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The Attraction of the Sexes

( Originally Published 1957 )

There are questions about attraction which are of much popular interest as well as basic to sex psychology. Is the "visual pleasure" we experience as we gaze at an attractive or "beautiful" person of opposite sex linked in some way to arousal of the sex organs, or is it altogether different, and to what ex-tent does the answer differ from one person to another? Is "love at first sight" if it is more than a polite term for sudden arousal of sensual desire a quick "sublimation" of such desire, or is it sexual in another and different sense? To what degree, or in what way, are the pleasures of ordinary social con-tact between mutually attractive men and women "sexual"?

Present-day psychology tells us that sex attraction is largely a matter of learning. We are "born with" the sexual impulse, but we must learn what to do with it. "If members of the same sex were brought up without ever seeing members of the other sex and without ever hearing anything about them, their first appearance would be without sexual meaning or significance." According to this doctrine, boys and girls do not become attractive to each other until they have learned to recognize each other as sources of sexual pleasure. Thus Lund states: "The halo of perfection and charm which would seem to surround the object of sex attraction is, on the side of fixation, entirely a matter of learning." Only when we come to perceive the opposite sex as a source of "gratification" does its special "charm and fascination" arise. Others would doubtless say that this special attraction is owing to the fact that, of all possible means, the genitals of the opposite sex are best fitted to gratify the desire. Individuals are sexually attractive, then, be-cause they are a symbol or "promise" of sexual pleasure.

In Freud's view, so far as sexual attractiveness may be traced to "beauty" rather than to direct sensual appeal, it is a by-product of unreleased genital impulse. Sex beauty is a "sublimation" of sex appetite. The meagerness and uncertainty of Freudian treatment of the aesthetic side of sexual behavior was mentioned earlier. Whatever the value of the sublimation principle with regard to the various forms of sexual attractiveness, it may be said to apply to only one half, so to speak, of this field of experience. Attraction is not the whole of sexual responsiveness. Repulsion is also real. The degree and varieties of unattractiveness "ugliness," "homeliness," etc. may rival or equal the degrees and varieties of their opposites. This aspect of aesthetics cannot be omitted from sex psychology.

Aversions appear to be a fundamental of sex behavior. Dar-win collected a number of facts of this kind, observing: "there can be no doubt that, with most of our domesticated quadrupeds, strong individual antipathies and preferences are frequently exhibited," and again, writing of birds, "It is certain that the females occasionally exhibit, from unknown causes, the strongest antipathies and preferences for particular males." These aversions may be long-lasting as well as strong. Thus, in a report on pigeons: "When a female experienced an antipathy for a male with which we desired to mate her, . . . despite the canary-grass and the hempseed given to increase her ardour, despite an imprisonment of six months and even of a year, she consistently refused his caresses; the eager advances, the enticements, the wheelings, the tender cooings, nothing pleased her; bloated, sullen, crouched in a corner of her cage, she left it only to eat and drink, or to repulse with rage caresses become too insistent."

Lund, writing of "The Aesthetic Emotion," and referring to animals, states: "Some have maintained that the colors and display of males have no aesthetic value but exist merely as stimuli excitatory to sex. There is in this contention a failure to distinguish between attraction stimuli and sex stimuli. The former, it is true, may facilitate or pave the way for the latter. Thus, attraction stimuli appearance, song, dance, etc. while without direct sex value tend to produce a condition favorable to sex. The influence of these stimuli is as obvious in our own case as in animals."

Here we have an emphatic separation of attraction and "sex," but the doctrine that all sexual attractiveness comes from genital-sex pleasure gives no ground for such a separation. What Lund says clearly recognizes an aesthetic response which is sexual in character. That these responses are not like those of the genital impulse is admitted in the remark that they are "without direct sex value." " Here, as usual, the term "sex" refers to desire for intercourse. The statement that these "attractive stimuli" are "favorable to sex" and are the basis of choice would seem reason enough for regarding them as truly sexual. Lund's statement simply tells us that there are two different kinds of attraction, and that one of them is a response to beauty.

The meaning of the courtship maneuvers and displays of the lower animals, and especially of birds, has been somewhat unsettled. Most commonly, perhaps, they are regarded as excitations leading directly toward the mating act. There are some, however, who think that courtship, even among the animals, may be other than "directly sexual" in meaning. Thus Julian Huxley, writing of birds among which both sexes engage in courtship display, states: "Anyone who, like myself, has watched such birds by the hour day after day must be struck by the fact of their enjoyment of the courtship ceremonies for their own sake, and the further fact that the ceremonies are often what we may call biologically self-exhausting, in that the birds' emotional tension is often liberated through them, instead of being stimulated and leading on to actual pairing. It would seem as if these strange and romantic displays . . . constituted a bond between the two birds of the pair, binding them together so long as the breeding season lasted by emotional links."

Lund, beginning with the sexual impulse, found that he had to recognize two different kinds of "stimuli" to describe sexual behavior. A similar comment may be made on a statement by Willard Waller concerning amorous emotion. His view of this emotion as a product of the blocking of the impulse was noted earlier. This view encounters the objection that, as he says, ... even persons who have sex outlets may fall in love."

"We may answer this," he replies, "by pointing once more to the composite nature of the sentiment of love. The promiscuous person can fall in love no one, perhaps, more violently. Why should he not? He expresses in his way of life only one element of his complete sexuality, and often at terrific cost to other segments of his personality. A spiritualized affair may, there-fore, offer him . . . an opportunity for a rounded expression which is otherwise impossible." The granting that sensual interest is but one part of the whole of sex is, of course, all that could be asked, but it hardly agrees with Waller's original position.

For those who fail to recognize the difference in quality between sexual love and the genital impulse the attempt to distinguish them may be puzzling. Thus the great European sexologist, Magnus Hirschfeld, objects to Moll's separation of "at-traction" from the sex urge. It seems to him that it is "no more possible to consider this a special element in the instinct of sex, than it would be to separate the urge to draw near the place where food is to be found from the urge to nourish oneself."

The objection clearly overlooks the fact that attraction may be both amorous and sensual. The comparison with food-seeking is thus, again, in error. To make it, we would have to imagine a spontaneous attraction to food, apart from the need of nourishment, which finally becomes closely linked with hunger, yet often retains a considerable degree of separateness. This urge to approach food would, according to Moll's observations, appear at an earlier age than the perception of food as nourishment. But as we know, the hungry man seeks food in order to eat it, as the sensually excited seeks an object for physical union. It is doubtful that hunger for food offers anything comparable to amorous attraction.

Objection to "dividing" the sexual process is rather futile. There is more than one such division. Weissenberg noted the appearance of sexual feelings, in many cases, significantly earlier than sexual ripeness. Metchnikoff long ago pointed out that "The maturity of the spermatozoa in the male comes long after the development of sexual irritability and of love," and that among other disharmonies, the impulse might outlive, in old age, the capacity to satisfy it. Further, that re-productive maturity may develop in girls at an age when infantile traits are still evident and when the pelvic structures are not yet fully grown. Moll recorded that ejaculations, with "voluptuous acme, occur in boys at an age at which . . . secretion does not yet exist in sufficient quantity to be expelled from the urethra"; likewise cases in which the ejaculated fluid of boys of twelve contained no spermatozoa. More recently, Kinsey has confirmed the fact that orgasm occurs without ejaculation in preadolescent boys, owing to immaturity of the mechanism concerned with the latter reaction.

Such examples suggest that whatever unity the sexual and reproductive processes exhibit is built of separable parts.

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