Talking with Bat Sheva Marcus reminds me of that old joke about Puritanism: It’s the horrifying notion that someone, somewhere, might be having a good time.
This isn’t because Marcus, a sex therapist and the author of a new book called Sex Points, is a sanctimonious scold. But her approach might be best described as Puritanism’s polar opposite: For her, what’s truly frightening is the possibility that someone (more specifically, a sexually active woman) might not be having a good time—or at least, not as good a time as she could be.
In this day and age, a therapist who takes women’s satisfaction seriously shouldn’t be unusual. And yet, the idea that women can and should enjoy sex still carries a whiff of the radical. Despite the sexual revolution and rise of hookup culture that all but dispelled the stigma surrounding casual encounters, we’re still haunted by the sense that there’s something unnecessary, even unseemly, about female pleasure. The old lie-back-and-think-of-England approach might have gone out of fashion, but even current notions of sexual empowerment don’t so much subvert that norm as take its opposition to disturbing extremes. Consider last year’s “WAP,” Cardi B’s paean to female arousal: Even as it imagines a house literally flooded with vaginal secretions, the song says virtually nothing about pleasure (and a lot, weirdly enough, about the economic benefits conferred by being a woman with, er, the condition for which “WAP” is an acronym—a transactional view of sex to which enjoyment is incidental, if not irrelevant).
By comparison, Marcus’ approach isn’t just unusual but practically countercultural. She believes in a holistic approach to improving her patients’ lives, but she eschews the tired self-help tropes and notions of brokenness that dominate so much writing about women’s sexual health. And unlike some of her trendier counterparts, she’s an unapologetic cheerleader for monogamy as a source of enrichment and satisfaction for those who can stick it out.
“It doesn’t mean everyone has to do it,” Marcus told me, chatting from her office over Zoom between therapy clients. “But long-term monogamy has a lot of lovely aspects and qualities.” And while she notes that monogamy is complicated, it’s not for the reasons—or because of the people—we tend to imagine. While men are the ones with the societal pass to complain about being tied to one partner, it’s women who struggle the most—and then blame themselves.
“Women always come in and say, I have no desire,” she said. “They immediately go down that rabbit hole: If I’m not interested in sex with my husband, it must be some problem in the relationship that I haven’t identified. But that is just simply not true. We think women don’t have desire, but they just don’t have desire for this guy. It’s not new and hot and erotic anymore. And he could be amazing! It’s just the roteness of it.”
Marcus traces her current career trajectory back to a moment roughly 20 years ago when Viagra first broke onto the landscape of men’s sexual health. For ages, men’s sexual dysfunction had been a source of suffering and anxiety—and yet here, suddenly, was a simple medical solution. For Marcus, the implications across gender lines were obvious: “Maybe women’s sexual problems aren’t all in their heads, either! Maybe it’s not just a bunch of frigid women!”
You can see how Sex Points eventually turned up, downstream from that epiphany. “We still live in this crazy binary society where it’s either medical or psychological,” Marcus said. “The therapists think they can fix everything by talking to you; the medical providers think the talking isn’t that important. I get so exasperated.” Instead, her approach leans into the entanglement of brain and body, the messiness that makes us human. The book is science-driven but not clinical, and Marcus admits that her one fear is that this might lead people to take it less seriously, which prompts feminist grumbling from me: Why must it be seen as unserious to meet women where they are? To talk about things in a way that is accessible, personal, compassionate? Sex Points is meant to be fun, but that doesn’t make it frivolous.
And it is, I have to say, a lot of fun. Marcus mentioned Cosmo (the magazine, not the Kramer) as a model for her authorial tone, and it’s very much in that wheelhouse: The book opens with a quiz, where the answers clearly map onto a 1-5 scale where 1 is totally dysfunctional and 5 is mighty. It’s not subtle, but like Marcus herself, the quiz makes it easy to be honest, and it’s smart about delineating categories that assess the presence of physical dysfunction while also sussing out how you think and feel about sex. For instance, a question about pain during penetration offers a range of answers from the vehement (“No way I’m putting anything into my vagina”) to the bewildered (“Pain? Why should there be any pain?”).
Marcus is always ready to meet her clients where they are—including on Instagram and TikTok, where you might find her piling dildos into a wicker basket, debunking the myth that sexy people have better sex, or doing a video segment on what the TV series Bridgerton gets right about intimacy. Most of the time, she said, pop culture just makes her job harder—“Movies show the penis finding its way into the vagina like a homing pigeon, the woman having this fabulous orgasm, God only knows how”—so when a show nails it, so to speak, it’s worth celebrating. (In case you’re wondering, the Duke is 100% correct to suggest that his bride stimulate herself manually during intercourse.)
Meanwhile, harmful myths about sex persist because we’re too embarrassed to talk about it. Marcus was raised in an Orthodox community where sex education, in her words, “sucked”—and that’s nothing new. During our conversation she recalled the story of Rav Kahana, who hid under his mentor’s bed in order to listen in on his sex life—and when discovered, came up with an audacious defense for his peeping: “This is Torah and I need to learn it!”
“Nothing has changed in thousands of years,” Marcus said. “We don’t tell our kids anything, and then they do crazy things because they don’t understand sex.”
Marcus sees a throughline between matters of intimacy and matters of faith—and important connections between the Jewish idea of pleasure in service of a higher ideal and the more earthly, physical variety she encourages her clients to seek: “Pleasure, but in service of a long-term union between two people.”
In other words, value and seek good sex—not just for your own sake, but because physical intimacy is the glue that makes a monogamous relationship strong, a higher plane of connection that you share with your partner and nobody else. And if you struggle with that, don’t worry, because there’s a solution for you.
The accessibility and practicality of Marcus’ approach sets her apart from some of her other, more famous colleagues, most notably Esther Perel. When I mentioned Perel’s name, Marcus laughed at the comparison: “She’s just really hot!”
Which, well, yes; Tablet’s own profile of Perel notes that the sex therapist doesn’t just give voice to uncomfortable truths about marriage and monogamy, but that she looks pretty fantastic doing it, which is an undeniable part of her appeal. What Marcus offers is something warmer and more grounded. She doesn’t go in for breathy abstraction; you won’t find her doing a TED Talk in high heels and a white silk blouse, and she won’t ask you to rethink your bourgeois notions of fidelity and loyalty when all you want is to make your marriage better. She’s not a philosopher or an aspirational sex symbol. She’s a 60-year-old grandma with a basket of dildos and a comforting message: Whatever is wrong, it’s not hopeless. Let’s figure it out.
Anyone can do this, Marcus stressed.
“You can’t make everyone’s sex life perfect,” she said, “but you can make it much better.”
Kat Rosenfield is a culture writer and novelist. Her next book, No One Will Miss Her, will be published by William Morrow in October 2021.