Helping Couples Create Erotic Empathy
Let your partner find you sexually attractive even when you don’t feel you are.
Posted April 6, 2020
If compassion and empathy are in a therapist’s toolbox, why not add erotic empathy and teach this to couples?
During this age of quarantine, I have been encouraging couples to spend more time talking about their sexual selves with one another and getting to know each other and themselves better. Many couples are opting out of being physically sexual because of physical distancing. This makes sense. And this doesn't mean that you cannot still be sexual with one another in other ways that are not physical, and one of those ways is communication.
Amanda Luterman, M.A., M.Ed., is a licensed psychotherapist and founder of the Centre for Erotic Empathy in Montreal, Canada. In a recent podcast, "Smart Sex, Smart Love," she talked with me about erotic empathy and how all therapists can use it effectively in their practice.
I haven’t heard those two words put together before. Let’s talk about that.
What is erotic empathy?
Amanda Luterman (AL): When working with couples, I need to be able to dialogue concerns of eroticism more effectively and comfortably. I help clients develop and hone erotic empathy competency within themselves to help improve their relationship.
Joe Kort (JK): You once said that you don’t have to be a sex therapist to have the skill of erotic empathy when working with clients. Can you talk about that?
AL: The best way to explain this is through a story I think everyone can relate to. So, say you are watching TV with a parent in the room, and something sexual comes on. Immediately, you start squirming and getting uncomfortable, because you don’t want to think about your parent as a sexual person. Sexuality is one of those topics that can be awkward to talk about.
The same holds true with therapists—even highly effective therapists—those who don’t have the experience of dialoguing and navigating intricate, awkward conversations with clients about sexuality. They are trained in so many areas—workplace stress, financial stress, sibling rivalry—but when sex comes up, therapists initially may feel a little push-away reflex that disables their capacity to talk as they normally would.
I really believe that if compassion and empathy are within your toolbox as a therapist, then why not expand it to include specifically and quite distinctly this other area of empathy called erotic empathy — where you validate and include the unique experience of the person in front of you as a sexual being?
So, in that TV moment where you feel intimacy in yourself awakened, but, with someone in the room, you think about being judged, there’s an interference between you and the other person. This happens all too often with couples; they love each other, but there is this noise between them. There’s this feeling that they’re not fully acceptable, they’re not fully received, they’re not able to truly be their authentic erotic self. That is kind of like the awkward moment with your parent in front of the TV.
JK: Do you distinguish between eroticism and sexuality? Can you explain that?
AL: When we’re talking about sexuality, people most often think function and dysfunction. We’re talking about the sexuality of a person—sexual experiences. We tend to be talking about each person’s capacity for an orgasm or for pleasure.
Now eroticism—I see it as interpersonal sexuality. It’s that capacity to evoke desire between someone, something, or two people. For example, if I look at a stiletto, I might say, “Ooh, that’s so sexy.” That shoe, as a fetishistic object, ultimately evokes desire. Erotic desire between couples is so important because it means we each want to instill a feeling of desire or sexuality between each other. Eroticism is about two people wanting to feel desired and desirable with each other, and how successfully we are able to call upon our own individual sexuality in each other’s company.
JK: Can you explain in your article, “I Am Carrot Cake: A Lesson in Erotic Empathy,” what you meant by “I am a carrot cake?"
AL: I got a little inspiration from my husband. He loves carrot cake. I don’t like vegetables in my dessert, but I support his enjoyment without saying, “Yuck,” or “That’s gross.” I don’t necessarily find myself to be appealing, but he does, so who am I to tell him I am not appealing? Who am I to tell him he doesn’t have the right to find me attractive, to enjoy me?
Erotic empathy allows your partner to find you attractive. Even when you don’t feel you are, your partner can see you in a way you do not see yourself, but you have to understand that and allow him to. If I get home from the gym, and I feel sweaty and gross, and my husband is approaching me, not seeing me the way I do, a mistake we make is rejecting our partner’s initiative when we don’t feel attractive.
JK: Let’s say you come home, you’re smelly, you’re sweaty and your partner is turned on, but you feel gross. How does erotic empathy work then?
AL: Erotic empathy says, “Let me adjust this moment to include the conditions I require to be able to feel erotically present. In that moment, what did I need? I gave my husband a kiss, put my hand on his chest, and said, 'I love that. Don’t move. I need 12 minutes.'” I wanted to be within my experience of my own body in a way that’s pleasant enough for me to be present with him and to relax into it. If I don’t feel I can enjoy my own body, it can be a distraction or a difficulty to be present with him. Those adjustments are really important.
Oftentimes, it’s doing something that decreases the feeling of self-betrayal that you would have if you don’t adjust. The more you do something you are not on board with, ultimately you are de-motivating the desire to initiate sex over time.
JK: What does that mean?
AL: When you do something you don’t like doing, the next time that same stimulus comes up, you’re probably going to have that self-betrayal feeling again. You are afraid to say no because you don’t want to hurt your partner’s feelings. So you overwrite your own feelings—that is called self-betrayal. You’re in a relationship with yourself that says you are less important than whoever else is there with you.
JK: I see a lot of couples in my office where one person likes porn, and the other has a disgust response when finding the porn. He/she may consider this cheating. How would your model help this couple negotiate the fact that one person in the relationship is vehemently against it and disgusted by it?
AL: This is very, very common. Those kinds of concerns are first and foremost rooted in the fear that what our partners are looking at in porn is ultimately in direct contrast to what we offer them. When we think about erotic empathy, we think about it being inclusive. Each person in a relationship has a plethora of things that interest them, sexually speaking. In a relationship, we are not necessarily everything that our partners find attractive. We let the insecurities within ourselves often speak to needing to be everything or the fear of being inadequate or the fear of losing desire.
Facebook image: Bo1982/Shutterstock
To hear this podcast in its entirety, visit smartsexsmartlove.com.
To contact Amanda Luterman, visit her website.