Fragments on the phenomenology of sexual attraction



[From 2010.] The psychology of sex is fascinating. For example, why are women sometimes attracted to “innocent” young men, “pure,” “sweet” boys? This would seem to contradict their usual attraction to men who are a little older, self-confident, mature, in control. A 34-year-old friend of mine has a crush on a 24-year-old boy, although she doesn’t want to date him because he’s too young. “For some reason,” she says, “I keep having feelings for him. He is so darling!!! I think the reason I like him is that he’s always very innocent, simple, pure like a crystal.” To say it’s their “mothering instinct” doesn’t explain much. I want to know the phenomenological 'mechanisms,' as it were. What exactly is going on in their consciousness? They find “sweet,” “cute” young men irresistible (sometimes)....but what is this “sweetness” and this “irresistibility”? The former, at least, is a childlikeness, a vulnerability, a lack of “hardness” or worldly “cockiness,” a perceived sensitiveness and kindness, an almost feminine immersion in the immediate moment, a perceived lack of the sophistication necessary to dissimulate and manipulate, a simple sincerity. This kind of man has no mask (or such is the woman’s impression); his self is right there, plain on his face—he has an “open” face, a soulful face of goodness and sincerity, an uncorrupted, childlike self. All this means that she can make a connection with him, she can directly connect with his self, so to speak, more intensely and closely than with a sophisticated and mature man’s self, which is relatively hidden behind the worldly and somewhat cynical exterior. Most woman tend to crave such close and immediate connectedness. In addition, she wants to be able to make an impression on her man; she wants to be needed, loved, valued—wants to become a part of the man’s sense of self, and thereby have her own self confirmed in the world. (The man has the same desire with regard to the woman.) Her feminine nurturing of the man is a way of being valued by him and thus of valuing herself (through him), “realizing” her prior implicit self-valuing. (That’s what people want, to realize their implicit but so far “imaginary” self-love/self-valorization. They want to validate their self-love.) But with the sweet boy, she can not only nurture him but also protect him, protect him from the cruel world that threatens to destroy the beautiful openness and transparency of his self, his good-hearted and naïve sincerity. Thus she is, or sees herself as, particularly important to him, and so is attracted to him for his being a powerful way of confirming her value. In fact, the sheer direct connection with another self that she craves is itself desired on account of the confirmation (“recognition”) of her self-love that it entails.


Of course, the fact that he’s male is important too. His being male means that he is, for her, the archetypal Other, whose recognition is most valuable. Many of his traits are quite feminine, but the fact of his masculinity hovers above them all and “filters” them. Indeed, another way to explain his appeal to the woman may be to say his quasi-feminine character allows her to half-consciously identify with him or to feel closer to him than to stereotypically masculine men; she senses an affinity between the two of them. But since despite his femininity he remains a man, the affinity coexists with a romantic spark and sexual tension.


Incidentally, a male pedophile’s attraction to “innocent,” “cute” girls or boys differs from a woman’s attraction to the “innocent,” “sweet” young man. It is really an extension, however pathological, of the masculine love of women (who are loved, at least implicitly, as being relatively innocent, cute, “protectable,” etc.). The woman’s attraction to the “sweet boy,” by contrast, is not an “extension” of her attraction to men but exists almost in tension with it. She is attracted to men, after all, for virtually the opposite reasons, namely their perceived strength and dominance.


And why are men attracted to feminine “sweetness,” beauty, excitability? Partly for one of the reasons that women themselves are, and everyone is (as a human being): these qualities signify a receptiveness to the other. This is in fact a very important element in the masculine love of women. Women tend to “receive” men openly, spontaneously, appreciatively, such that the man’s self-love is validated/confirmed. Men enjoy being with these receptive, laughing people: the man’s sense of, and desire for, self-certainty (-confidence, -value) is being reinforced. But the element of physical beauty is important too. And that’s harder to explain, not least because beauty is impossible to define. You know it only when you see it. And what does the pleasure of looking at it come from? It just seems like a brute fact, unexplainable, unanalyzable. Or maybe that’s wrong. Maybe it’s misleading to refer to the “pleasure” of looking at a woman: the point is that implicit in the male’s look is the half-conscious desire to touch the woman, and a sort of unconscious anticipation of touching her. The look is a sensual act, an implicit touching, or a desire/anticipation/imagining of touching. And to touch a woman is to assert oneself, to act, to confirm one’s being in the world, the presence and reality and thus value of one’s self. This also explains the frustration implicit in merely looking at a beautiful woman: the half-conscious desire/imagining of touching her is being thwarted. The same “act,” therefore, is both pleasurable and unpleasurable.


These thoughts show, by the way, that the philosopher Merleau-Ponty was right there is such a thing as bodily intentionality, and that much of it is an extension of the self’s intentions. (Whatever has to do with recognition, interpersonal interactions, etc., has to do with the self.)

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