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!
  • A new Gallup poll shows that only 25% of Americans under 35 support the war in #Gaza. Does this statistic worry you?
  • “You will stomp us into the dirt,” is how her mother responded to Anya Ulinich’s new tragicomic graphic novel. Paul Berger has a more open view of ‘Lena Finkle’s Magic Barrel." What do you think?
  • PHOTOS: Hundreds of protesters marched through lower Manhattan yesterday demanding an end to American support for Israel’s operation in #Gaza.
  • Does #Hamas have to lose for there to be peace? Read the latest analysis by J.J. Goldberg.
  • This is what the rockets over Israel and Gaza look like from space:
  • "Israel should not let captives languish or corpses rot. It should do everything in its power to recover people and bodies. Jewish law places a premium on pidyon shvuyim, “the redemption of captives,” and proper burial. But not when the price will lead to more death and more kidnappings." Do you agree?
  • Slate.com's Allison Benedikt wrote that Taglit-Birthright Israel is partly to blame for the death of American IDF volunteer Max Steinberg. This is why she's wrong:
  • Israeli soldiers want you to buy them socks. And snacks. And backpacks. And underwear. And pizza. So claim dozens of fundraising campaigns launched by American Jewish and Israeli charities since the start of the current wave of crisis and conflict in Israel and Gaza.
  • The sign reads: “Dogs are allowed in this establishment but Zionists are not under any circumstances.”
  • Is Twitter Israel's new worst enemy?
  • More than 50 former Israeli soldiers have refused to serve in the current ground operation in #Gaza.
  • "My wife and I are both half-Jewish. Both of us very much felt and feel American first and Jewish second. We are currently debating whether we should send our daughter to a Jewish pre-K and kindergarten program or to a public one. Pros? Give her a Jewish community and identity that she could build on throughout her life. Cons? Costs a lot of money; She will enter school with the idea that being Jewish makes her different somehow instead of something that you do after or in addition to regular school. Maybe a Shabbat sing-along would be enough?"
  • Undeterred by the conflict, 24 Jews participated in the first ever Jewish National Fund— JDate singles trip to Israel. Translation: Jews age 30 to 45 travelled to Israel to get it on in the sun, with a side of hummus.
  • "It pains and shocks me to say this, but here goes: My father was right all along. He always told me, as I spouted liberal talking points at the Shabbos table and challenged his hawkish views on Israel and the Palestinians to his unending chagrin, that I would one day change my tune." Have you had a similar experience?
  • "'What’s this, mommy?' she asked, while pulling at the purple sleeve to unwrap this mysterious little gift mom keeps hidden in the inside pocket of her bag. Oh boy, how do I answer?"
  • 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.