Sexologist Dr. Pepper Schwartz talks the reality of No Strings Attached

Natalie Portman and Ashton Kutcher play “ friends with benefits “ in No Strings Attached, that is, they have casual and regular sexual encounters on her condition that they don’t get emotional. 

Things go along well for a while but the emotion ban soon starts to eat away at them; love can be a deal breaker. What to do? 

Monsters and Critics had the chance to put renowned sex therapist Dr. Pepper Schwartz, Chief Relationship Expert, Perfectmatch.Com, on the couch to discuss finding the courage to let down the barriers, to see if love is an option.

M&C: You’re a renowned sexologist who examines relationships from an anthropological point of view. What would you say about this couple in No Strings Attached?

Schwartz: I think they are a fascinating couple. He’s a genuinely nice guy with a strong sex drive who is initially attracted to this woman in a number of ways. She only offers a part of her, and he will take what he can get- but when he truly falls in love, he can’t live with the restrictions she imposes- particularly since he knows her truer feelings are deeper. She on the other hand, is a more troubled soul.

She has deep fears about loving and trusting and sex is less intimate for her than intimacy. She cuts and runs and has low self-esteem (” if you are lucky you won’t see me again”) but also courage and principles. A complex and interesting woman.

M&C: The film is about two singles trying to keeping a sexual relationship unemotional. To impose a structure on it. Can that ever work?

Schwartz: Friends with benefits can work for a while – but sooner or later ( usually sooner) one person will either get bored with the arrangement , one person will want more and ask for it -and leave if rebuffed– or both will have their feelings deepen. Very few things stay frozen- it is not the nature of human beings. So yes it can work- but only for a limited period of time.

M&C: How authentic would you say the script is?

Schwartz: The script is pretty on target. The only dicey part is when the heroine realizes she loves him and summons up the emotional courage to reach out and show and feel her love. In real life she might need a psychiatrist or psychologist to help her get to that place.

M&C: What is it that trips people into attraction and separately, love?

Schwartz: Attraction is based usually on either similarity or difference or a strange concoction of the two. Some people are attracted to the exotic, some to the familiar. Love usually grows from admiration, fun, feeling known and appreciated for the right things, for support and expanding horizons within a basis of shared values and goals. When all this lines up, it’s a pretty powerful argument for love.

M&C: How about the balance of power in their relationship?

Schwartz: The balance of power in their relationship is fluid. There is banter, give and take, testing that goes on that shows they respect each other’s mind, spirit and personality. In real life, over a long period of time, power can fluctuate – as feelings and circumstances change.

Power is also part of personality- are people interested in, willing to share or needing to dominate? Both of these people like some control- and this is triple true for her. So part of their attraction is conquering each other. But neither of them really wants to be able to do it completely.

M&C: Do you consult on scripts for realism?

Schwartz: Yes I have. I think most movies and plays and books are best when they use experts to verify what would happen in ‘real life’ with characters similar to the ones imagined by the author.

M&C: The supporting cast is pretty interesting.  Lake Bell’s character, his would be lover, is stressed, hysterical and nervous.  Sex seems impossible for her.  What’s your diagnosis?

Schwartz: Ah yes, she is the one with terminally low self-esteem. A real pleaser– at least to those whose approval she seeks. I could see her as the child of alcoholic parents– trying to make things better– or a neglected or even abused child- where she was un-nurtured by parents, shy and never learned even rudimentary social skills.

She is an interesting mix of being aggressive and introverted- maybe with a little Asperger’s thrown in. I thought of our duet profile when I was comparing her versus the Portman role- Portman and Kutcher are both strong personalities, but they have some nice complementarily qualities. 

She is a risk taker, he is not (except in love), she is more introverted than he is, (he is certainly an extrovert) and she is cautious where he is optimistic. But they have some similarities that work and make them interesting to one another.  They both have dominant types of personality, both smart, both sensitive and intuitive and that serves as a base for their attraction, while their differences make them interesting to each other.

The Bell character is not dominant, not risk taking, not intuitive but she is certainly smart and optimistic (at least about work). You can see why Kutcher would like her if her neuroses and lack of social skills didn’t handicap her so badly!

M&C: Why did you go into the study of sex to begin with? How did you break it to your parents?

Schwartz: My mother was very progressive. She allowed me to have sex education workshops in my basement when I was eleven! But I got professionally interested in graduate school. My parents were worried that this would undermine my career. But they were reassured by my getting a job and getting tenure. My dad was a bit of a prude. 

I am not sure he ever read what I wrote! Some of my mentors in graduate school tried to dissuade me but it was the sexual revolution, the woman’s movement and the civil rights movement.  They realized I had a passionate interest in the intersection of these liberation movements and so they didn’t try hard to dissuade me!

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