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Sexual Attractiveness and Beauty

( Originally Published 1957 )



In regarding sexual love as the response to "beauty," and at the same time relating it to the extreme forms of preference, Binet directly raises the question of what "beauty" means in relation to sexual attractiveness. Fetishism is so rich in examples of peculiar sensibility that a view of amorous attraction based on it might seem to convert a large sector of choice behavior into a miscellany of unique or highly individual susceptibilities.

Yet there is considerable agreement on what is sexually at-tractive. Havelock Ellis, for example, concludes from his survey of "Sexual Selection in Man," that "beauty has to a large extent an objective basis, and love by no means depends simply on the capricious selection of some individual fetish." (22) An "objective basis" would mean some degree of agreement about beauty. It means that many people will agree, in a given comparison, that one person is more attractive than another in symmetry and molding of features, in grace of carriage and movement, in qualities of speech, and so on. This agreement would suggest certain common factors in preferences. We might think of certain fetishisms as common to many people. But such comparisons would also, certainly, show a large amount and variety of disagreement, and there would be cases in which a very few persons would favor a particular choice. It is true that the term "fetishism" has been linked by usage with "all that is most intimately personal and individual in sexual selection." Yet so far as it means attraction to specific traits and qualities, it might also be applied to preferences that differ only in occurring with greater frequency.

The age-old question whether beauty "resides" in the ad-mired person or is only a name for the way the admirer sees that person, whether a person is "loved because beautiful or beautiful because loved," may serve as a further illustration. If many agree that a particular person is attractive, it will seem permissible to say that this person possesses the characteristics of beauty. Where very few people, or only a single person, can make a judgment of attractiveness, we will be tempted to say that we have a case, not of beauty, but merely of a peculiar idiosyncrasy of aesthetic taste. It will seem that the root of the attractiveness "resides," not in the object but in this difference in taste. "Beauty" will then be simply a name for attractiveness on which agreement is good, apparently reflecting a common factor among preferences.

We can be sure that sexual attractiveness extends far beyond the traits included in "beauty." The study of choice must be concerned with sexual preferences in all their varieties. It must allow for the judgment: "is doubtless more beautiful than `B,' but I had much rather, nonetheless, look at `B,"' or, "The girl is very pretty but she is not my type," or again, "Here is a very beautiful woman, but she lacks exciting quality." Finally, and on the other hand, "This woman is rather plain, but there is something intriguing about her." And so on.

The minor fetishisms offer, at outset, a key to the irrational side of sexual attraction. It is less often the strength of this attraction than its strange directions that puzzle the observer. The notorious apparent blindness of the lover may in fact be rather the blindness of the bystander who simply lacks the peculiar susceptibility that would enable him to appreciate the fascination or exceptional quality of the source of attraction. When he can do this, and many others with him, the object is conceded to be charming, or "beautiful," and the matter contains no unreason. Such a preference is "social"; it is understood, and therefore rational. It is when one senses a charm visible to no one else, or sees a great value where others see a small one that one becomes an emotional eccentric, and might even be regarded as well down the scale, as Binet would say, toward the full-blown "irrationality" of major fetishism.

The wide popularity of the notion that what people fall in love with is actually a "projection" of their own emotional states was noted earlier. What really attracts the lover, according to this theory, is something recolored out of the true features of the object by his slightly feverish imagination. It is an easy device, of course, to consign the whole affair to the realm of delusion and emotionally fogged vision. A founder of this school was Stendhal, who based it on what he called "crystalization": "a certain figment of the brain which renders unrecognizable an object which is generally a very ordinary one, and makes it a thing apart." EIsewhere in human experience, he tells us, desires must adjust to reality, but in love this is reversed, and we shape reality to correspond to our desires. The view has been widely accepted and variously expressed; it is common to regard as false the belief that the admired qualities exist at all. Thus, De Rougemont refers to "the error of sup-posing that love is first and foremost a matter of physical beauty when, actually, this beauty is but an attribute bestowed by a lover on the chosen object of his love," and Reik sees the process of "falling out of love" as the withdrawal of fantasy from the object, a withdrawal that "bleaches all colors and extinguishes all lights."

The question must arise for everyone, from time to time, how it comes about that an individual who is strongly attractive to one person can mean little or nothing to another. If the cause (the "beauty") cannot be found in this individual, it seems logical enough to seek it in the imaginative "projections" of the affected person. Yet to say, as Reik does, that the actual traits of the person we fall in love with are of no great importance, tells us little about how the choice is made. Even if imagination, or idealization, plays a part, we still need to know why this person rather than that one is selected, at outset, as the "material" on which imagination is to work.

We all make sexual choices though we may not always be aware of it. Certain people attract us and others do not. People differ, and differ enormously, in sex-aesthetic characteristics. The attractions that lead to sexual love may be regarded, if we adopt the fetish principle, as responses to this undeniable fact of sexual individuality. We do not need to base the amorous experience on a delusion, or upon illusory impressions. We do not need to suppose any change in the love-object to account for its attractiveness. We may "see" the loved person clearly, yet desire no less strongly.

The few studies made concerning the elements of sexual attractiveness and the varieties of individual preferences, while crude and pioneering, have shown that these elements can be discovered. If they are, as "normal" fetishisms, the true source of amorous attraction and emotion, then the popular doctrine that, typically, one "does not know why he loves" would be more accurately expressed by saying that what one does not know, or realize, is that this feature or that quality is, itself, the reason. The traditional obscurity of this experience may be seen as rooted, not so much in the perceptions of the lover as in his failure to see somewhere among these perceptions the cause of his emotion.

It may not always be easy, however, to locate with precision the sources of amorous attraction. The difficulty may be traced, in some part, to what has been called "irradiation." This is the process by which the emotional effect of an attractive trait tends to "radiate" over the entire person and personality, which thereby takes on a kind of secondary attractiveness. The special value of a part reflects upon the whole, with the result that we incline to perceive an individual as "all of a piece" in character or quality.

Familiar examples are numerous. A student observed that the expensive furs of a woman she was speaking to had the effect of imparting an "aristocratic" quality to her manner and movements. Similar "irradiations" occur in the case of other feelings. We may find that dislike aroused by some isolated bit of a person's behavior may color the way we feel about him in other and quite unrelated ways.

The influence of attractive details may even alter the effect of otherwise unattractive ones. Concerning the supposed blindness of the lover, J. K. Folsom says that "sometimes the outside observer thinks there is blindness when the lover has really acquired a positive attachment to the supposedly unpleasant trait." So great is the power of amorous feeling, he suggests, that even annoying characteristics may be converted into "pleasure stimuli."Such blanketlike effects do not ease the task of discovering the sources of amorous attraction.

Again, attraction may depend at outset on more than one fetish trait. The fetishist whose strangely defective sensibility limits his interest to a single feature (e.g., ". . . for me, the girl does not exist; what attracts me is her beautiful hair") has no problem. For the normal lover, however, the effect of one special charm may be merged with that of others. Add to this that attraction may arise, perhaps often, from the pattern of several features together, rather than in any one of them singly. The analytical lover might say, "it is not the eyes alone that attract me, nor the nose, mouth, or profile, but rather a certain quality of expression that seems to depend more or less upon all of them."



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