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One Kind Of Sex

( Originally Published 1957 )



Hunger and the sex impulse are often compared. Both are importantly related to "body rhythms," and both require specific acts for satisfaction. In both, strong preferences may be shown in the way in which the desire is to be satisfied. To illustrate the idea that the amorous emotion is a "sublimation" of the sexual impulse, let us apply it in an imaginative way to hunger. Suppose a hungry man begins a search with a particular food in mind as best suited to his taste. Failing to find it, we should expect that, as hunger increases, this preference would become less important, and that finally he would make his choice in a much less discriminating manner. We should expect a certain versatility of choice as desire increased. The man would become more "promiscuous" in his food responses.

If we were to find, on the contrary, that repeated efforts to obtain the food first sought resulted, not in a "compromise" but in a more and more exclusive interest in this food and loss of interest in all other varieties, we should doubtless mark this as a highly unusual need for nourishment. We might question whether such peculiar behavior might not mean some sort of change in the need itself by which it became something more than ordinary hunger.

If we take the genital impulse as, essentially, the whole of sex, the growth of an amorous attachment presents behavior somewhat like such a food "fixation." We must picture the sexually aroused individual, on being blocked in his efforts to satisfy this desire with one person of the opposite sex, becoming increasingly persistent and exclusive in his interest in that person. All others, instead of rising in value as means of escape from frustration, become less important. Frustration, far from forcing him to versatility, somehow brings about a "fixed idea" in relation to one person. This strange fixity is thus seen as the effect of a change in the original desire. From an appetite it has become an "emotion," or a "sentiment."

We are faced with the choice, it seems, of regarding sex desire as a peculiar one which changes, when checked, into another and different kind of desire; or we can accept All-port's view that "One cannot sublimate starvation nor a distended sex-gland," and seek another meaning, altogether, of sexual love.

We may note, in passing, that the total mobilizing power of amorous emotion appears to be greater than that of sex desire. A report that a man had been driven to abandon his family, risk his career or reputation (or forfeit a throne) to satisfy his sexual impulse with a particular woman might well raise a question about the normality of his sexual make-up, or even of his mental status. An amorous emotion rising to a comparable pitch of motive strength, while it may be considered extraordinary and perhaps unfortunate, is not commonly regarded (except by one school of thought) as beyond the normal. Some of the classical and often idealized instances of the grand passion are of this character. Accounting for such behavior as this by sublimation becomes paradoxical with recall of Freud's statement that this process can dispose of but a small fraction of sexual energy.

The view that the essence of everything sexual centers in the genital impulse has been illustrated with the writings of Have-lock Ellis. The key to his thinking has been stated: that the whole purpose of the attraction and association of the sexes is the arousal of sexual "excitement." It can also be said, of course, that the "purpose" of this excitement is an act that may repro-duce the species. This is the "biology" of it, at least. Ellis admits that while reproduction is the natural purpose of the sexual impulse, we cannot say that the desire to reproduce is a part of it. We cannot, as he says, fully describe this impulse "by merely stating its ultimate object." If this is true, the question should be asked whether the attraction of the sexes is, itself, to be fully described as the arousal of "excitement," or whether this description, once given, can claim to be the whole of the psychology of sex.

Such a claim fails, we suggest, if it can be shown that court-ship includes sexual experiences that are as free of the genital impulse as the latter may be free of the desire to reproduce. In treating all phases of sex behavior merely as stimuli to genital excitement, this view omits to tell the supreme fact that these phases may, as experiences, have no such meaning, that they may be experienced wholly as "ends," rather than as means; as gratifications rather than as incitements. Some remarks by Karl Groos could be applied as well to amorous as to genital-sex behavior:

While in eating and drinking, so far as directed by hunger, the real end, the preservation of life, is always in view, the real end of lovers' dalliance, namely, the preservation of the species, is far in the background. It is true that we sometimes eat and drink for the enjoyment it gives, as well as to satisfy hunger and renew our strength, yet the practical bearing of the act is so closely and in-separably connected with it that only under very special circumstances can we speak of it as playful. It is quite otherwise with the caresses and the traffic of love. Here the practical results are so far removed and the things in themselves are so enjoyable that such language is quite justified.

In Ellis' psychology, as was noted, there is but one essential meaning of the sex relationship, and this is expressed in the genital impulse. Only when desire is impeded or blocked do other kinds of behavior and experience arise. These cannot be seen as truly basic, however, since they are but delay-reactions, a kind of emotional side-effect. Ellis shows relatively little interest in them. His psychology of sex may therefore be regarded, by his own definition, as mainly a study of the uninhibited impulse. His view of human sexual nature might be called a "single factor" theory. That he may himself have felt somewhat doubtful of the notion of amorous experience as an "irradiation" of the genital impulse is suggested in his comment that "what has always baffled men in the contemplation of sexual love is the seeming inadequacy of its cause, the immense discrepancy between the necessarily circumscribed region of mucous membrance which is the final goal of such love and the sea of world-embracing emotions to which it seems as the door ... " In a very brief chapter on sexual love he is willing to agree with the observation that "there is no subject more mysterious." One recalls Freud's confession, according to Reik, that "we really know very little about love."

This "single-element" view, which traces so much to the genital impulse, tells us very little about the place of aesthetic attractiveness in sexual behavior. Yet many have suggested, as was earlier noted, that sexual beauty may be very importantly related to sexual love. Psychoanalysis, Freud says, "has less to say about beauty than about most things." Sublimation, in this case, seems to mean that the perception of beauty is at root sensual, and becomes aesthetic in quality when inhibited. Freud states that the idea of beauty "signified originally that which is sexually exciting." Perhaps this means that different degrees of beauty really stand for different degrees of "sensual appeal" transformed into attractiveness of a more "artistic" kind. But how are we to account for sexual aversions? These are no less real than attractions. Even the lower animals exhibit strong and persistent antipathies, suggesting that these may be primary facts of sexuality. A satisfactory account of this very clearly important part of human sexual sensibility should be able to include both sides of the aesthetic response within its scope.

A further difficulty in the workings of sublimation, seen in Freud's comment on the strangely unaesthetic character of the sex organs, was mentioned earlier. Under the same heading is the fact that Ellis, although he tells us that beauty contributes little to the amorous experience, finds that he must devote one of his longest sections to vision, the "most aesthetic of the senses," because it is "the supreme sense" in relation to sexual choice. Such contradictions suggest the need of much repair, if not a partial rebuilding, of sex psychology.

To link the whole of sexual behavior and experience with the genital impulse, the idea of sublimation, or something like it, is necessary. Certain of its shortcomings have been noted. Some views of the amorous emotion, which begin with an altogether different account of our sexual make-up, will next be considered.



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