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Modern Views of Sexual Emotion - Havelock Ellis

( Originally Published 1957 )



The view that sexual love, or the amorous emotion, is a kind diluted or "spiritualized" form of genital-sex desire is widely current. The sexual impulse, like hatred, for example, is supposed to have its refined or "cultured" outlets as well as its blunt and naked ones. If it were true, as some believe, that amorous behavior is a fairly recent event in human history, then the difference between the romantic and the directly sensual varieties of sex behavior could be seen simply as a further example of the contrast between civilized and primitive deportment. As one student puts it, ". . . just as in the beast of prey the instinct of ravenous pursuit is refined into the various arts of the chase, so from . . . crude efforts at wooing, that courtship has finally developed in which sexual passion is psychologically sublimated into love."

Among outstanding modern treatments of sex psychology is that of Havelock Ellis. It is remarkable as an attempt to trace almost the whole of human sexual behavior back or down to the genital impulse. In thus reducing everything to a single motive, it represents a great effort at simplification.

In reading Ellis there is little need to be concerned over the meanings of words. The term "sexual desire" needs no preliminary definition. It means here just what it does in everyday speech. The study of it rests upon what Ellis terms the "solid bed-rock of nature," meaning that it is well grounded in biology and is best illustrated from the behavior of the lower animals and of savages.

All that is really important about human sexual behavior, Ellis believes, is related in some way to the sexual impulse. Sex has two phases. The first is the building up of excitement to the pitch necessary for the sexual act. The second is the abrupt ending of this excitement in the sexual orgasm, with its release of mental and physical tension. The first phase ". . . is by far the most important, and nearly the whole of sexual psychology is rooted in it." (9) It may be greatly drawn-out and complicated, and is known as "sexual courtship." Courtship here means the progressive arousal of the impulse by way of various kinds of stimulation. At the beginning, courtship is psychological; then changes in circulation occur, leading to congestion of the genitals. The finale is the explosive climax of this charging of the sexual mechanism. This is the goal and meaning of every-thing that precedes it. Sexual interest and attraction in all their details, the entire "voyage of exploration and discovery," which begins with the first encounter with one of the opposite sex, and which may be experienced at times as far remote from sensual thoughts or sensual arousal, is all no more than a preliminary on the way to genital contact, which is and always has been the underlying meaning.

Ellis gives a long description of the courtship behavior of the lower animals and of primitive men, since "as will be seen, the process in both is identical." He thinks that while it "may seem a long leap from birds to man; yet . . . the phenomena among primitive human peoples, if not, indeed, among many civilized peoples also, closely resembles those found among birds. . " (10) He is especially interested in the evidence that dancing, as a part of primitive courtship practices, is essentially a sexual stimulant. "It is everywhere the instinctive object of the male ... to assure by his activity in display, his energy or skill or beauty, both his own passion and the passion of the female."

Dr. Albert Moll once proposed that there is evidence, in human courtship, of a kind of sexual interest that is not the same as sensual desire, that occurs apart from it, and that makes its first appearance at an earlier age. Ellis replies that the in-dependence of such an interest may be seriously questioned, and that if we seek the true meaning of courtship behavior in man we must carefully observe the lower animals. He finds, in Darwin's writings, two different ways of explaining the brilliant coloring displayed and the musical sounds made by birds and insects. One of these is that such colors and sounds appeal to the aesthetic sensibilities, and that this response to "beauty" leads to choice of mates. The other is that there is nothing of an aesthetic nature in animal pairing, and that visual and musical "allurements" are no more than stimulants designed to excite the animal to the mating act. The question, in other words, is whether mate selection is a matter of choosing the individual of more pleasing appearance, for example, or is an affair of stronger sexual arousal by the animal whose characteristics are better adapted to excite this instinct. There can be no doubt, Ellis decides, but that the latter view is preferable. The "love-combats, pursuits, dances and parades" in the court-ship of birds serve only as stimulants to physical mating.

Turning to man, he consistently applies the sex courtship idea taken from animal studies, and again denies that aesthetic factors are of importance in human mating. "Love springs up as a response to a number of stimuli . . . the object that most adequately arouses [the sexual impulse] being that which evokes love; the question of aesthetic beauty, although it develops on this basis, is not in itself fundamental and need not even be consciously present at all." There are two different responses to beauty, he thinks: one is aesthetic, the other is genital arousal, and it is the latter, mainly, from which sexual love originates. His conclusion somewhat resembles that of Mantegazza, that "beauty appears to us the more perfect the more it arouses our sexual desires." Ellis cites DeGourmont concerning the close association of beauty with "carnal pleasure," to the effect that art itself could not have originated without this "genital echo."

The study of human sexual choice, Ellis continues, is the study of the stimuli that arouse sexual desire. Such stimuli affect us by way of four senses: touch, smell, hearing, and sight. Among these, touch is of great importance. "It is because the sexual orgasm is founded on a special adaptation and intensification of touch sensations that the sense of touch generally is to be regarded as occupying the very first place in reference to the sexual emotions." It is further illustrative of Ellis' devotion to what might be called the "animal level" of sexual behavior that his treatment of touch and smell are extensive and detailed. He observes that touch is the least aesthetic of all the senses. Smell, likewise, is low in this value; it was more important in our animal past, "had its flowering time before men arose"; its place in sexual selection is small. Discussion of these two senses occupies over one hundred pages in Ellis' book, however, as compared with some seventy pages for vision.

Considering his view on aesthetics, it is a curious fact (to be considered later) that Ellis should regard vision "the most aesthetic of the senses" as the supreme sense in the matter of sexual choice, and that he should concede that the "love-thoughts of men have always been a perpetual meditation on beauty." (15) He quotes long descriptions of ideal sexual beauty in various nations and races. In all of these, visual traits are prominent. "The richly laden word beauty is a synthesis of complex impressions obtained through a single sense, and so simple, comparatively, and vague are the impressions derived from the other senses that none of them can furnish us with any corresponding word." The meaning of beauty, he finds, is mainly feminine. The male body evokes no interest in woman corresponding to man's sexual enthusiasm concerning hers. Here, again, the usual emphasis is placed upon traits closely related to the excitation of the sexual impulse, that is, the breasts, hips, thighs, etc. In the common notion that it is strength rather than beauty that women desire in men Ellis finds something deeper. Male vigor stands for something sexual. For women it is a sign of "pressure energy." Masculine strength is a symbol of the physical force required by the more active role of the male in the sexual embrace.

What does it mean that the emotion aroused by a beautiful face is not the same as the emotion aroused by the sex organs? Ellis admits a difference between the aesthetic and the sensual varieties of sexual allurement. The genitals are not beautiful, "however sexually desirable and attractive they may become to the opposite sex under the influence of emotion." He distinguishes further between the two feelings in the "strange perturbations" which may be evoked by a youth's perception of a girl's breasts. While granting that the features of beauty appeal "at once to the sexual and to the aesthetic impulses," he does not try to find a meaning in the unlikeness of these two kinds of sexual attractiveness. Despite a long discussion of sexual beauty, he does not consider any possible emotional effects this beauty might have other than as a stimulant to sex desire. Neither does he try to separate the aesthetic effects of sexual and nonsexual beauty. It is very clear that he regards the aesthetic side of sexual interest as of little importance in choice.

Nevertheless, when he finally comes to a brief discussion of human sexual love, the comparisons with animal behavior disappear from Ellis' treatment. The sexual impulse now be-comes the "least animal-like" of man's acquisitions. In no animal are the expressions of the impulse so "highly developed, so varied in . . . manifestations . . . so capable of irradiating the highest and remotest parts of the organism." While sensual desire is a necessary part of sexual love, it is only when this desire undergoes an "irradiative" process that sexual love in its highest forms appears. The "irradiation" is a kind of spreading of the sexual impulses "through the whole organ-ism, taking longer nervous circuits and suffusing regions which are outside the sexual sphere so long as the sexual impulse attains its ends speedily and without impediments." Along with the spreading, the impulses reach their higher form by mixing with altruistic feelings, and with the "tender-protective" emotion earlier discussed.

Just what does this mean? Whatever questions are left unanswered, the statement clearly suggests a process of change whereby the sexual impulse becomes a different emotion. The idea of this kind of emotional change is closely related to the doctrine of sublimation earlier mentioned as a widely current way of tracing other kinds of feeling and emotion to genital desire.

It may be noted that "reducing" sexual love to the genital impulse does not, for Ellis, lower its dignity or diminish its high stature as an experience, nor does it bleach the emotion of any of its traditional colorings. The fact of sexual love is one of the solid realities of life, he thinks, and makes a part of the "spiritual" structure of society. However few may be emotion-ally capable of its more exalted forms, its supreme value has received testimonials enough from the greatest minds of all times.



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