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Various Meanings of "Sex"

( Originally Published 1957 )

The words "sex" and "sexual" are rich and various in meanings. For many purposes they cannot be used without risk of conveying sometimes more, sometimes less, than is intended. In a brief but excellent discussion of human sexuality, Dr. Knight Dunlap finds that they have been used in several different ways. (10) Membership in either the male or the female half of the human race is, for example, a "sexual" fact. The terms are also used to refer to all that is concerned with reproduction. But since the sexual act, "in the vast majority of cases," neither produces offspring nor is intended to, it is clear that their meaning must be broader than this.

Again, the terms may refer to the sex organs or genitals, to the special sensitivity of these organs, and to the physical processes that lead up to the sexual act. We may note, however, that these processes need not be thought of as related in any specific way to the opposite sex, since they can be self-stimulated, or even aroused by the internal activities of the body. In this sense "sexual" behavior may be stimulated and carried to completion as a nonsocial or solitary function.

Further, the terms may refer to any one of several different kinds of attraction to members of the opposite sex. Of these, two may be selected as basic. There is the desire that presses us directly toward physical intercourse with a particular person of the opposite sex. This is, perhaps, the most frequent meaning of "sexual desire" in common speech, although this desire may also be generalized, or directed impartially toward the opposite sex with no one person as its object. In this book, to avoid monotony, the desire for intercourse will be referred to variously as the sexual or genital "impulse," or as "sensual" desire.

Finally, when interest and desire tend to include the entire personality, we come to "romantic love" in something like its familiar form. Dr. Dunlap believes that there is a "vast amount" of amorous desire and amorous behavior which does not lead, even in thought, to arousal of the sex organs. An interest in the opposite sex which is quite lacking in sensual impulses may also be generalized, as, for example, when a boy seeks the company of girls without special interest in any one girl. Or he may desire to see, or to touch, or to hear the voice of a particular girl without any other impulse or desire. "Just as there is a sexual impulse of touching and looking," writes another psychologist, "so there are also sexual impulses of hearing, tasting and smelling."

The most important part of this statement on sex, for our purposes, is the distinction between the desire for genital con-tact with a person of opposite sex, and the desire for "amorous" contact or association with such a person in the absence of genital-sexual impulses. Some of the differences between these two kinds of sex will shortly be discussed. We shall keep the term "amorous desire" or "amorous emotion" for a motive which appears to differ in some very distinctive ways from genital desire. This does not mean, of course, that to be classed as amorous an attraction must be lacking in sensual impulses, but rather that an amorous attraction includes an interest in certain traits (to be treated later in detail) "over and beyond" those which most commonly and directly arouse sensual desire, and that this interest is prominent in the relationship. For example, one attraction might be described as chiefly amorous, another as partly amorous and partly sensual, while still another might be mainly or wholly sensual.

It was said earlier that certain characteristics of amorous emotion are peculiar to it; in other words, that sexual love is different from other kinds of love. Also that these characteristics cannot be understood by way of such feelings as "sympathy," or such impulses as the "tender-protective," since these are present in other attachments which do not show the features of amorous behavior. From this we infer that there is an emotion in sexual love that is not found in other kinds of love. It may now be added, for reasons to be given later, that this emotion is only most typical of attractions between the sexes, but not found in them alone, just as the most typical example of tender-protective affection is probably the bond between parent and child, though it is widely seen elsewhere. Amorous feeling, as the distinguishing feature of one kind of attraction between men and women, is similarly found elsewhere. Apart from the class of attractions known as homosexual, it has often been observed that there may be a "touch" of the amorous in what is otherwise a friendship, as between adolescent girls, or between adolescent boys, for example. Likewise there may be a trace of this feeling in what is for the most part a "sympathetic" and tender-protective attachment: for example, a slightly and occasionally amorous, though "essentially affection-ate" bond between father and daughter, or between mother and son.

Amorous interest can best be recognized, then, not by the sex of the persons affected, but by the quality of the emotional experience, by the kind of traits in others that arouse this feeling in us, and by the behavior that results from its influence. So far as the term "sexual" pertains to relationships between per-sons of opposite sex, amorous emotion can be said to be usually, but not always, sexual.

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