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Some Features Of Sexual Attraction

( Originally Published 1957 )

The experience of being "in love" may be a mixture of many emotions, as described by most modern students. Within the experience, there are, of course, some feelings that are not sexual at all, such as pride and possessiveness, jealousy and fear. Being "in love" also encompasses certain feelings which, while they appear to be closely related to sex, seem to be quite unlike the "sensual" ones that lead to physical intercourse. Commonly present, for example, is some degree of appreciation and enjoyment of the "aesthetic" traits of the attractive person. Certain surface features and qualities are known to be pleasing to the senses, and it is common knowledge that the perception of this kind of sexual attractiveness, or "beauty," is something that may differ greatly from one person to another. A number of students of sex behavior believe that the admiration of this kind of attractiveness is of very great importance in the development of sexual love. Since, however, as has often been pointed out, the sex organs themselves have never been regarded as beautiful in themselves, it may be that the feelings aroused by the aesthetic kind of attractiveness are different in some fundamental way from those that lead to the sexual act. A really complete sex psychology will need to tell in what sense or in what way these feelings are "sexual," and like-wise what part they play in the growth of love between men and women.

Everyone knows that what is considered attractiveness in the opposite sex is to a marked degree an individual or "personal" matter. It is generally true, of course, that girls as a class are attractive to boys as a class, but it is equally true, and perhaps even more important, that a girl strongly preferred by one boy will be of little interest to another. There is another kind of human attractiveness, however, which in sharp contrast is much more nearly universal in its standards. Everyone would agree, for example, that traits like cheerfulness and generosity, honesty and courage, may add much to the appeal of an otherwise attractive person of the opposite sex, since these qualities are prized by everybody, regardless of sex. That such traits as these, and many others like them, may have an important place in the growth of love between the sexes has been strongly emphasized by writers on these subjects. Whether, on the other hand, attractions of the amorous or "romantic" type may develop on the basis of traits like these alone, and in the absence of any kind of aesthetic appeal (for example, facial beauty) is a question not so quickly answered, and possibly not answered in the same way for both men and women. That we like cheerful and generous, honest and courageous people seems more closely related to friendships than to the love between man and woman, but we need to know how these two kinds of feeling differ.

Sexual love is usually regarded as including an impulse or feeling that has been variously called benevolent, kindly, or "tender-protective." It is shown in concern for the well-being, comfort, and contentment of another person. It may be seen in several different human settings, but appears in its most nearly "pure" form, perhaps, in the devotion of parents to children. That this feeling is usually, though not always, a part of sexual love appears to be fairly well accepted by writers on the emotions. "It is notorious," Professor McDougall asserts, "that in many women the maternal element is very prominent in their love for their husband or lover," and another psychologist suggests that both members of the pair may have toward each other the perceptions and feelings commonly aroused by children.

Sometimes the "tender-protective" feeling is confused with the sexual emotion, since the loosely-used word "love" is applied to both. The two are often distinguished by calling the one "loving," and the other "being in love." Or, for example: "I feel very affectionate toward him, but I'm not in love with him." But even among scientific students it may happen that a writer who has stated, let us say, that sexual love as seen in our own country is almost unknown among primitive peoples is confronted by a critic with an account of great devotion, of many years' length, between a savage husband and wife. That this is love between the sexes is plain enough, but two men, or two women, who have lived and worked together for a long time might become quite fond of each other, too. Certain feelings, like the tender-protective, which have never been shown to be sexual, may develop between people of opposite sex, just as they do between friends, or between parent and child. The difficulty is that when they arise between a man and a woman, or a boy and a girl, they are likely to be regarded as necessarily sexual feelings, and therefore at times are confused with feelings that really are sexual.

There may be love between the sexes, in other words, which is not sexual love. The confusion resulting from the use of words is aided by the fact that, as has often been noted, the outward signs of the two kinds of feeling may be very similar. Both amorous and "tender" feelings commonly find expression in the desire to be near, and in the urge toward bodily contact or caresses.

Some hold that strong amorous feeling between man and woman means essentially a merging of the selves, so that "the self of one person includes the self of the other, that what is one's is also the other's, that the separation of the lovers means a separation of the self of each." As a result of this there is mutual and complete participation in various experiences, so that if one suffers or enjoys, the other is similarly affected. Yet bonds of this kind are also found in friendships, and they are present in other relationships as well.

We may sum up our thinking, at this point, as follows: If there occurs, in human sexual behavior, a strong emotion that is different from the desire for intercourse, it would be easy to suppose that it consists simply of the sympathetic and tender-protective feeling most familiar to parents, and that this is the true basis of the sex-emotional attraction between man and woman. The terms "sexual love" or "amorous fixation" would then serve simply as labels for attachments in which this feeling is strongly present. If we suppose this, however, we are left with the problem of explaining the various ways in which the experience and the behavior in this kind of attachment differ from that between parent and child, or from that of friendship.

What are these ways, then, in which sexual love differs from other kinds of love? Since many later pages will deal with this question it may be very briefly mentioned here. First of all we may note the intimate relation by age-long tradition between sex interest of this type and those features and characteristics of men and women that are usually regarded as "aesthetic." The typical lover is much more often than not represented as greatly preoccupied with the surface charms of his beloved. The amorous thoughts of men, as Havelock Ellis said, after a survey of the literary expression of this emotion, have always been a "perpetual meditation" upon beauty.

It may for some be difficult to conceive of an "amorous passion" without visual fascination as part of it, to some degree.

There is, again, an urge toward the attractive individual that has far more the appearance of a desire for possession, as of something highly valued and precious, than of a tender-protective concern for his well-being. The essence of our amorous desire, in terms of which much else can be understood, is that the object belong to us.

The amorous emotion is also distinguished by its duration, for few features of this experience have more frequently been noted than its relative briefness, and few observations have more often been made about the emotional relationship in marriage than that the bond of "affection" may long survive the amorous or "romantic" phase.

Finally, we may occasionally observe behavior in the person moved by this emotion that is not easily reconciled with the idea that it is always tender-protective. He may, for example, be capable of considerable cruelty, which is hard to understand if his love is essentially kind. When the novelist Stevenson concluded that "the essence of love is kindness," he was forced to acknowledge that, in amorous emotion, this "kindness" has "run mad and become importunate and violent." If there is truth in the assertion by William James that "The passion of love . . . can coexist with contempt and even hatred for the `object' which inspires it . . . ," or in that of Schopenhauer that "sexual love is compatible even with the extremest hatred," it seems we are forced to believe, either that the tender-protective impulse can assume strange and contradictory appearances, or that sexual love must be something quite different from this impulse.

If we cannot find a satisfactory understanding of the person who is "in love" by tracing his behavior to "kindness and sympathy," then we must seek for some other explanation of the attraction of the sexes, and for a different meaning of the word "amorous."

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