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January 21, 2009

What Causes Sexual Attraction?

This post has been moved to my new blog and can now be found at: http://jasonstotts.com/2009/01/what-causes-sexual-attraction/

18 comments:

Anonymous said...

What a thoughtful post. Thanks!

--The Nearby Pen

William H Stoddard said...

I hesitate to accept the assertion that "emotions are the existential experience of our antecedent value judgments." My cats give every evidence of having emotional reactions, and they can't be making value judgments at a conceptual level. Infants and toddlers seem to have emotions, and they can't YET have made value judgments.

If I may offer a metaphor, or analogy, from the fact that, if human beings construct buildings and roads and dams, the flow of air and water and the natural climate and vegetation take on a specific and distinctive form, it does not follow that, if no human beings were present and no human construction had taken place, there would not be air, water, climate, and vegetation.

Jason said...

William,

First, let me say that your criticism about children is correct. Children at all ages cannot form explicit value judgments and their emotions do not operate in the way I've described. In this essay, I am focussing on sexual attraction and therefore limiting the scope to only adult emotional and sexual attraction. In my book, in the chapter on emotions, I take care to differentiate emotional development and a child's emotional operation from a fully developped adult's.

However, when you assert that your cats give every evidence of having emotional reactions, I must disagree about what is going on. In order to assert that your cat has a feeling such as love for you, you are forced to anthropomorphize your cat. There is no evidence that lower animals can have emotions at all. While they can certainly feel pleasure and pain and even form some attachments to people or toys, they cannot love you in the human sense of that word. They cannot value you, they cannot understand your role in their care, they cannot form relational concepts such as mutual affection. Your cat can certainly feel pleasure at seeing you if it learns that you mean food and petting, but to assert that your cat loves you is to project a level of conceptual development that your cat just does not have.

~Jason

William H Stoddard said...

That strikes me as an overly narrow definition of "emotion." I remember seeing one of my cats (now no longer with us) at the open window, crying out in rage, when a strange cat was outside; and when I incautiously reached past him to close the window (for fear that he would wreck the screen and escape) he clawed my arm. I have no hesitation in describing that as anger. I could cite behavioral examples of fear, anxiety (not the same thing!), and jealousy. The kinds of things a cat can have an emotional response to are more limited than the kinds of things a human adult can have an emotional response to—a cat cannot love the character and values of a human being, or dread its own future death—but that is not the same thing as saying that the cat has no emotions.

If you're prepared to say that an infant, which has not formed concepts to any significant degree, can have emotions, I don't see the difficulty in saying that a cat can have emotions. Your argument about a cat not having concepts such as mutual affection could apply just as well to a baby, after all.

Jason said...

William,

My biggest problem with saying that animals have emotions lies in the fact that we just cannot know the animal's experience of its actions. In the case you site, I could easily say that it is only the cat reacting instinctively to a potential threat. You, of course, could contend that it was angry (felt the emotion of anger). There is no way for us to settle the debate, since we cannot ask your cat what he felt. Consequently, I do not want to further pursue the debate here. I think that it should be left to animal researchers to first discover what exactly animals are experiencing physiologically, and perhaps later for philosophers to argue whether this constitutes an emotion.

In terms of children, I am currently writing the chapter of my book that deals with emotional development. I'm not sure that I'll be posting much from it, but I'll likely at least post my general theory of emotional development sometime in the next month or so.

~Jason

Mariana said...

Hi! Thank you for this post, it's very interesting. I wonder how something like sado-masochism fits into this explanation. Why does a masochist feel his interests and self-preservation are best served by entering a relationship that is physically and psychologically demeaning to his dignity as a human being? And in your opinion, why are people capable of falling in love without feeling any sexual attraction, and to feel lust for someone they don't love, or even despise?

Jason said...

Mariana,

Those are very good questions.

The presentation of my theory above is very much of a "this is how it works (when it's working correctly)" type of presentation. So, you are correct to point out that the above does not explicitly address these issues. In fact, in my book they are not addressed until the last chapter, once the entire theory is laid out.

However, I think that the answers are rather straightforward and that perversions, in general, operate in the exact same way that general attraction operates.

So, since attraction operates based on prior value judgments, and these are gained through experience and reflection, the person who is into a perverse manner of sexual expression has the belief that this is in his best interest.

This can happen for many reasons. Let us say that a man is a masochist and can only experience sexual arousal when a woman is humiliating him. Now, there must be a reason that this man has the kinds of beliefs that lead to his desire to be humiliated; there must be some function that they serve. It could be that this man is very concerned with harming a woman, perhaps he had an experience from his adolescence where he actually did hurt a woman, and therefore in order to be aroused, he needs to be reassured that he will not hurt her. This belief could very well lead the man to think that by giving up power to a woman and allowing her to humiliate him, that he removes all possibility of his hurting her and therefore opens himself to his arousal.

I have not worked out my complete theory of perversion yet, but it will certainly utilize my general theory of attraction in this way.

In terms of people falling in love without sexual attraction and vice versa, this is also a function of ideas. We need not dig too deeply to see that christianity and altruism have set up an explicit dichotomy between love (spiritual, heavenly) and lust (bodily, base). Far too many people buy into this dichotomy and internalize it as true. For any person who truly internalizes this, they will believe that true love shouldn't involve sexuality, while one shouldn't taint love with sexuality and therefore if one wants sex, they should do it with those they don't love.

The problem is that people can, and do, hold contradictory beliefs and that these manifest in different people in different ways, depending on what they are focussing on and how firmly they hold each belief. This is also why we see people have drastic changes in desires and capricious behavior in regards to sex.

The entire subject warrants a much lengthier discussion, but I think this provides a good overview of how this theory can easily be extended to cover these problems.

~Jason

Mariana said...

Your suggestion regarding masochism shows a lot of kindness, and I do believe that assuming human nature is in essence basically good is the way to get to the truth. I do find it more plausible, however, that masochism reveals lack of self-confidence. My reasoning is that if a man feels the need to enact a fantasy where he is forced, or in some way coerced into doing sex, as if this act were against his will, it seems intuitive that he is not comfortable with being a sexual person. Maybe in the past he had experiences that led him to believe he would be rejected as undesirable. By enacting a fantasy where he is "forced" he can relax, because he doesn't have to be assertive and say "I am sexual, I want sex". Sex is happening "against his will" so to speak. If this is true, then the way to heal him would be to address his feelings of insecurity, his poor self-image, to search in his past for those formative experiences that led him to have this prejudice against himself, so he can overcome that negative self-image.

Jason said...

Mariana,

I see your explanation as very plausible as well and I certainly don't think that the two are mutually exclusive. In fact, there are probably as many explanations as there are people with perversions.

In general though, I think that the framework Sexual Perfection provides allows us to answer these questions. Indeed, your answer presupposed the same kind of operation of emotions.

I've noticed that you seem very concerned with S/M on your blog. What is driving your focus on it?

~Jason

Mariana said...

I've always been pretty interested in understanding human nature, partly because it's an interesting subject in itself, but I think also because I figure the better I understand people in general, the more I'll understand myself, the more I'll be good at people's skills... in short, I believe with knowledge comes happiness.

Jason said...

Mariana,

As I philosopher, I can certainly agree that the examined life is far superior to the unexamined one.

Feel free to plug a post of yours related to sexuality here if you want.

~Jason

Mariana said...

That's very gracious of you Jason, and thank you for taking an interest in my writing. :) I think my most recent meditation on SM turned out interesting. I liked that I got the chance to exchange ideas with someone who was in total disagreement, and yet we managed to keep it civil. Ideally that's how it always should be.

http://gatochy.blogspot.com/2009/02/sexual-masochism-xviii.html

Francis Luong (Franco) said...

Quick comments:

- overall I like the subject matter and your exploration of it
- your discussion of sexual attraction is gender neutral - is this intentional? is a satisfying exploration of the subject matter possible without consideration of gender?
- conclusion is dangerously close to being intrinsicist (i.e. fundamental yearning could easily become innate/intrinsic rather than objective)
- your definition of "sexual attraction" bars the possibility of *conscious* antecedent value judgments playing into emotional development and sexual attraction.

Francis Luong (Franco) said...

(forgot to check the follow-up box)

Jason said...

Franco,

1. Thanks!

2. The neutrality of the discussion is intentional as here I'm only trying to understand the general nature of desire. The form that desires takes is specific both to the sex of the person and to their orientation (whether they are currently being attracted by a male or female). So, no, a full discussion of desire would not be possible without discussing sex.

3. I'm not sure why you think it is close to being intrinsicist. Could you explain this?

4. Given that I think sexual attraction operates as an emotion, I do think that conscious thought is out for affecting it. However, one can certainly suppress an emotion or attraction consciously. This is not to say that conscious thought is completely out of the picture, as subconscious processes rely on past conscious judgments. But, one CANNOT consciously will oneself to feel an emotion. So conscious thought plays a role in attraction, just not a direct role.

~Jason

Francis Luong (Franco) said...

Re: intrinsicist... I guess I ran everything together on my first read through. Upon re-reading, the story of Aristophanes combined with the word "fundamental" made me read the subtext of the word as "innate".

Re: emotion... I guess what I struggle with here is the question of whether it is completely beyond our control what we consider sexually attractive or not. I'll agree that it's very hard to change this directly, but over a large set of conscious choices it is possible. I would guess this is what you consider to be "indirect"?

Jason said...

Franco,

I think you're on the right track. I firmly believe that we have no conscious control over our emotions, beyond maybe suppression/repression. However, since emotions are based on antecedent value judgments, if we consciously work to change these judgments, then our emotions will change. I call this process indirect since we cannot change the emotion itself, but have to focus on its foundation.

~Jason

Miss F said...

Your post is quite enlightening!

I think you are right about everything.

I was not consciously looking for a certain "type" at first. But I realized that all three guys I had chemistry w/ were extremely masculine- V_shaped bodies, tall, sharp jawline's, the attitude too. The first two were brown-skinned and my friend remarked that they looked like my brother. and she's right! Maybe unconsciously I'm drawn to guys that look similar to my genes.

since then, I have never wasted time on consorting with lovable, kind, intelligent, handsome, single, wonderful men that do not look very masculine. I know ill get bored w/ them VERY easily, like I did w/ my non-masculine ex's.

the weird thing is, this sexual attraction for me transcends marital status, intelligence, feelings, each other's memories, or past. If I had before the wisdom that I had now, I would not have slept w/ the 2nd lover (married soldier) who turned out to be a dork. I guess I'm now learning how to control myself.


When I'm with a man I have sexual chemistry with, I can actually feel comfortable sleeping with him. I guess with everyone else, I feel my heart beating in a weird way, as thought it's not RIGht. my heart is not at peace.

YOu are right, sexual intimacy develops into LOVE and deeper connection (yes, love even between me and the married guy). the only reason why it doesn't sometimes is when people block it, when people are scared to really feel and let go. I see sexual chemistry as a gift, and it's VERY rare for me.

thanks again for the great post!