What makes something erotic?
Sex is not new; nor the idea that erotic taste varies from person to person. Some like big, some small, wild, or cultured, vixen or modest, ripped or boy next door, tall, or short, settled or a nomad, in charge or submissive, loving or selfish.
Personality counts as well. Pick up Plato’s 2500 year old dialogue on love called The Symposium. The main character, Socrates, had no money, no looks and no position. But he was charismatic, brilliant and compelling, and others found him exciting.
Or to be more modern, consider a scene by Game of Thrones author, George R.R. Martin. In it, Jon Snow, the son of a Lord, finds nomadic Ygritte, truly compelling:
At a lord’s court the girl (Ygritte) would never have been considered anything but common, he (Jon) knew. She had a round peasant face, a pug nose and slightly crooked teeth, and her eyes were too far apart…Lately, though he was noticing some other things. When she grinned, the crooked teeth didn’t seem to matter. And maybe her eyes were too far apart, but they were a pretty blue-grey color and lively as any eyes he knew. Sometimes she sang in a low husky that stirred him. And, sometimes by the cook fire when she sat hugging her knees with the flames waking echoes in her red hair, and looked at him, just smiling…well, that stirred some things as well. (George Martin: A Storm of Swords)
We find eroticism in basic biology as well; think fertility and virility. You may not know this, but many of the ancient idols where naked, nubile women. And, Roman soldiers often wore penile neck chains. The erotic's been with us throughout history, as it’s with us today.
Then there's attractiveness.
There's a scene when Jerry Seinfeld questions Elaine about her upcoming blind date.
Have you ever hear of the concept of a DEAF DATE, he asks?
What is the value of talking to a person, Jerry points out, when all you really need to know is found by looking at her picture? Seinfeld’s quip is funny because it’s painfully true.
In this series, we'll explore many of the sources of erotic excitement. It's a great subject, and not JUST because its about sex. Each person's erotic trigger is his or her own, defined by one's unique biology, cultural and family influences, life experience and even, the capacity to play. Today the focus will be on biology and attachment, topics that deserve book length treatments.
Let this be the start of a good conversation; I am interested in your thoughts as well.
Biology & Sex:
The basis for attraction has its source in fertility, whether we like it or not.
The female of our species have wanted (and still often want) men who are strong, virile and capable in this world. It’s probably the reason why rich men and phallic narcissists have so many women excited about them. Such men are exciting and offer women a sense of safety in the biologically driven game of children. And, leaving the wish for children aside, a strong man can make a woman feel at ease and protected. It’s a powerful erotic turn-on in traditional societies and witnessed in modern culture in such things as our fascination with alpha male athletes, actors and fantasy novels like 50 Shades of Grey by E L James.
“I want to bite this lip,” he murmurs against my mouth, and carefully he tugs at it with his teeth.” (E L James: Fifty Shades of Grey)
While politically incorrect, biology has driven men from time immemorial, to women who are healthy, of child bearing age and pretty. The male phallic drive goes way back, to having children who are going to be fit and attractive as well. Plus, in many ancient societies, men not only took care of their women, but owned them too. An attractive woman who could produce healthy looking children was the crowning achievement of his manhood. The phallic part of the male psyche loves his fast cars and beautiful women. Both can turn a man on.
An erotically exciting man or woman hardly guarantees a good life partner. Erotic hunger can fade, and it’s only one ingredient in a lasting love relationship. Ask all the men and women who have been married, or attracted to narcissists. They will tell you it was exciting, and then it turned bad.
Attachment & Sex:
Freud overdid it with his theory of infantile sexuality. But, what happens in early life does count. Most people bond for the first time with their mothers. It may not be sexy, but it infuses the brain with oxytocin, the hormone responsible for that warm and fuzzy feeling when you are held and feel great.
Mom looks into your eyes. And, you look back. She playfully has fun with you…and you with her. You suckle her nipple and enjoy her warmth and smell. You learn that there's a safe place to let go and trust. The universe is just right.
In today’s world, men nurture children more and more. Plus, in the life of a girl, a great father can help his daughter feel unabashedly adored. This can be foundational as she matures and chooses a mate. Women who have felt adored by their fathers (not sexually, but as a valued child) tend to avoid mates who treat them poorly; it’s in their bones. Paternal appreciation goes a long way for boys as well. It sets up a good role model for dealing effectively with male aggression and gives a young man a sense of healthy importance.
As we grow and sexually mature, we long for that long forgotten safety. For those that got it – more or less – sex is glorious and safe. You see a grown man in front of you. He is exciting and wonderful, and inside, you remember being valued and protected. You kiss and caress, knowing that you can let go into warm oxytocin fueled pleasure. The memory of early bonding and validation sits inside, unconsciously helping you to erotically enjoy trust, touch, connection and sex.
If you had unhappy early attachment issues in childhood, intimacy may be more complicated. You may long for the closeness you never got, and yet, be frightened that it can disappear in an instant. You enjoy sex, but you are anxious about it. In fact, you may be attracted only to people who make you anxious. Will he or she leave, or just lose interest? You may become clingy, always anticipating abandonment. Or, you may become a control freak, finding the erotic in not allowing anyone to get too close.
Sexual arousal is embedded in our DNA, and who or what we find exciting has many origins. Among them, perhaps first and foremost, is each person's unique blend of biology and early bonding.
What happens then, when bonding goes terribly wrong?
Abuse & Sex:
Abuse is closely related to attachment. If you were abused as a child, there is damage. Abuse can be physical, verbal or sexual, and the latter cuts deepest of all. Whether it was your father, mother, brother, sister, uncle, aunt, priest, rabbi or coach, it’s a violation. Sexual abuse means that innocence – and fundamental trust - is gone forever.
That is why most cultures have severe ban on all forms of incest.
And, the role of a good parent is to protect his or her child’s innocence.
To be abused is to experience oneself as an erotic object and not simply as an adored child; it’s a violation of self development. You are being "taught" that sex is about power - the abuser is in control and you are the object. You're taught that you're valued as an erotic object and not as a person. And, you’re taught, in the most basic way, that safety is not to be equated with closeness.
Child abuse affects the grown adult who had been abused. For some, the answer is in shunning sexuality – it’s too dangerous. For others it’s translating a perverted lesson into adult life, finding excitement (and perhaps, some power) in being erotically exciting to others. For still others, you find erotically exciting men or women for repetition compulsion; repeating the trauma in the here and now, with a string of lovers who “need” you only to move on.
And, for some, intimacy works, until ancient memories of hurt or abuse rise to the surface and disrupt everything. You may not understand, for example, why you get so desperate or he gets so angry. Sometimes the source goes way back.
Fantasy & Sexual Health:
For the record, if you have control or submission fantasies, it's possible that you may of had some bonding issues. However, it doesn’t necessarily mean you were abused; life’s not that simple.
The excitement of a fantasy is rooted in our deep unconscious, and it's okay most of the time. Society offers many fantasies through film and culture, but what we choose to find erotic among all these images lies inside of us.
Erotic fantasies are endless, like having sex with another partner or many partners. The wild popularity of Fifty Shades of Grey, puts front and center the juicy eroticism of control. Stephen Snyder, a Psychology Today blogger tells us that the author's erotic secret is depicting a sexual transgression - sadomasochism - that's just safe enough:
Transgression has always been an important element in sex. Most readers of Fifty Shades won't find it too transgressive for comfort...(because its) within safe bounds. For many people, that's a pretty good recipe for sexual interest. (Stephen Snyder)
Most people would agree. As long as no one's hurt and the relationship as a whole reflects healthier adult values, fantasy sex play is part of the variety of the erotic. A submission fantasy - like being bound or spanked - is about finding loss of control exciting. Will he or she hurt me or let me go? It’s exciting because you are not sure if you can really trust, and there’s the edge.
Sexual Problems and Sexual Solutions:
Most readers are interested in having a better sex life.
You might be reading this piece, recognizing that sex and love have not blended well in your life. You are not alone, and recognizing the problem is a good place to start. Perhaps, you’re attracted to the wrong folks, or once attached, you or they lose interest. Or, perhaps, sex opens a can of worms of anger and fear that just won’t go away. Just know, there's much that can be done.
Then there’s the reader who recognizes that certain fantasies – for both good and bad reasons – trigger excitement. Many kinds of therapy can be useful. There may be value in getting to the source of your fantasy, and finding healthy ways to co-opt its power.
When sex doesn’t work, it can be because of medical or psychiatric illness (review with your doctor), or more likely, have its source in a problematic relationship.
George Martin has Jon Snow getting excited about Ygritte as he gets to know her; the opposite can occur in one’s life as well. You or your partner may be distancing because of personality issues that only come out over time. Is this person special to you? If so, then couples or individual therapy can make sex therapy work more effectively. You may be triggering something unsexy in each other.
What is Next?
Unless you want children - which can also be mechanical - a person can live without meaningful or loving sex. But, who wants to? While there have been many theorists working in the field, such as Masters and Johnson, Helen Singer Kaplan, John Bancroft and John Gottman, the core of erotic intimacy comes down to combining trust with experience and excitement. It’s about knowing yourself (and your partner), truly accepting, feeling safe, and then letting go – like a child at play.
And, that’s for the next installment of this series on the erotic in our lives.