Esther Perel is America’s first clear-eyed public intellectual on love

Don’t call her Dr. Ruth.
Don’t call her Dr. Ruth.
Image: Bret Hartman/TED
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In the 1980’s a winsome, pint-size European caused a sexual revolution in the US. With a hit radio show “Sexually Speaking,” psychologist Ruth Westheimer—known simply as Dr. Ruth—got prudish Americans to talk about sexual health openly and divorce it from the realm of pornography and perversion.

Years later, Esther Perel, another captivating European therapist, is bringing intellectual rigor—and academic respect—to the conversation about modern sexuality and marriage. In the process, the Belgian psychotherapist has built a formidable empire and is on her way to becoming a culture-changing figure, much as Westheimer was, in her day.

“Dr. Ruth? I can’t escape it,” Perel said in an interview, laughing and shaking her head at the comparison.

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It’s true that the indefatigable 58-year-old is everywhere these days. Perel’s rise as an international sexual sage began with one widely-shared essay about the Bill Clinton-Monica Lewiski affair, titled “In Search of Erotic Intelligence.” The article turned into her first book, which has since been translated into 25 languages. “It’s clear that I struck a chord,” she writes on her blog. “I am moved that I was able to elucidate a common dilemma with which so many of us struggle with; there is a paradoxical tension between the erotic and the domestic.”

Mating in Captivity, in 2006, was followed by two widely viewed TED talks. Now Perel’s burgeoning multi-media empire includes an Audible podcast series, video seminars, weekly newsletters, magazine articles, YouTube videos, Instagram stories, and headline appearances in conferences and talk shows—all on top of running a private therapy practice.

Her newly-released exegesis on extra-marital affairs and infidelity, The State of Affairs, is already on the New York Times bestseller list—arriving just in time for the galvanizing public conversation on men’s sexual aggression that followed the revelations of movie producer Harvey Weinstein’s abuses.

Though the comparison to Westheimer seems inevitable, Perel has her own brand of candor about sex. Blending the persuasiveness of academic theory with first person narratives and occasional quotes from literary heroes like Joseph Conrad or William Blake, Perel has invented a new kind of rational, inclusive language for sexual conversations.

“Most of the literature [when I was writing my first book] was either self-help or professional literature,” explains Perel, in her French accent. “I wanted to write a book that would spur the conversation. I wanted it to be male friendly and break the gender stereotypes that relationship books are only for women. It would also break the division between what the patient reads and what the therapist reads.”

Perel states her objective plainly: “to take sexuality out of the realm of smut and make it a subject of public intellectual inquiry…a serious subject that doesn’t mean titillation or condemnation, which is what it is in this country.”

In an age of headline-grabbing sex scandals, Perel preaches a tempered, open-minded approach. Her persuasiveness rests on her ability to unpack gnarly emotional matters in a rational and analytical manner. You’ll never get a step-by-step prescription, let alone a listicle, from Perel; complexity is her milieu and métier.

From therapist’s sofa to the spotlight

Becoming the televangelist for the sexually troubled wasn’t in Perel’s original plan. Born in Belgium to survivors of the Nazi concentration camps, she studied cultural and religious identity and became a cross-cultural psychotherapist. As a clinical instructor at the NYU School of Medicine for 13 years, she worked with immigrants and refugees moving to the US.

“I looked specifically at cultural forces that affected gender roles and child rearing practices,” she explains. “Interracial marriage was an extraordinary place to look at. It’s immigration in your living room.” Reflecting on her family’s experiences, Perel was particularly keen to understand how Jewish immigrant identity evolved in various countries.

Esther Perel, the brand

Three years ago, Perel started a company to manage the deluge of letters and clamor for advice after Mating in Captivity was published. “They would tell me, ‘you need to scale, you need to scale!’ I didn’t know what that meant,” she says. After years working as a private counsellor and keeper of people’s deep secrets, becoming a public sex advisor then seemed unnatural.

“The concept that I was a ‘brand’ was a complete transformation,” says Perel, still seeming unsettled with the notion.”I thought I was selling my soul.”

Her conversion happened during an industry conference Utah in 2012. Surrounded by leading millennial innovators and tech leaders, Perel learned exactly how hungry Americans were for an elevated discourse on sex. A planned 10-minute session turned into five workshops. “They were hungry for a space to think about their relationship, to confront themselves and reckon with the current trends,” she says. “I finished the session with 200 men and me talking deeply about sexuality…Then I realized I have to take this really seriously.”

Challenging stereotypes.
Challenging stereotypes.
Image: Marla Aufmuth / TED

As bright as her career is now, Perel knows that her time in the spotlight will eventually end. For now, she’s embracing it all: She’s deliberating on the design of her book covers, tweaking her website, and traveling to 37 cities to promote her book and meet her fans.

“To be a therapist is a lonely profession,” she says. “We have groups, we meet, we go to conferences—but all in all you spend hours alone in your office. I have a team now.…I am in heaven!”