What are some of the more important features of human sexual desire? Two neuroscientists falter badly in their attempt to answer the question in their book, A Billion Wicked Thoughts: What the World’s Largest Experiment Reveals About Human Desire (Dutton, New York, 2011).
Scouring internet data, the authors, Ogi Ogas and Sai Gaddam, analyzed millions of web searches, websites, erotic videos, erotic stories, personal ads, and digitized romance novels. The resulting behavioral data produced, among other findings, the allegedly “shocking truths” that men prefer plump women to thin ones, women enjoy reading about two heterosexual men having sex, men often seek erotic videos featuring older women, and male sexual cues are very different from those of women.
The authors claim to have initiated “a revolution in the scientific study of sexual attraction.” But their findings are of limited value. The superficial information they have produced does very little to help us understand the vitally important ways that sexual attraction can be an ingredient in how we sabotage relationship harmony and success.
A basic tenet of depth psychology informs us that we become sexually attracted to (and emotionally entangled with) people with whom we can more easily recreate the unresolved psychological conflicts that linger from our childhood. In other words, we can easily get “turned on” by people who we can feel, at an unconscious level, are candidates to help us to replay the unresolved issues from our past.
For instance, a man or woman with low self-esteem, who is under the influence of childhood impressions of having been unappreciated or neglected, is often sexually, compulsively attracted to people who are withholding emotionally, who have serious character flaws, and who are unwilling to commit to their partner.
Other times, people can find themselves hopelessly infatuated with someone who is in another relationship and not available. Or, in reverse, people may back away and be “turned off” by a person of good character who is available to them.
In our psyche, we retain memories of feeling refused, controlled, criticized, rejected, abandoned, betrayed, and unloved. Even when we had decent parents and a relatively happy childhood, we felt these emotions strongly at times because of childish sensitivities. These negative emotions remain unresolved in our psyche, and we are compelled to continue to experience and replay them, even when that’s painful for us.
Sexual attraction is often a defense against realization of one’s self-defeating tendencies. For instance, a woman who is attracted to a self-centered man might claim in her unconscious defense, “”I’m not looking for the feeling of being unsupported and unappreciated—Can’t you see how turned on I get when he pays attention to me and makes love to me.”
Promiscuous individuals often have strong sexual attractions for others, yet their promiscuity is an expression of their self-degradation, produced by unresolved issues involving rejection, self-rejection, and even self-hatred. This individual’s sexual attractions and activities serve as defenses that attempt to “prove” he or she wants to feel loved, or at least an illusion of love, to cover up an affinity for feeling unloved.
The examples are endless. A man who had a cold, detached mother is prone to being sexually attracted to similar kinds of women. A woman who had a father who was passive and submissive to his wife can be sexually attracted to passive men. A man who had a dominating mother will tend unconsciously to seek out women to whom he can be passive. People who felt they were a disappointment to their parents will act out being a disappointment to their partners, or they will alternate between being a disappointment and seeing the partner as a disappointment.
After the initial courtship, the thrill of sexual attraction can start to abate, at which time the unrecognized emotional issues start to bring pain and suffering to both parties in the relationship.
Of course, we all want love and happiness. But unconsciously we are compelled to replay and recreate unresolved emotions from our past. To recap, until these emotions are resolved with insight and awareness, we are in danger of recreating unpleasant dramas in our present circumstances through which we relive the pain. In fact, we can be driven or compelled to pursue such dramas, all the while fooling ourselves with rationalizations that we are chasing after love.
My late wife, Sandra Michaelson, wrote two in-depth books on relationships. She wrote in LoveSmart: Transforming the Emotional Patterns that Sabotage Relationships (Prospect Books, 1999):
Sex often serves as an antidote for low self-worth or as a means to perform or please, rather than as a genuine physical expression and extension of one’s love. Sex is also used as a way to disguise our inability to be intimate and to deny the alienation we feel from ourselves and others. When our hearts and bodies are closed to intimacy due to self-rejection, inner fears, and emotional conflicts, we need more extreme forms of stimulation to experience pleasure (p. 224).
Farther along in LoveSmart, she wrote:
Much of what looks like a powerful libido can be in reality a quest for domination and power. Rapists, in particular, uses sex as a way to dominate and reduce a woman, as a defense against their underlying identification with the woman’s helplessness and humiliation. Thus sex can be used to control others, to get revenge, release aggressive needs, meet our yearning for validation or attention, boost our self-image, and relieve stress. Addictive or compulsive sex is another way of acting out emotional problems in the sexual arena. Those who use sex to channel their emotions or hidden feelings find it rarely brings relaxation and release but rather a need for more sex. Constant sexual tension is often confused with potency, but it is more likely an indication of the futility of using sex to get the emotional satisfaction we are unable to give to ourselves.
Many couples become sexually aroused by dramatic outbursts in their relationship. A series of fights and reconciliation, followed by intense sexual activity, characterize their relationship. They are often convinced this way of having sex is healthy. However, such people use conflict, as opposed to tender love, to generate passion. (p. 226).
We’ll hinder our chances of establishing intimacy and love when we don’t see through the illusions of reality that sexual attraction can produce.