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A Point of View

( Originally Published 1957 )



THE VARIETY of conclusions about sexual love that have been surveyed in the foregoing pages is only possible, perhaps, in a field of behavior that has been too long neglected by scientific study. The amorous state has been regarded, in the psychological literature of the last hundred years, as a complex of many different things, and as essentially but one thing. It has been seen as an emotion born only when the sex impulse is blocked, and also as independent of this impulse, and quite unlike it. It has been called a spontaneous reaction of the sex glands, and an effect of the affinities of "common latent recessive genes." Some students have marked "love need" as the vital fact that makes choice itself a minor incident in an attachment, yet for others the special qualities of the attractive per-son make choice the essence of sexual love.

While generally accepted as within the limits of mental health, the amorous state has by a few been seen as a symptom of some degree of emotional pathology. Finally, as if to exhaust the imagination, though nearly all students have implicitly taken this kind of love to be a sexual experience, the view has not been lacking that what the world has for so long a while been regarding in this way is not really sexual at all, but has its roots in a "frustrated ego."

The hypotheses that appear to arise from the present study may be summed up as follows:

There are two sex motives, unlike in quality, in duration, and in expression. One of these, here called "amorous," is an urge to possess, in a complete, intimate, and lasting sense, manifesting physically in nongenital contacts. This motive arises as the effect of responses of a distinctive erotic-aesthetic kind typically to persons of opposite sex.

The traits that arouse these responses comprise the whole of the body with the exception of the genital zones, and are entirely formal in the sense of being limited to physical structures, to qualities ("gestalts") of the facial features, of movement, voice, mannerism, and style. They are empty of "meaning," immediate in effect. The amorous stimulus in its simplest forms might therefore be said to be "primitive," despite the judgments of some that the aesthetic appreciation of sex requires an advanced society, and despite the poetic lyricism so con-genial to the mood of this emotion. It is not clear why a high level of civilization should be essential to such responses, why prehistoric man, for example, could not have perceived woman aesthetically or woman so perceived man.

Sex-aesthetic responsiveness is highly individualized. Preferences may be seen, most comprehensively, as a product of 1) the standards of a given culture; 2) differences, perhaps constitutional, in aesthetic organization; 3) the accidents of experience.

Sexual choice begins when certain traits are encountered in another which correspond to some kind and degree of specialized responsiveness or "susceptibility" in the observer. The amorous emotion is directly aroused by the perception of these traits, and increase in its strength is somehow inherent in the response to them. The latter also tend to "irradiate" (or generalize to) the entire personality.

While sexual attractiveness is different from the attractiveness of socially approved traits of character and personality, sexual "charm" is a close blend or fusion of sexual and nonsexual traits and qualities. The "attraction of the sexes" is, at the amorous level, only partly sexual, and is very importantly comprised of nonsexual appeals.

What appears at the surface as sexual attraction may be only incidentally sexual and may express, for the most part, affectional and dependency needs. The major attraction between men and women may, in other words, in some cases be neither amorous feeling nor genital-sex desire. The same may be said of the "true" love of sentimental tradition, as an attachment sustained by "sympathy" and tender-protective feelings.

The attractions labeled "infatuations," often represented as intense responses to "mere" surface appeals and as having therefore only the semblance of authentic sexual love are, paradoxically, the real article, that is, "true" sexual love, or amorous attraction. That amorous fixations which develop in unfavorable settings of personality or of circumstances may be regarded as unwise has no bearing on the character of the essential factor in the attraction. If this factor is aesthetic, the emotion is amorous, as these terms have been used here. (The term "infatuation" has also been applied to attractions in which the irrational feature is conspicuous; that is, in which the attracted person is more or less alone in his response.)

The amorous emotion is in large part a social product with respect to the kind of traits that arouse it and with respect to its role in behavior. Learning, in other words, enters into what we regard as attractive or "beautiful" as well as into the place of sexual attraction in the scale of life values. Custom, or the "mode," as our illustrations have suggested, may favor one kind of coloring, or figure, or feature, rather than another, just as it may favor one kind of personality rather than another. It will also stress or weight one feature as more important than another in appraisals of attractiveness. Society "legislates" (as Berl would say) in this realm of behavior as in so many others.

Society determines also how large this experience will be in the life of the individual, who learns not only the meaning of the sex-aesthetic experience as he learns the meaning of anything else, but also how much meaning it is expected to have for him. Because of this he may react to amorous attraction, when it comes to him, as, let us say, no more than a minor incident of the erotic life as, perhaps, "really nothing but sex," or as "just a part of sex" or he may perceive it, as some of the marriage students suggest he should, as a signal for great wariness and circumspection. This, he may have learned, is what traps one into an unhappy mating, seduces the reason, and makes one forget that there are more important things to think about in choosing a life companion; in short, that while it may seem very fine it may also be dangerous, and he must look carefully behind the alluring facade with more practical considerations in mind.

Or, again, what he absorbs in preparation for this experience may cause him to take the impact of an attraction as the hall-mark of what may be fully as vital as anything that could happen to him, as one of the positive forces of personal growth, or as the onset of something for which "spiritual" might seem the only fitting word, and which may reach far beyond sex in any of its more staple meanings. In our own society, with its perennial exaltation of "romance," few illustrations are needed.

This is not to imply that the whole of the experience is a social creation, but only that while the amorous response of the child, for example, may express with little alloy his own perhaps unique sex-aesthetic individuality, that of the adult is heavily overlaid with the traces of a variety of experiences, and that the final whole is deeply molded by the standards of the age and the culture in which he lives. In thus stressing the influence of the social setting upon sexual experience, we must nevertheless save a place, so to speak, for the case in which the factor of individuality is strong enough to equal or to overcome cultural influence, as when a fixation of extraordinary intensity occurs in a society which tends to depreciate such fixations, or when an attraction cuts across racial boundaries against heavy resistances.

There appear to be four factors in sexual choice: genital-sexual, aesthetic, "social," and sex role behavior ("masculinity," and "femininity"). While variability of preference must certainly exist in all of these factors, it should be greatest in the aesthetic region, where individuality is greatest, and where attractiveness is least defined and probably least definable by cultural standards. As for what is to be regarded as masculine and feminine, it seems best to assume that every society "selects" certain characteristics for approval as models for sex differences, which then become positive in value for the responses between men and women.

If amorous attraction is "irrational" the question may arise of how far control is possible in this area of the emotional life. Control may depend on the following considerations, among others. First, the possibility of a person's discovering the traits and qualities to which he is distinctively responsive as a step toward insight into his own unique sensitivities, if any. Again, it will be important to distinguish the aesthetically attractive traits from other (nonsexual) personality features, since in choice for marriage, at least, nonsexual features may become more important, and probably, with the passage of time, much more important, in the association of man and woman than the sexual. Finally, recognition of the "growth factor"; that is, that the amorous emotion, in a favorable or not too unfavorable personality setting, increases in strength, with the problem of control becoming correspondingly greater, and the critical period for the avoidance of stresses or acute conflict being early in the relationship.

This study may for some raise the question whether an unusually strong and specialized kind of sex-aesthetic responsiveness should be considered as an asset or a liability. Is it some-thing that presents a threat to sex adjustment, or is it to be seen rather as a means to intensify and enrich the emotional life, or even as a kind of "talent" for this variety of aesthetic experience?

In judging this factor in sexual experience it seems well to separate the considerations that would apply to the amorous "episode" from those related to the courtship that is oriented toward marriage. The vast difference between an unalloyed sexual-emotional relationship and one in which sex must be-come, eventually, no more than a component part of life in its largest sense must obviously bear with much weight upon any issue on how "important" is the sheer surface attractiveness of two people to each other. With marriage, as someone has said, man and woman cease, finally, to be an adventure to each other, and embark together upon a common adventure. While for the amorous "affair," freedom of aesthetic indulgence may entail no penalties, for the more forward-looking courtship the irrational factor is emphatically no safe guide, as the marriage counsellors often warn us. Here the good choice is the unromantic rational one in which compatibilities of interest and temperament make the sustaining factor in everyday living, which itself becomes increasingly a pattern of nonsexual pre-occupations. While aesthetic values, when added to such cornpatibilities, admittedly make an exceedingly fortunate combination, they can also make, in a setting of uncongenial personalities, a painfully unhappy one. One might say that to the ex-tent that life as a whole is larger than sex, so the nonsexual elements in a sex relationship may become more vital than its amorous elements.

A number of directions for further exploration are evident. The pioneering observations of Sanford Bell and Albert Moll on the amorous character of the earliest expressions of interest between the sexes need testing by studies of greater precision and thoroughness. A sex-biographical approach with a focus of interest on the distinction between genital and amorous sexuality should be fruitful.

The use of ethnographic reports more extensive than that of this study should help to enlighten the relationship between sexual practices and amorous emotion through comparisons of different cultures.

Until an adequate sampling has been taken we shall not know how large a role amorous emotion plays in the relationship of the sexes; for example, for how many men and women in a population the distinction between amorous and sensual feeling is meaningful.

Illustrations of the view that the sex-emotional relationship is not the same experience for woman as it is for man have been cited. The existence and character of the supposed differences need testing and clarification. Are the sex-aesthetic responses of women, for example, comparable to those of men?

The range and kinds of individuality in the region of sex aesthetics offer a rich field for investigation; such as, in simplest form, the variability of judgments for samplings of opposite-sexed persons. In view of the number of factors that probably operate in sexual choice, a reduction in the total trait complex might be necessary until choice is tested, for example, with bare (schematic) outlines of the structural elements of the facial features.

Like other emotions the amorous state must have its physiology, a knowledge of which may eventually illuminate some of its manifestations.

The most instructive chapter in a future psychology of the amorous emotion may well be that which treats its social history. Beyond mere recording of "fashions in love," a sociology of the emotion is needed which will tell, if possible, how each age defines the experience and why, and how much this defining makes the experience what it is for each person.



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