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Are Sex and Love Mutually Exclusive?

In most cultures, the urge for sexual adventure is difficult to reconcile with the comforts of companionship and domesticity.

The pull of romance and the tug of sexual passion are nicely delineated in Blanche DuBois' admonishment of her sister, Stella, in Tennessee Williams' play A Street Car Named Desire . Blanche expresses her horror over Stanley Kowalski's obvious sexual appetite:

"A man like that is someone to go out with once, twice, three times when the devil is in you. But live with? Have a child by?"

In this case, the issues are erotic adventure and excitement versus the stability of domesticity and family. The irony in Williams' vision is that while Blanche argues for the latter as the ideal, much of her life has been consumed by the former.

Blanche's problem is not uniquely American: Chinese literature is full of stories concerned with the difficulty in separating or blending together the two emotions. In Li Yu's Be Careful about Love , written prior to European contact, a Qing dynasty emperor is attracted to one woman's beauty, while simultaneously yearning for emotional intimacy with another. Both Blanche and the emperor's feelings are representative of the conflict that lies at the heart of the push/pull tension between erotic attraction and a yearning for deeper emotional attachment.

Indeed, no culture is ever completely successful or satisfied with its synthesis or reconciliation of sexual desire, passionate/romantic love, and companion/comfort love . Whether in the technological metropolis or in a simple farming community, there is tension between sexual mores and proscriptions governing the proper context for love. As three of the most powerful human sentiments, passionate love, companion love, and sexual desire are organized around different cultural and psychological criteria, which puts them, in several ways, in direct competition with one another. This competition raises important implications for understanding some of the turmoil often found in male-female relationships.

Sex and Romance: Dissatisfaction is Everywhere (to Some Degree)

At various times sexual passion has been preferred over romantic love as well as companionship. No ethnographic study has reported that all the passions and affections have been regarded as equally valuable: It is the sexual, the romantic, or the companionship image that is the official ideal and thus the preferred idiom of conversation. No culture gives equal weight to the sexual, the romantic, and the companionate metaphors. One passion is always regarded as a subset of the other. The paramount passion is easily recognizable from examining conversational idioms. Conflicts over issues of propriety, etiquette, and social standing inevitably arise whenever there is a break in the cultural understanding and consensus regarding things sexual and romantic. To some degree, dissatisfaction is everywhere, its dissonance sounds in all spheres of culture.

Whatever a culture’s posture toward sex and the many facets of love, ambiguities, conflicting emphases, perplexities, unclear strictures, and downright quandaries litter the cultural landscape. The diversity of ambivalence, tension, and contradiction across the globe is infinite and, when viewed collectively, bewildering in its range of differences. But what human communities have in common is a universal compulsion to make a working peace with the three-way conflict between romantic/passionate love, comfort/attachment love, and physical sex.

Every culture must decide whether to synthesize, separate, blend, discount, stress, or ignore one or the other. For example, some ethnic groups in Papua New Guinea believe that sexual intercourse is an intensely unhealthy and deeply polluting experience that should be avoided. However, the fact remains that sex is, in the words of one man, "something that feels so good, but is so bad for you." In a different Papua New Guinean culture, men often run to the river to slice their penis with a bamboo knife to let the contaminated blood flow from their body after a sexual experience. Contradictory or seemingly conflicted attitudes are evident among the Huli of Papua New Guinea, where men abide by traditional taboos in their marriages, while seeking out "modern" erotic experiences in their extramarital lives. It can be found in Igbo men’s need to develop an intimate comfort or attachment love with their spouse, while also seeking sexual pleasure through sexual variety with a variety of partners.

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