Sex & Relationships

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.

Because the two distinct types of love -- companionship love (sometimes called comfort or attachment love) and passionate or romantic love -- have their logic, many of the social tensions and individual moral ambivalence arises from each person or community seeking to balance the twin forces of the two loves. By comfort love I mean a deep affection felt toward "those with whom our lives are deeply intertwined. It involves feelings of friendship, understanding, and concern for the welfare of another." In contrast, passionate love involves idealization of another, within an erotic setting, with the presumption the feeling will last for some time into the future. This does not mean companionate love is not without its passions. Percy Shelly, the nineteenth century poet, thought passion an integral aspect of both loves, albeit romantic love tended to be more physical, while companionate love more spiritual. Although both forms of love are present in every culture, they are often not equally valued, celebrated, or honored. This results in a tripartite tension that extends beyond love and sex being more than the simple contrasting of two desires, but rather a tripartite conflict between the sexual imperative, the romantic, and the companionate.

Throughout history there have been various responses to the tripartite tension. For example, contemporary American swingers have institutionalized a set of ritual practices designed to uphold the primacy of the pair bond or comfort love, prevent the formation of a passionate love entanglement, and remain open to experiencing sexual pleasure with strangers. For swingers this is the ideal solution to the competing demands of the tripartite passions. Another contemporary response is found in the development of sex-tourism trade throughout the Caribbean, Southeast Asia, and other parts of the world. The construction of sexscape zones enables mostly men to pursue rather inexpensively a variety of sexual encounters. In the case of mature European and American women, these zones enable some the opportunity to construct, however momentary, an imagined romance with someone unsuitable to form a long-term comfort love relationship.

The above societies, like societies everywhere, have constructed an often uneasy arrangement between the forces of passionate love, comfort love, and sexual desire. It is one that requires continuous adjustment at the individual and societal level. In the domains of love and sex there can never be a stable society. The emotional tug between the competing and often contradictory desires ensures every generation will revisit, renegotiate, and modify their "traditions" used to account for the relationship between love and sex.

Different Views on the Ideal Links Between Sexual Desire and Love

Every sexual encounter need not be about the desire for some kind of transcendental merging with another. Some people desire nothing more than physical gratification without emotional entanglements. Simply put, sex, the use or objectification of another, can be an act of pleasure; the norms and guidelines regarding its conduct can, at least, be successful in their clarity of expression. For individuals interested exclusively in uncomplicated sexual gratification, the ideal partner is anyone belonging to the individual’s preferred sex-orientation who is willing, available, and nonjudgmental. In this way, sexual desire, in its most objectified form, is a total pursuit of physical pleasure. A perspective captured in Henry Miller’s numerous sex-scenes that graphically depict the acts of sexual intercourse. For Miller and many men, sexual intercourse can be, at least some of the time, only about heightened physical sensation.

Other times, however, the motivation for seeking sex can be more complicated. The Central African Aka forgers’ pursuit of sexual pleasure is intertwined with another more important value -- reproduction. For the Aka sexual intercourse is a pleasurable experience that is secondary to their primary goal, which is to have a child. Or in the words of a young Aka woman, "Love is the work of the night; love and play are nice together if it makes a pregnancy." For the Aka, unlike many contemporary Americans and urbanites worldwide, reproduction, not erotic satisfaction, is the higher value.

Presently, there is a lively discussion in both scholarly and popular literature over the origins of gender-linked differences in men and women’s criteria used to select short-term and long-term partners. In spite of, or maybe because of, this discourse, a consensus is emerging that holds that women, in certain contexts, are as open as men to casual sexual encounters. The debate has now shifted to the meaning of "certain contexts." Whatever the eventual outcome of these discussions, it is clear that sexual monogamy does not come easily to humans.

If the pursuit of sexual fulfillment often results in individuals seeking novelty, the love impulse in both its passionate and comfort form engenders an opposite inclination: to find intimacy with familiarity. Unlike sexual gratification, love cannot be bought (or for that matter, arranged, anticipated, or outlawed). If passionate love is bought, it is invalidated. In contrast, sexual release and, thus, satiation, in the absence of a love bond, can result in an immediate disinterest in the other. People in a state of passionate love discover that sexual gratification does not lessen but intensifies interest in the other.

The human sex urge is often about more than simply achieving an orgasm. It can be in the desire for tactile contact and intimate communication with another person. However, even when there is little or no prior interest, sexual orgasm can give rise to stronger feelings of emotional involvement. It is the desire for physical intimacy -- a close physical and emotional relationship -- that brings erotic interests into social relations, thereby linking eroticism with such interpersonal emotions as affection, trust, insecurity, and jealousy. The relationship between passion and sexuality in Mexico repeatedly found couples losing themselves and with it, all rationality as unions dissolved into emotional transcending ecstasies through sexual interactions. In this way the pursuit of a "good risk" (an intense emotional entanglement) may lead to a "bad risk" in sexual behavior (the loss of "safe sexual practice").

The tensions, quandaries, and perplexities in balancing love and sex are evident in the way Nevada prostitutes working in legalized brothels interact with their customers. Research on San Francisco, Stockholm, and Amsterdam prostitutes found a high percent of male customers expected the woman to demonstrate an interest and concern for their well-being. For these customers the illusion of emotional intimacy is just as, and maybe even more important as being sexually satisfied. A similar pattern is apparent amongst some male customers at urban strip clubs. In a setting celebrating the objectification of a woman’s body, regular customers often strove to develop a "relationship" with a particular stripper who, for her part, pretended to care about him. Even the domain of the extramarital tryst can quickly transcend the sexual to include the emotional.

These and other examples reveal that emotional intimacy can and does arise out of a highly sexually charged atmosphere.

Every community must deal with the strong emotional bonds that often result from sex, passionate love, and comfort love. Cultural models are useful in that they provide an explanation of how to integrate the many facets of love and sex into a more unified whole. These models or explanations can be challenged by individuals and interest groups (polyamorists, Christian fundamentalists, libertines, and so forth) who offer alternative models as to the proper relationship between the types of love and sex. But this raises a larger and more vexing issue: Is the dilemma between sexual desire and passionate love? Or is it between passionate love and comfort love? Or are we dealing with a triangular relationship? Certainly there can be one without the other -- a disheartening fact in cultures where the goal is to blend them together.

William Jankowiak is a professor of anthropology at University of Nevada, Las Vegas. A relentless field ethnographer, he has worked on a variety of projects, ranging from life inside urban China to Mormon polygyny. Six of his books have been published, the first Sex, Death and Hierarchy in  a Chinese City: An Anthropological Account, and the latest Intimacies: Between Love and Sex Across Cultures.

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