As an outsider to American society -- I grew up in Belgium and have lived in many countries -- it strikes me that America, in matters of sex as in much else, is a goal-oriented society that prefers explicit meanings and "plain speech" to ambiguity and allusion. Many American therapists encourage clarity and directness, which they tend to associate with honesty and openness: "If you want to make love to your wife/husband, why don't you tell her/him exactly what you want?" These professionals in large part "solve" the conflict between the drabness of the familiar and the excitement of the unknown by advising patients to renounce their fantasies in favor of more reasonable "adult" sexual agendas.

Whereas therapists typically encourage patients to "really get to know" their partners, I often say that "knowing isn't everything." Most couples exchange enough direct talk in the course of daily life. To create more passion, I suggest that they play a bit more with the ambiguity that's inherent to communication. Eroticism can draw its powerful pleasure from fascination with the hidden, the mysterious, and the suggestive.

Ironically, some of America's best features -- the belief in equality, consensus-building, fairness, and tolerance -- can, in the bedroom, result in very boring sex. Sexual desire and good citizenship don't play by the same rules. Sexual excitement is often politically incorrect; it often thrives on power plays, role reversals, imperious demands, and seductive manipulations. American therapists, shaped by egalitarian ideals, are often challenged by these contradictions.

In Europe, I see more of an emphasis on complementarity -- the appeal of difference -- rather than strict gender equality. This, it seems to me, makes European women feel less conflict about being both smart and sexy. They can enjoy their sexual power, even in the workplace, without feeling they're forfeiting their right to be taken seriously. Susanna, for example, is a Spanish woman with a high-level job at an international company in New York. She sees no contradiction between her work and her desire to express her sexual power -- even among her colleagues. "If compliments are given graciously, they don't offend. We're still men and women who are attracted to one another, and not robots," she says.

Of course, American feminists accomplished major improvements in women's lives in many ways. yet without denigrating their achievements, I believe that the emphasis on egalitarian and respectful sex -- purged of any expressions of power, aggression, and transgression -- is antithetical to erotic desire for men and women alike. The writer Daphne Merkin writes, "No bill of sexual rights can hold its own against the lawless untamable landscape of the erotic imagination." Or as filmmaker Luis Bunuel put it more bluntly, "Sex without sin is like an egg without salt."

-- Esther Perel