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Amorous and Sensual Desire Contrasted

( Originally Published 1957 )

The sexual impulse lacks direction in very early life. The organs are, in the beginning, merely a source of erotic sensations, without relation to others. Eventually, so the modern account runs, we learn the meaning of the physical differences between man and woman, and we learn that the genitals of the opposite sex provide the most effective and pleasurable means of satisfying sensual desire. Just as the child is born with the capacity for hunger but must learn to know food when he sees it, so he inherits the capacity for genital arousal but must learn the normal way of satisfying it. We cannot say, then, that this impulse includes, in its nature, another person. It comes to include others by experience.

The amorous emotion, on the other hand, appears to be not only "social," from its beginnings, but typically focused on some one person, when strongly aroused. "As contrasted with sexual pleasure, which, by definition, can be experienced with any partner, or even when alone, the love which is here in question is distinguished by one striking and essential feature: it is individualized, i.e., is entirely directed to one particular per-son."

What brings about this "fixation" of desire? A French writer has recently suggested that sexual love is no more than a matter of the particular preferences to which sexual desire, like many others, is subject. It is simply sexual desire that has be-come very partial to one person. It may be compared, he thinks, to a food preference, and being in love is no more remarkable than an emphatic preference for one kind of food rather than another. This is surely a simple way of viewing the matter. Unfortunately it does not really clarify the problem, and it over-looks some very important facts. For one thing, strong sexual desire may lead to behavior that is quite the opposite of "fixation." As excitement increases, the impulse tends to become progressively less "choosy," and in extreme cases may be almost blindly undiscriminating. The demands of sheer sensual impulse are "modest," as Reik puts it: it wants only "a woman"; while strongly aroused amorous emotion is markedly partial in its need: it must have "this woman" and no other. (49) The fact of sexual promiscuity, with its suggestion of a minimum of choice, is regarded as the effect at least in many cases of overstrong sensual desire.

By contrast, it has been a long-debated question whether strong amorous desire for more than one person at a time is a psychological possibility. One may be described as experiencing intense sexual desire without implying any particular object, while any reference to someone as "in love" is the same as saying he is emotionally fixated upon a particular person. Unswerving preference, just as much as great intensity, is a mark of the literary classics of romantic love. As one student puts it: "The sociable interest is by its nature diffused; even the maternal feeling admits of plurality of objects; revenge does not desire to have but one victim; the love of domination needs many subjects; but the greatest intensity of love limits the regard to one." Weak or shallow feeling, on the other hand, is correspondingly unstable in direction; the subject is said to be "fickle" in his attachments.

The fact that the sexual impulse may, when strongly excited, tend to be low in discrimination, while fully aroused amorous emotion is synonymous with what is, in effect, the highest discrimination (that is, with a fixation), does not suggest that they are one and the same motive.

Returning to the supposed parallel between amorous fixation and food preference, we may say that while the latter might be compared with a sensual preference, its accuracy for sexual love may be seriously doubted. Try to imagine having so great a preference for a specific food that your willingness to accept substitutes diminishes as your hunger increases! A food "fixation" as strong as this would suggest more than ordinary hunger, or rather, a hunger beyond the need of nourishment proper, just as amorous desire, in its fixation upon one individual, suggests a motive beyond the needs of sheer sex appetite. To dismiss as "preference" a desire whose exclusiveness may be as impressive as its strength does not, moreover, throw much light upon its nature.

It may be that, within the limits of the normal, complete indifference to the characteristics of a sex partner does not exist.' Beyond these limits, moreover, lie the peculiarities known as "fetishisms," which show that genital-sex desire may be exceedingly specialized in its "tastes." It is not our intention here to propose that sexual impulse and amorous emotion may be sharply distinguished on the basis of selectivity, but only to urge that amorous desire is much more closely tied up with the individuality of the love-object, and that it has already made its choice, or has itself begun with what, in a sense, is a choice, while genital desire, more like hunger, may rise and become strong before a choice is made. It is in this, in the view of Ortega y Gasset, that the difference between sensual desire and sexual love lies. (46) The best comparison is to be found, perhaps, not among food preferences or appetites, but in a quite different emotional realm. The amorous experience shows, in some respects, a greater resemblance to attractions and fascinations with objects and impressions of the "artistic" order. Such attractions, Professor Gardner Murphy believes, "have every right to be considered as drives."

A point often made by writers on sex is that amorous interest tends to include the entire personality of its object, while the sexual impulse centers mainly upon the body, and finally upon the genital zone. The one includes the whole of behavior. The other focusses on those features that contribute to the excitement of the genital impulse, or that participate in the sexual act. This distinction may be related to the greater selectivity of amorous interest. In other words, it is harder to find a person who inspires amorous interest than one who stimulates the sensual impulse. A choice that includes in its scope the totality of traits, qualities, and mannerisms of a personality has clearly a much larger "field" on which to exercise its tastes and preferences. Human beings differ from one another far less in features directly related to the sexual impulse than they do as whole personalities. An interest entirely sensual will find more persons to choose from, and fewer qualities to choose for.

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