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Modern Views of Sexual Emotion - Herbert Spencer

( Originally Published 1957 )

If any one writer on the nature of sexual emotion has been most often quoted, it is probably the nineteenth-century philosopher, Herbert Spencer, who "alone," in the opinion of a con-temporary, "approximates to a true theory. His analysis of sexual love has been justly praised ... " It is, first of all, a model example of what may be called an "omnibus" definition, in that it includes several feelings which, while they may accompany the emotion, occur in nonsexual experience as well. He begins:

. The passion which unites the sexes . . . is habitually spoken of as though it were a simple feeling; whereas it is the most compound, and therefore the most powerful, of all feelings. Added to the purely physical elements of it, are first . . . those highly complex impressions produced by personal beauty; around which are ... a variety of pleasurable ideas, not in themselves amatory, but which have . . . relation to the amatory feeling. With this there is united the complex sentiment which we term affection a sentiment which, as it can exist between those of the same sex, must be regarded as an independent sentiment, but one which is here greatly exalted. Then there is the sentiment of admiration, respect or reverence . . . which in this relation becomes in a high degree active. There comes next the feeling called love of approbation. To be preferred above all the world, and that by one admired beyond all others, is to have the love of approbation gratified in a degree passing every previous experience: especially as there is added that indirect gratification of it which results from the preference being witnessed by unconcerned persons." "

Spencer continues the list with self-esteem, which is agreeably raised by winning emotional possession of another; the "proprietary feeling" of pleasure in this possession; and finally, the enjoyment of another's participation in our own pleasure. All of these, "greatly exalted ... unite to form the mental state we call love."

This famous summing-up is noteworthy in showing how many and various are the feelings that may enter into the amorous experience, and how large a portion of the emotional life may be affected. Notice, however, that only two of the ingredients are actually sexual in the sense of being found only in the relationship between man and woman: these are the genital impulse ("physical elements") and the response to personal beauty. Notice also that the "irresistible power" of sexual love is supposed to lie in the combination of several different ingredients. Its great strength lies, in other words, in the number of motives it arouses. Its total power is the sum of many smaller powers.

Let us simplify Spencer's idea and put it into terms of de-sires. It seems to mean that, when "in love," we desire a person because apart from the genital impulse we greatly admire, and therefore assumedly want to possess the person; that we desire the enjoyment of being exclusively preferred by one so admired; that we desire the increased self-esteem which will come with the winning of possession; and because we desire strongly to express our affection for this person, and so on through the list. The question may then be asked: What gives the attractive person the power to command this admiration and respect, and to make exclusive preference by him so gratifying to self-esteem? What gives his approval such power to gratify the need of approval, and what makes possession so pleasurable, and "liberty of action" so much desired? What is it, in other terms, that stimulates so many different desires?

The answer is, we suggest, that if these various other desires are aroused, it is because of the sexual value or attraction of the object, and that if they are strongly aroused, it is because of the strength of that attraction. Most people would agree, probably, that the different motives Spencer mentions may enter into the experience, and may contribute to the total interest, but it seems necessary to emphasize that the sexual interest is basic to the others. "At bottom," as Ribot points out in his comment, "the irresistible element is in the sexual instinct ..." (45) It would be well, likewise, to avoid mixing the "strengths" of different motives. If, for example, a man commits an act of violence because of sexual desire, we would say that the violence only shows the force of the sexual impulse, rather than that it adds to, or is a part of, that impulse.

What Spencer has given is, for the most part, a kind of "survey" of the many different feelings and emotions that may accompany the amorous desire proper. His summary is not likely to be satisfying, however, to a person whose interest lies, not so much in how complex this emotional condition may be, as in the nature of the amorous feeling itself. Granted, as has been said, that several sentiments may be active together, the result is still no more than a complex of several sentiments, and does not enlighten us much about the special quality of the amorous emotion. We may call attention, however, to the fact that, in Spencer's statement, the sole element (apart from genital desire) which uniquely distinguishes the sex relation from all others is the response evoked by the aesthetic features of the object.

Spencer does not, incidentally, touch on the possibility of accounting for differences in character between one amorous attachment and another by way of the number and strength of the different motives that compose them. Also he does not mention individual differences in the response to aesthetic features; that is, the factor of choice.

A critic questioned the presence of "affection" in Spencer's list, pointing out the frequency with which love is linked, not with affection, but with hatred. (46) Affection is not the result of sexual love, he thought, but seems rather to grow, in large part, out of repeated contacts and relationships over a period of time. Affection is therefore not essential to the love-bond, and it is only a coincidence when the two are allied. Owing to our strong habit of associating "love" with the tender-protective and altruistic feelings, such a statement as this may seem strange. Reasons for separating these feelings from the amorous emotion were given earlier. It might not be easy to discover how often such feelings are a part of the amorous experience. The importance of including them in a description of it would depend in part upon their frequency.

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