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Apparent Independence of Amorous Emotion

( Originally Published 1957 )

Amorous Behavior in Childhood

SOME OF THE FINDINGS of studies of amorous behavior, and some examples of the behavior itself, may now be briefly examined. These descriptions of experience and of response in sexual emotion are presented, in the main, as illustrations of its apparent independence, and of its qualitative distinctness. They are not offered to support a theory, or as arguments against "sublimation."

Extensive observations of sexual love in children were made by Sanford Bell. Public-school pupils were studied under conditions permitting free mingling of the sexes. The material included 800 cases observed by Bell himself, and 1700 additional instances of love episodes in childhood reported by students. The latter consisted of observations of others as well as recall of personal experience. The ages ranged from infancy to adolescence.

The presence of the "love emotion" in children between the ages of three and eight is shown, in Bell's findings, by embracing and kissing, "sitting close to each other; confessions to each other . . . talking about each other when apart; seeking each other . . . grief at being separated; giving of gifts, extending courtesies to each other that are withheld from others, making sacrifices such as giving up desired things or foregoing pleasures; jealousies, etc." (1) Bell believed that there could be no question regarding the sexual origin of the behavior studied. "The most exacting mind is satisfied when to these observations are added the confessions of those who have, as children, experienced the emotion to a marked degree of intensity . . ." (1) With few exceptions, embracing or some kind of contact was the commonest expression of the emotion in children. Amorous behavior sometimes resembled other types in outward appearance. In recording "scuffling," and "lifting each other" as amorous, for example, Bell states that these activities, in the cases noted, were clearly outlets of desire for contact rather than trials of strength.

Bell's conclusion follows: "The pleasure derived from hugging and kissing, etc., in children who have the emotion in this first stage of development, is not specifically sexual except in some cases which I am inclined to consider as precocious. Normally, there appears to be no erethism of the sexual organs during the process of love-making. . . . In love between the sexes at this early period or in the next following, the physical sensations of sexual excitement are generally wholly wanting, or if present are entirely unlocated."

Expressions of the emotion at this early age were found to be generally lacking in restraint and in shyness. There is much giving and sharing; there is also "the intense selfishness that comes from the desire to monopolize the allegiance of the one loved." Jealousy is early in evidence. Gifts are, among the youngest children, prized chiefly for their actual worth, but by the sixth or seventh year they acquire a "sentimental" value; they may be kissed and fondled. Personality changes occur under the influence of the emotion. The stubborn child becomes docile while with the sweetheart; a timid child becomes courageous. The sociable child may abandon all other playmates to devote himself exclusively to the chosen one. Beauty as a factor in preference is more conspicuous at a later period, but is already in evidence during the three-to-eight period; the prettier little girls are the ones favored with attentions.

Bell obtained less data for the years eight to twelve than for those before or after this period. He traces this to the fact that shyness, self-consciousness, and secretiveness appear at this time. The children are now rarely seen together alone; they tend to be confused and embarrassed in each other's presence. There is marked reticence about confessing to attraction. The impulse to conceal is strong. The emotion shows in confession to a close friend, by a furtive gift, or may be inferred from the spirited defense one child makes should the other in any way be attacked. It is shown also when, for example, the boy follows the girl about "at a safe distance," or watches her attentively from a point of vantage. Expression finds a hidden outlet in certain games, where, "instead of direct contact of personalities through the love confession as such, it is long-circuited through some conventionality." The embrace is here disguised or excused by the maneuvers of the game. The fact that it is part of the understood rules of play serves to mask its personal meaning.

Detailed descriptions of these games are given in Bell's ac-count, showing the opportunities they provide for the expression of preferences in the choice of partners, and for formalized contacts. While the contact through touch is the most complete outlet of the youthful amorous emotion, it may be rivaled by contacts of the eyes, an "embrace by means of the eyes," which may be "as exciting to many as contact through touch." Marks of the strength of these attractions appear when separations are necessary. Grief may be very intense and prolonged in some cases. Instances of attempted suicide and of "nervous illness" are reported. More often, however, the weaning is less strenuous.

This study gives a rich picture of the forms of amorous attraction in its earliest expression. In many features its likeness to adult patterns is remarkable. The finding that there was little or no evidence of genital-sex interest or excitement is clear. Among the descriptive summaries and illustrations are numerous examples of the kind of behavior on which Moll based his sex psychology. The study provides, as Robert Sears has remarked, a "considerably more factual and realistic" description of the sex behavior of early life than Freud, for example, ever gave. Freud was familiar with Bell's study and cited it among evidences from which "we learn that children from three to five are capable of evincing a very strong object-selection which is accompanied by strong affects." Stanley Hall noted that the "Platonic and in a sense sexless" attractions observed by Bell might be seen as a reversal of the order of appearance of sexual behavior in human history, in which the sexual impulse is supposed to have preceded the amorous relationship.

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