Sisterhood Blog

Sex Therapy and the Holocaust

By Naomi Zeveloff

  • Print
  • Share Share

The fact that Dr. Ruth Westheimer, arguably the most famous sex therapist alive today, is also a Holocaust survivor always struck me as nothing more than a surprising coincidence. Survivors went on to occupy a range of professions — why not sex therapy, too?

But it turns out that enduring trauma — or at least living among the traumatized — can be a source of insight into the role erotic expression plays in rebuilding a healthy life.

Esther Perel (pictured above), the author of “Mating in Captivity: Unlocking Erotic Intelligence” and the subject of a recent New York Times profile, grew up in a community of Holocaust survivors in Antwerp, Belgium. She noticed that some people, like her parents, seemed to regain joy in their lives while others didn’t. Later, as a therapist who worked with refugees, she made the link between erotic fulfillment and recovery.

Here’s Perel in an interview with Psychotherapy.net:

My husband directs the International Trauma Studies Program at Columbia, and he works a lot with torture survivors. I would wonder, “When do you know that you have reconnected with life after a traumatic experience?” It’s when people are once again able to be creative and playful, to go back into the world and into the parts of them that invite discovery, exploration, and expansiveness—when they’re once again able to claim the free elements of themselves and not only the security-oriented parts of themselves.

In the community of Holocaust concentration camp survivors in Antwerp, Belgium where I grew up, there were two groups: those who didn’t die, and those who came back to life. And those who didn’t die were people who lived tethered to the ground, afraid, untrusting. The world was dangerous, and pleasure was not an option. You cannot play, take risks, or be creative when you don’t have a minimum of safety, because you need a level of unself-consciousness to be able to experience excitement and pleasure. Those who came back to life were those who understood eroticism as an antidote to death.

Perel makes a distinction between sex and eroticism. Instead of focusing on the lack of sex in a couples’ life, she seeks to understand why one partner or both have lost a “feeling of aliveness.” Sometimes, the most communicative relationships preclude sexual connection. “How can you desire what you already have?” Perel is known to ask at public speaking events.

This attitude might distinguish Perel from Dr. Ruth, who sought to foster frank conversations about sex among couples, rather than help couples plug into the mystery of the erotic. The Times writes: “… If Dr. Ruth was trying to talk explicitly about the mechanics of sex in a pre-Lewinsky, relatively tame media environment, Ms. Perel has captured attention in the era of the oversexed. Instead of offering more explicitness, she writes and talks about the aspects of sexuality that can’t be captured on a screen, the hidden, psychological states that do or do not set the mechanics in motion.”

Though Dr. Ruth hasn’t talked directly about how Holocaust trauma shaped her thinking about sex, there is a subtle link. She told the Guardian in 2012:

“I was left with a feeling that because I was not killed by the Nazis – because I survived – I had an obligation to make a dent in the world. What I didn’t know was that that dent would end up being me talking about sex from morning to night.”

Photo credit Estherperel.com


Permalink | | Share | Email | Print | Filed under: sex therapy, erotic, Jewish, Ruth Westheimer, Holocaust, Esther Perel, Dr. Ruth

The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.




Find us on Facebook!
  • “I don’t want to say, ‘Oh oh, I’m not Jewish,’ because when you say that, you sound like someone trying to get into a 1950s country club, “and I love the idea of being Jewish." Are you a fan of Seth Meyers?
  • "If you want my advice: more Palestinians, more checkpoints, just more reality." What do you think?
  • Happy birthday Barbra Streisand! Our favorite Funny Girl turns 72 today.
  • Clueless parenting advice from the star of "Clueless."
  • Why won't the city give an answer?
  • BREAKING NEWS: Israel has officially suspended peace talks with the Palestinians.
  • Can you guess what the most boring job in the army is?
  • What the foolish rabbi of Chelm teaches us about Israel and the Palestinian unity deal:
  • Mazel tov to Idina Menzel on making Variety "Power of Women" cover! http://jd.fo/f3Mms
  • "How much should I expect him and/or ask him to participate? Is it enough to have one parent reciting the prayers and observing the holidays?" What do you think?
  • New York and Montreal have been at odds for far too long. Stop the bagel wars, sign our bagel peace treaty!
  • Really, can you blame them?
  • “How I Stopped Hating Women of the Wall and Started Talking to My Mother.” Will you see it?
  • Taglit-Birthright Israel is redefining who they consider "Jewish" after a 17% drop in registration from 2011-2013. Is the "propaganda tag" keeping young people away?
  • Happy birthday William Shakespeare! Turns out, the Bard knew quite a bit about Jews.
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.