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Modern Views of Sexual Emotion - Freud

( Originally Published 1957 )

Both of these ideas appear in what Sigmund Freud has to say about sublimation. In the sexually mature person, Freud states, we find sensual love, or the impulse to direct genital contacts, and also a sentimental, tender, and "unsensual" emotion, which is the form taken by sensual desire when checked in its aim. Sex feelings that have been changed as a result of blocking are said to be "aim-inhibited." The depth of the experience of being "in love" depends on how much inhibition there is. (26) The changing of sensual impulses need not be complete, however, and the desire felt for a person may be partly sensual and partly nonsensual or "tender." Being in love, Freud says, represents the simultaneous presence of sensual feelings along with "aim-inhibited" tendencies. The tender feelings that are so prominent a part of sexual love are always to be seen as sublimation of sensual impulses, resulting from restraint.

Amorous experience of the "romantic" variety has long been thought of as including a tendency toward exaggerated adoration for the attractive person. The latter is greatly exalted, while the lover feels himself unworthy. This is called by Freud "sexual over-estimation the fact that the loved object enjoys a certain amount of freedom from criticism, and that all its characteristics are valued more highly than those of people who are not loved, or than its own were at a time when it itself was not loved." (28) This heightened valuation tends to em-brace the entire person. It extends to mental as well as physical characteristics. It is one of the sources of the amorous emotion, Freud thinks, and can best be observed in men; women are less inclined in this direction. If sensual impulses are fully repressed, the illusion results that the object is valued because of its "spiritual merits." The stronger the sensual desire, when inhibited, the higher the overvaluation will be. That this must be true will be seen in the fact that "each sexual satisfaction always involves a reduction in sexual over-estimation." (29) While Freud makes a distinction between sublimating and overestimating, their conditions seem to be similar. Amorous feeling is made up of tender impulses and of exaggerated admiration, and both come about when the sex impulse is blocked.

The fact that sexual love lasts longer than sensual desire is a further result of the same kind of emotional change. There is a kind of sexual attachment that is "kept going" solely by sensual needs, and here the attraction ceases with each satisfaction. Yet, since we know that desire will return, the person who provides satisfaction continues to be prized as a source of future enjoyments, and on this basis a bond of some duration may be formed. When the sexual impulse is denied, the sensual attraction is transformed into a more lasting attachment, and this is because of the tender feelings, which have little resemblance to the desire from which they came. Inhibited desires have thus a great advantage, Freud thinks, over those that are freely satisfied. "Since they are not capable of really complete satisfaction, they are especially adapted to create permanent ties; while those instincts which are directly sexual incur a loss of energy each time they are satisfied, and must wait to be renewed by a fresh accumulation of sexual libido.

The changing of normally short-lived sensual impulses into the lasting ties of tender emotion is a common occurrence. The two kinds of feeling are capable, moreover, of "any degree of admixture." This means that sensual and tender impulses may exist together, and the latter can moreover be changed back into the former. Freud believes that "the depth to which anyone is in love, as contrasted with his purely sensual desire, may be measured by the size of the share taken by the inhibited instincts of tenderness."

Still another feature of the amorous experience the aesthetic is brought into the picture. That our response to human beauty has its origin in our sexual nature is certain, Freud thinks. The love of beauty, however, is another example of an "aim-inhibited" feeling. The sensual urge is sublimated into an "artistic" interest when turned from the sex organs to the form of the body. The double nature of sexual sensibility is seen in the fact that these organs are "always exciting" but not beautiful.

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