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The Aesthetics of Sex

( Originally Published 1957 )



A repeated theme among modern views of sexual love centers about the effects of that aspect of attractiveness which is known as human aesthetics. Herbert Spencer's much quoted description of "the passion which unites the sexes," includes prominently "those highly complex impressions produced by personal beauty." Alfred Binet found the root of sexual love in a response to beauty, which he characterized as "purely cerebral." Finck held the appreciation of beauty to be "by far the strongest of all ingredients" of amorous desire. Muller-Lyer traced the romantic experience to "pleasure in line and motion . . . beauty of form and colour." Santayana believes that the "whole sentimental side of our aesthetic sensibility . . . is due to our sexual organization remotely stirred," but also observes that "the colour, the grace, the form, which become . . . the guides of sexual selection," acquire, in the course of evolution, "a certain intrinsic charm." In the feelings aroused by such charms, he thinks, "specific sexual ideas" may be absent. M. K. Thomson regards it as "doubtful if love can exist without beauty or esthetic appreciation of some sort."

The idea that love is related to beauty is not of recent origin. Edmund Burke wrote: "By beauty I mean that quality or those qualities in bodies, by which they cause love, or some passion similar to it . . . the passion caused by beauty, which I call love, is different from desire, though desire may sometimes operate along with it . . ." David Hume held "the pleasing sensation arising from beauty" to be one of three distinct components of amorous emotion. Robert Burton, still earlier, wrote that "the most familiar and usual cause of love is that which comes by sight, which conveys those admirable rays of beauty and pleasing graces to the heart."

Such observations suggest that a further difference between genital impulse and amorous desire may lie in the close association of the latter with the "aesthetic" features of the attractive individual and with sex-romantic lyricism in all its forms. It should be noted, though it is something we take quite for granted, that "romanticism" is preoccupied, not with the sex organs, but with such "beauty-points" as the eyes, the mouth, the hair, the voice, grace of movement, etc. Freud noted, and was apparently puzzled by the fact, that while the term "beauty" originally applied, so he believed, to stimuli that aroused sexual excitement, the genitals themselves have never been regarded as beautiful. Weininger regarded the genitals as woman's chief flaw as an aesthetically admirable object, but he did not encounter Freud's difficulty, since he did not try to trace the concept of human beauty from an unaesthetic source.

The whole matter becomes much clearer if we think of our sexual makeup as including two quite different kinds of sensibility. One of these is genital-sex "appetite," the other is a form of aesthetic appreciation. There is, of course, a certain kind of "aesthetics" of sensual desire, and the sex organs may, in the proper mood, attract pleasurable contemplation in their own right. The unlikeness of such pleasures from those associated with "beautiful" objects is, however, clearly reflected in Freud's remark about the genitals. The aesthetics of sensuality are not those of amorous sentiment; the "poetry" of sheer genital desire is not poetry but pornography. In what is usually called obscenity, to quote Lucka, "The aesthetic principle in this connection the sense of the beauty of the human form . . . is excluded, because in this condition the beauty of the human body is not objectively realized, but is looked upon with the eyes of the sense." The photograph of a nude, he continues, is not in itself obscene, but if the face is hidden, and the main focus of aesthetic personality thereby eliminated, the sensual response may have free play. Writing of amorous poetry and given the term "sexual" its usual meaning, Benecke states that "the sexual instinct can never of itself supply the fundamental basis of the feeling necessary for the production of such poetry. Woman, regarded merely as a source of pleasure . . can no more be an object of love than a bottle of brandy ..

The difference between these two kinds of sexual sensibility is fairly clear with respect to the genital regions; the "beauty points" must lie elsewhere. What is there, Finck asked, to excite lasciviousness in the color of the eyes, the curve of an eyebrow, a clear complexion, or a graceful gait? Our feeling about these is as "purely" aesthetic, he thought, "as our admiration of a sunset, a flower, a humming-bird, a lovely child." In view of certain kinds of "peculiar" sex desire to be considered in another chapter such a statement may be regarded as doubtful. It seems possible that there is no part of the human body that may not, in at least a few people, arouse the sensual impulse. We cannot separate the aesthetic and the genital-sex reactions by dividing up the anatomy. The central question concerns the kind of sexual feeling that is aroused, rather than the parts of the body that do the arousing. A familiar example is that of the perception of nude statuary, which may be erotic or "artistic," depending on the attitude of the spectator.

Students of sexual love have tried to find words for the special quality of amorous emotion that would tell how it differs from sensual feeling. Recently, J. K. Folsom, after a "careful scanning of synonyms," selected the word "rapturous" to de-scribe this emotion in its "full realization." It is related, he thinks, to the admiration of beauty, to the awe we feel before things majestic, and to the attitude of reverence in religious worship. While these comparisons may seem well chosen, it is easy to see that "rapturous" labels nothing that is peculiar to the amorous experience. One may become rapturous, obviously, about many things.

Among the reports by the subjects of Dr. Albert Ellis' recent study of the love experiences of college girls, feelings of ado-ration, "moments of ecstacy," and admiration, were prominent. ... most of the subjects said they had highly romantic, tender, yearning, and excited attitudes and feelings toward their most-loved male . . ." Another investigator has offered a description of amorous emotion somewhat like that of Folsom in its stress on the feelings of "beatitude" and "sublimity." He regards it as a "specific" mental state, of great "fullness and richness"; it is also "morally positive" and entirely free of sensual feeling. Lester Ward gave another version: the lover experiences a state of widely spread nervous excitement or exhilaration. This is increased by physical nearness and embrace, and is fully satisfied in this way. (63) An important element of the amorous state as described by Finck is "ecstatic adoration."



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