primary caregiver, when it turns into self-recrimination, guilt can suppress those parts of ourselves that give us vitality. In practice, while unbridled sexual exploration has its own risks, worrying less about what is permissible and instead being more sexually selfish and ruthless can give way to a greater degree of surrender to our own bodies, excitement and pleasure (Michael Bader [3]). What balances unbridled lust here is our assumedly well developed capacity to empathise with and respect others.

I have tried to show how becoming more erotically intelligent is a worthy pursuit. It is not reserved to the individual as I would even advocate referring to these points when it comes to building what kind of society we want, including more concretely, how to parent our children. It is without question that our framework for love was sketched out during childhood and adolescence. More commonly, the interplay between intimacy and passion, commitment and erotic excitement, love and lust, have been made complex and difficult by our cultures and families. I would urge us to ask important questions, such as how did our parents influence what kind of sex we have or do not have? What kind of sex do we (not) have in spite of our parents? How do we want our children to have sex? I think the baseline that we need to work from is to make our children know that they are the guardians of their bodies and so have a right to be curious and enjoy their pleasures, as well as express when something does not feel good. Furthermore, the more we appreciate our erotic selves, the more we accept erotic variation in others, which has important implications for producing safe spaces for diversity to flourish. Indeed, the recognition of the other has been a common thread throughout this essay. The importance of mystery, distance, uncertainty, separateness, autonomy and sovereignty is in line with understanding the world as contingent, unpredictable, messy and complex. So let this be a call to appreciate the richness and depth of ourselves and the world around us xoxo

Key References
[1] Robert A. Johnson, 2009. We: Understanding the Psychology of Romantic Love. San Francisco: HarperOne.
[2] Jack Morin, 1996. The Erotic Mind. New York: HarperPerennial.
[3] Michael Bader, 2002. Arousal: The Secret Logic of Sexual Fantasies. New York: St. Martin’s.
[4] Esther Perel, 2007. Mating in Captivity: Unlocking Erotic Intelligence. London: Hodder & Stoughton.
[5] Esther Perel, 2017. The State of Affairs: Rethinking Infidelity. London: Hodder & Stoughton.
[6] Erich Fromm, 1972. The Art of Loving. London: Unwin Books.

I am curious to know whether this post resonated with you. I thrive on feedback and connection, so please let me know <3