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The Psychology of Sexual Choice

( Originally Published 1957 )

THIS STUDY is concerned, as stated earlier, with a psychology of sex which begins with the fact that men and women are attractive to each other. Following closely is the fact of selection. Sexual attraction and sexual choice are almost the same thing, at the aesthetic level. Now, if the amorous kind of attraction is a "sublimation" of sensual desire, the question is what, in a particular instance, arouses this desire to a degree that corresponds with the strength of attraction. If instead, the attraction has a different origin in our emotional nature, we shall likewise need to know why it is evoked by certain persons and not by others.

Do Opposites Attract?

Herbert Spencer's famous paragraph about the make-up of sexual love has often been used to introduce modern discussions of the emotion. An essay by Arthur Schopenhauer has served a like purpose with regard to the subject of choice. He begins, as so many have begun, with the observation that de-spite the preoccupation of poets and dramatists with this theme, it has been slighted by serious investigators. Accordingly, he has "no predecessors either to make use of or to refute."

What makes the difference between the "passing inclination" and the "vehement passion" is the special individuality of the attractive person, according to Schopenhauer. For each one of us there is a unique personality whose traits would make, with our own, a correspondence approaching perfection. In these rare encounters, of so high a degree of suitability, passion reaches its zenith. It is the emotional potential for such a mating, in each of us, that gives romantic poetry its universal appeal.

The secret lies in a special kind of "suitability." We make our choice, in love, under the influence of an instinctive sense of beauty. It is this that guides the sexual impulse so that "each one will specially regard as beautiful in another individual those perfections which he himself lacks, nay even those imperfections which are the opposite of his own." " Youthfulness, health, freedom from deformity are, of course, everywhere the chief standards of attractiveness. Beyond these, however, and more important, there is implanted in everyone a set of preferences that will cause him to seek those traits in a mate that will operate to correct, in the offspring, the defects that he, the parent, possesses. Thus, "each one loves what he lacks," and by these instinctive preferences Nature strives to correct individual departures from the "pure type" of the species. Accordingly, strong fixations are inspired less often by "correct and perfect" beauty than by traits and features which, tending to extremes in one direction, are most attractive to those who bear their opposites. The result, in the offspring, is in effect a neutralization: ". . . every one endeavours to neutralize by means of the other his weaknesses, defects and deviations from the type, so that they will not perpetuate themselves."

This means, for example, that physically weak men will be unusually attracted to women of conspicuous strength; small men will prefer tall women. Persons of light coloring will favor those of dark coloring; a man with long and slender limbs will desire a woman whose limbs are correspondingly short and thick. One with a defect of nasal structure will find that he wants a mate with the opposed and "balancing" defect.

The same rule applies, Schopenhauer believed, to temperament, and to the varying degrees of masculinity and femininity:

"The most manly man will seek the most womanly woman . . We ourselves are not conscious, when we feel attracted, of the deep "biological" meaning of our choice. We know only whom we desire, but not why. Each of us feels that he is but seeking his own pleasure while in reality he is serving the under-lying aim of the species. Sensual desire without preference, however, is ignoble. Only when exclusively fixated does desire become dignified by natural purpose. It is then, also, that it reaches its greatest intensity.

The true love choice is irrational, in Schopenhauer's view. It is from an "entirely immediate instinctive attraction" that the genuine passion is born, and here physical charms outweigh other things. That men and women, in seeking mates, should treasure each other for virtues of character and other desirable traits is another matter. This is "rational choice." It is not with this that Schopenhauer is at all concerned. Good disposition and character may make strong friendships, but there will be no sexual love if instinctive attraction is absent. Strong amorous emotion may develop, on the other hand, despite enmity and dislike resulting from differences in personality. When sexual attraction is strong and immediate, it means that people with special and mutually completing individualities have met. It is not ideal beauty that inspires the strongest attachments, but unique feature-patterns that correspond with each other.

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