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Sex Attraction Is Not Rational

( Originally Published 1957 )

A very old doctrine about sexual love is that it is irrational, or nonrational. This kind of attraction is supposed to be some-thing beyond logic. It is not supposed to "make sense." This characteristic has, in fact, been seen as a mark of the genuineness of the experience itself. Thus one writer states: "The amorous choice is not a rational act, and one may rightly feel suspicious that where choice is rational there is probably no love." Another believes that "It is not true love when one knows precisely why he loves." In countless amorous lyrics the enraptured singer is never finished with the theme that he does not know why he feels as he does. This kind of irrationality is socially approved, as has been pointed out: "An individual is expected to marry because of love. This love is held to be irrational Clove is blind'). This very irrationality is approved. If a young person gives consideration to rational factors in the choice of a mate, he is often looked upon as too calculating and conniving to be in love; hence he will not `live happily ever after,' for only those who fall, and fall too hard to think, enjoy that prospect." The effect of the emotion on rationality is noted by a student of marriage, who advises: "if one is to use his head in mate selection, he must do it early. The only time in the process that the intellect is capable of functioning successfully is before, not after, one has fallen in love . . ."

The idea that sexual attraction is something beyond reason has doubtless done much to give it romantic coloring. If attraction is something outside of logic, a person is free to believe in such mysteries as special "affinities," or an instinctive feeling when the "one and only" mate is encountered, and so on. Doubtless it is much more interesting to think of attraction in this romantic fashion than to know why, exactly, one is affected intensely by a particular person. From this, probably, comes the idea that to analyze the emotion would rob it of one of its most precious qualities. It is for this reason, according to one philosopher, that a woman's "intuition" tells her to resist any attempt to discover the source of her attraction. She wishes to be valued, not for this trait or that, but for her entire and unstudied self. "The moment one is able to say because, one is no longer under the spell ... "

Where did this notion that sex attraction is unacountable come from? We may surmise at outset that very often the emotionally affected person not only does not know precisely what features of the "love object" make it attractive to him, but that it is usually quite beyond his purpose to discover them. He is too fully occupied and even overwhelmed with the emotion itself to think of looking for its exact causes, even if he wanted to. It is enough for him that he knows, and is very sure that he knows, what he wants. Another reason for our ignorance about the precise points of attraction is the tendency for an attractive trait to radiate its effects upon other traits, and over the entire personality, which thereby acquires a kind of reflected attractiveness. Thus, a student remarked that the refined appearance of a girl's hands seemed to raise her "quality" as a whole, and another reported a marked change in his total impression of a feminine acquaintance after he noted, for the first time, the grace of her walk. This tendency of one trait to influence the perception of others would make it more difficult to locate the original sources of attraction.

Still another, and more important source of the "doctrine of irrationality" lies, we suggest, in the frequency with which attractions are the result of highly individual preferences of the kind that prompt the familiar comment that "there is no accounting for taste" in such matters. To illustrate: when a particular person is by general agreement regarded as sexually attractive and endowed with an amiable, animated, and generous disposition, people will find no excuse for remarks about the peculiar quirks and general freakishness of sexual choice. It is when this kind of agreement is lacking, and when someone makes a choice that is "unpopular," unique, and therefore hard to understand, that there will be talk about the irrationality of human behavior in such matters.

Macaulay's description of an "infatuation" of James II may be cited as an example.

The beauty . . . which distinguished the favorite ladies of Charles was not necessary to James . . . when young, [he] had surrendered his liberty, descended below his rank and incurred the displeasure of his family, for the coarse features of Anne Hyde. He had soon, to the great diversion of the whole court, been drawn away from his plain consort by a plainer mistress, Arabella Churchill ... But of all his illicit attachments the strongest was that which bound him to Catharine Sedley . . . Personal charm she had none, with the exception of two brilliant eyes, the lustre of which, to men of delicate taste, seemed fierce and unfeminine. Her form was lean, her countenance haggard. Charles, though he liked her conversation, laughed at her ugliness, and said that the priests must have recommended her to his brother by way of penance . . . The nature of her influence over James is not easily to be explained. He was no longer young. He was a religious man; at least he was willing to make for his religion exertions and sacrifices from which the great majority of those who are called religious men would shrink. It seems strange that any attraction should have drawn him into a course of life which he must have regarded as highly criminal; and in this case none could understand where the attraction lay. Catharine herself was astonished by the violence of his passion. "It cannot be my beauty," she said, "for he must see that I have none; and it cannot be my wit; for he has not enough to know that I have any." "

It is likely, then, that some of the famous unreasonableness of amorous behavior may be traced to the high degree of individuality that may be shown in sexual preference, or the "love choice." It will depend upon how well people agree on the sexual desirability of any given individual. The farther anyone's taste departs from popular standards of sexual attractiveness, the more "irrational" it will be said to be. As De Rougemont says, ". . . a man who falls passionately in love with a woman he alone finds beautiful is supposed to be a prey to nerves."

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