In the Name of Love

A philosopher looks at our deepest emotions

Is Sexual Desire An Emotion?

Change is highly significant in generating sexual desire
"Sex without love is an empty experience, but as empty experiences go it's one of the best." Woody Allen

"I always thought music was more important than sex-then I thought if I don't hear a concert for a year-and-a-half it doesn't bother me." Jackie Mason

Some people do not consider sexual desire to be an emotion but rather something else such as, for example, a biological urge like hunger and thirst. I disagree. When considering all the basic characteristics and components of typical emotions, sexual desire emerges as a most typical emotion.

In describing a typical emotion, I suggest the following features. The typical cause of emotion is a perceived significant change; the typical emotional concern is a comparative personal concern; instability, great intensity, a partial perspective, and relative brevity are the basic characteristics of typical ("hot") emotions; the basic components of a typical emotion are cognition, evaluation, motivation, and feeling (see The Subtlety of Emotions). All these features are clearly present in sexual desire.

Change is indeed highly significant in generating sexual desire. Thus, the frequency of sexual activity with one's partner declines steadily as the relationship lengthens, reaching roughly half the frequency after one year of marriage compared to the first month of marriage, and declining more gradually thereafter. Decline has also been found in cohabiting, heterosexual couples and in gay and lesbian couples.

Sexual desire involves a personal concern-it is desire intended to satisfy one's personal desire (in some cases, without taking any or much account of the partner's desires). However, because of its strong evolutionary origin, the comparative concern is of lesser importance in sexual desire. Nevertheless, the concern is evident in the role that imagination plays in sexual desire. While engaging in sexual activity, many people think about comparatively better states that involve not only their present partner and present activities.

The presence of the basic characteristics of emotions-that is, instability, great intensity, a partial perspective, and relative brevity-is clear in sexual desire. Sexual desire involves a very unstable experience; the intense desire makes us tremble all over. As Carol King vividly describes it: "I feel the earth move under my feet, I feel the sky tumbling down, I feel my heart start to trembling. Whenever you're around." Sexual desire is also partial in the sense that it is focused on a narrow target such as on one person or very few people, and in the sense that it expresses a very personal and egoistic perspective. Needless to say, sexual desire is brief (though it can be regenerated again and again) and ends when satisfaction is achieved.

Sexual desire, like all other emotions, involves the component of cognition (you have some information about the desired person), evaluation (you evaluate him positively), motivation (you want to do something with him), and feeling (there are feelings of enjoyment, pleasure, stimulation).

In light of the above considerations, sexual desire should be considered as an emotion; let me now indicate in what sense this emotion differs from the emotion of romantic love.

The basic evaluative patterns of romantic love are those of praiseworthiness (positively evaluating the beloved's characteristic and deeds) and attractiveness (being attracted to the whole person). In romantic love, both patterns are necessary and important. Sexual desire is more partial in its focus and is mainly concerned with attractiveness. This does not mean that praiseworthiness is utterly absent from sexual desire, but rather that it is far less significant. In sexual desire, the praiseworthiness of the other's character and deeds is often derived from the other's attractiveness.

The more complex nature of love requires far greater personal involvement than is typically found in sexual desire. Hence, breaking up a relationship based on love is more painful than breaking up a mere sexual affair. The more primitive and spontaneous nature of sexual desire may account for why it is less disturbing when we find a lover having a sexual affair with someone else than when we discover a love affair. Love cannot be dismissed as being a transient, uncontrollable feeling, since it expresses our most profound attitudes. Due to its primitive nature, it is easier to artificially induce or terminate sexual desire. Love, which is a far more profound attitude, is neither available on demand nor terminable at will.

No precise borderline between romantic love and sexual desire exists. The latter usually is an essential component of the former. Hence, elements which are typical of the one are often found in the other. The close relation between romantic love and sexual desire indicates that we cannot be as unromantic about sex as we are about eating, but it does not deny cases in which sexual desire has nothing to do with romantic love. Conversely, romantic love may involve other types of attraction and not necessarily sexual desire.

In one study, conducted by Dorothy Tennov, over 90 percent of the subjects rejected the statement: "The best thing about love is sex." Similarly, 53 percent of the females and 79 percent of the males agreed with the statement: "I have been sexually attracted without feeling the slightest trace of love"; and 61 percent of the females and 35 percent of the males agreed with the statement: "I have been in love without feeling any need for sex." However, the majority of people, especially women, enjoy sex best when they are in love with their partner. Thus, most people think that love and sex can be separated, but would prefer to have them combined.

There are some gender differences in this regard: men tend to separate sex and love whereas women tend to believe that love and sex go together. Thus, erotic pictures generate more arousal in men than in women, whereas pictures of romantic couples generate much more arousal in women than in men. Similarly, extramarital sexual involvements of women are more likely to be love-oriented and those of men to be pleasure-oriented. Accordingly, men are more likely to engage in extramarital sex with little or no emotional involvement, whereas women are more likely to engage in extramarital emotional involvement without sexual intercourse. It has been argued that a wife commits adultery generally when her feelings are deeply involved or likely to become so (see The Subtlety of Emotions).

To sum up, there is no doubt that sexual desire is an emotion, and even a very typical one. Sexual desire is less complex than love, but it is an essential part of typical romantic love. Without this element of desire, the love that is generated is more in line with friendship, companionship, or kinship. However, when this desire does exist together with the other aspects of romantic love, it makes for a complex and highly fulfilling experience.

Aaron Ben-Zeév, Ph.D., former President of the University of Haifa, is Professor of Philosophy. His books include: In the Name of Love: Romantic Ideology and its Victims.

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