Romantic Love: In no other relationship is so much of our self involved. In no other relationship are as many different aspects of that self expressed. In romantic love two selves are celebrated as they are celebrated in no other context. How and why this is so has much to do with the role of sex in human existence.
The desire for sexual as well as psychological union is one of the defining characteristics of romantic love. Yet the meaning of the sexual interaction between a man and a woman is little understood.
It is obvious that sex is extraordinarily important to human beings. People devote a tremendous amount of time to thinking about sex, daydreaming about sex, seeing movies and reading books about sex—not to mention engaging in sex. The importance of sex in our lives is evidenced further by the fact that there is virtually no society known to us which has not laid down rules for people's sexual behavior. The most primitive tribes have rules concerning how people are to conduct themselves sexually. Certainly humankind's moral codes, especially religious codes, have been immensely preoccupied with sexual behavior. Part of the explanation for this intense concern is, of course, that sex can lead to offspring. But that is far from the only reason that social and religious codes have been concerned with controlling sexual desire and sexual expression.
The profound importance of sex lies in the intense pleasure it offers human beings. Pleasure, for human beings, is not a luxury, but a profound psychological need. Pleasure (in the widest sense of the term) is a metaphysical concomitant of life, the reward and consequence of successful action—just as pain is the insignia of failure, destruction, death.
In order to live, we must act, must struggle to achieve the values that sustaining life requires. It is through the state of enjoyment, through the state of happiness, through the state of pleasure that we experience the sense that life is a value, that life is worth living, worth struggling to maintain. Joy is the emotional incentive nature offers us to live. When we are successful in achieving life-enhancing values, the normal consequence is enjoyment.
Pleasure contains still another important psychological meaning. Pleasure gives us a direct experience of our own competence to deal with reality, to be successful, to achieve values—in a word, to live. Contained in the experience of pleasure, implicitly, is the feeling and thought "I am in control of my existence. I like my relationship to reality right now." Pleasure entails a sense of personal efficacy, just as pain contains a feeling of helplessness, of inefficacy, the implicit feeling and thought "I am helpless."
SEX AND SELF-CELEBRATION
Pleasure, then, gives us two experiences crucial to our unfolding and development. It allows us to experience the sense that life is a value and to experience the sense that we are a value (that we are efficacious, appropriate to life, in control of our existence). There is no knowledge more important to us than that of the value of life and the value of self, and pleasure, joy, provides that knowledge, in the vividness and intensity of direct experience.
The intimacy and intensity of the pleasure and joy that sex potentially affords are the reason for its power in our lives. Sex is unique among pleasures in its integration of body and mind. It integrates perceptions, emotions, values, and thought. It offers us the most intense form of experiencing our own total being, of experiencing our deepest and most intimate sense of self. Such—and this must be emphasized—is the potential of sex, when and to the extent that the experience is not diluted and undercut by conflict, guilt, alienation from one's partner, and so forth.
In sex, one's own person becomes a direct, immediate source, vehicle, and embodiment of pleasure. Sex offers a direct, sensory confirmation of the fact that happiness is possible. In sex, more than in any other activity, one experiences the fact that one is an end in oneself and that the purpose of life is one's own happiness. Even if the motives that lead a person to a particular sexual encounter are immature and conflicted, and even if, afterward, one is tortured by shame or guilt—so long as and to the extent that one is able to enjoy the sex act, life and one's right to the enjoyment of that life are asserting themselves within one's own being. Sex is the ultimate act of self-assertion.
This is true, in principle, even when there is no deep involvement with our partner. But its truth is overpoweringly apparent when sex is an expression of love, of life, and of our partner. It is most intense because we then experience ourselves as most integrated.
SEX AND SELF-AWARENESS
In the act of sex we experience a unique and intense form of self-awareness, one generated both by the sex act itself and by the verbal-emotional-physical interaction with our partner. The nature of our self-awareness in any given experience depends on the nature of the interaction, on the degree and kind of visibility we project and, in turn, are made to feel. If and to the extent that we enjoy a strong sense of spiritual and emotional affinity with our partner, and, further, the sense of having harmoniously complementary sexual personalities, the result is the deepest possible experience of self, of being spiritually as well as physically naked, and of glorying in that fact.
Conversely, if and to the extent that we feel spiritually and/or sexually alienated and estranged from our partner, the result is that the sexual experience is felt as autistic or alienated (at best) or frustratingly "physical," or sterile and meaningless (at worst).
This does not mean that, sexually, everyone longs for romantic love and is inevitably frustrated with anything less. But it does mean that to the extent that we are alienated from our self, our sexuality, or our partner, we are cut off from the most ecstatic possibilities of sexual union.
Sex affords us the most intensely pleasurable form of self-awareness. In romantic love, when a man and a woman project that they desire to achieve this experience by means of each other's person, that is the highest and most intimate tribute a human being can offer or receive, that is the ultimate form of acknowledging the value of the person we desire and of having our own value acknowledged.
A crucial element in this experience is the perception of our efficacy as a source of pleasure to the person we love. We feel that it is our person, not merely our body, that is the cause of the pleasure felt by our partner. (We want to be enjoyed as more than a good sexual technician.) We feel, in effect, "Because I am what I am, I am able to cause him (or her) to feel the things he (or she) is feeling." Thus, we see our own soul, and its value, in the emotions on the face of our partner.
If sex involves an act of self-celebration, if, in sex, we desire the freedom to be spontaneous, to be emotionally open and uninhibited, to assert our right to pleasure and to flaunt our pleasure in our own being, then the person we most desire is the person with whom we feel freest to be who we are, the person with whom we (consciously or subconsciously) regard as our appropriate psychological mirror, the person who reflects our deepest view of our self and of life. That is the person who will allow us to experience optimally the things we wish to experience in the realm of sex.
BETWEEN MAN AND WOMAN
When a man and a woman encounter each other in passionate love, the factor of sex enlarges and deepens the area of desired contact between them. The longed-for "knowing" of each other is all-embracing.
We wish to explore our lover with our senses—through touch, taste, and smell. We explore and share feelings and emotions at greater length and to greater depth, and with greater regularity, than we almost ever do in any other kind of relationship. The fantasies of our partner can become the subject of our own deep, intensely personal interest. Our partner's most diverse traits, characteristics, and activities can acquire a powerful spiritual-intellectual-emotional-sexual charge.
The popularity of male and female generates its own dynamic tension, generates a curiosity and fascination that can be at once totally absorbed in the object and at the same time personally, intimately selfish. This is the great complement of love: that our self-interest expands to encompass our partner.
We are each of us more than simply a human being; we are a human being of a specific gender. If it is an error to overestimate the significance of this fact, it is scarcely less an error to underestimate its significance or to deny its overpowering impact on our lives.
Contained in every human being's self-concept is the awareness of being male or female. Our sexual identity is normally an integral and intimate part of our experience of personal identity. We do not experience ourselves merely as human beings, but always as a male or a female. And when a person lacks a clear sense of sexual identity, we recognize that condition as representing some failure of normal maturation.
While our sexual identity, our masculinity or femininity, is rooted in the facts of our biological nature, it does not consist of our being physically male or female; it consists of the way we psychologically experience our maleness or femaleness.
For example, if a man is characteristically honest in his dealings with people, this trait pertains to his psychology as a human being; it is not a sexual characteristic. If, on the other hand, he feels confident sexually, relative to women, this trait pertains to his psychology specifically as a man. If, conversely, he feels emotionally overwhelmed and inadequate at any personal encounter with a woman, we would recognize the existence of a problem in his masculinity. If a woman were to experience the penis as threatening and terrifying, we would recognize a failure of her evolution to adult femininity.
Our psychosexual identity, our sexual personality, is the product and reflection of the manner in which we learn to respond to our nature as a sexual being, just as our personal identity, in the wider sense, is a product and reflection of the manner in which we respond to our nature as a human being.
As sexual beings, there are certain questions that we necessarily confront, even if we rarely think about them consciously. To what extent am I aware of myself as a sexual entity? What is my view of sex and of its significance in human life? How do I feel about my own body? (This last does not mean: How do I appraise my body aesthetically? But rather: Is my body experienced as a value, as a source of pleasure?) How do I view the opposite sex? How do I feel about the body of the opposite sex? How do I feel about the sexual encounter of male and female? What is the level of my ability to act and respond freely in this encounter? It is our implicit answers to such questions that underlie our sexual psychology.
It need hardly be said that our attitude toward these issues is not formed in a psychological vacuum. On the contrary: in sex, perhaps more than in any other realm, the total of our personality tends to find expression. More than one study has suggested that, other things being equal, the higher the level of our general self-esteem, the more likely it is that we will respond healthily and affirmatively to the fact of our own sexuality and to the phenomenon of sex in general.
Since our sexuality is an inherent part of our humanness, a mature, well-evolved individual experiences his or her sexuality as integrated into his or her total being—and experiences the sex act as a natural expression of that being. To be integrated with our sexuality is indispensable for fulfillment in romantic love.
A healthy masculinity or femininity is the consequence or expression of an affirmative response to our sexual nature. This entails a strong, enthusiastic awareness of our own sexuality; a positive (fearless and guiltless) response to the phenomenon of sex; a disposition to experience sex as an expression of the self, rather than as something alien, darkly incomprehensible, sinful, or "dirty"; a positive and self-valuing response to one's own body; an enthusiastic appreciation of the body of the opposite sex; a capacity for freedom, spontaneity, and delight in the sexual encounter.
Many years ago, while running a therapy group, I listened to a number of clients talk about the varied notions of masculinity and femininity upheld at different times and in different cultures. One of the clients asked me what personal meaning I found in the concepts of masculinity and femininity. I answered, more or less spontaneously, that masculinity was the expression of a man's belief that the creation of woman was nature's most brilliant idea, and that femininity was the expression of a woman's belief that creation of man was nature's most brilliant idea! Doubtless that formulation lacked something in scientific elegance; nonetheless, I am not at all confident that I can do better now. (Of course, each one of us carries within our psyche a variety of connotations and associations attached to the terms "masculine" and "feminine." These personal meanings reflect events in our individual life history, male and female models who may have inspired us, different viewpoints prevalent in our culture, whatever thinking we ourselves may have done on the subject and, last but far from least, biological forces deep within us that speak to us in a wordless language we have barely begun to decipher.)
In any case, what is easy enough to see is the enormous pleasure that a man can know in the experience of himself as male, as the inhabitant of a male body, and the enormous pleasure a woman can know in the experience of herself as female, as the inhabitant of a female body—and the unutterable joy of encountering the body and the person of the other, the encounter of man with woman, of woman with man, and the discovery, through passion and intimacy, that "the other" is, in fact, the other side of oneself.
Just as our sexual personality is essential to our sense of who we are, so it is essential to that which we wish to objectify and to see reflected or made visible in human relationships. The experience of full visibility and full self-objectification entails being perceived, and perceiving ourself not merely as a certain kind of human being, but as a certain kind of man or woman.
In point of fact, we want both: to be perceived as a certain kind of human being and a certain kind of man or woman.
A man may wish to have his strength perceived by the woman in his life; he may also wish her to perceive his sensitivity, his vulnerability, his need from time to time not to be fully "responsible" and "in control," and also to have it understood that there is no conflict or contradiction among these various facets of who he is. A woman may wish to have her sensitivity and intuitiveness appreciated; she may also wish her man to appreciate her strength and aggressiveness, and to have him understand that no conflict or contradiction is involved.
The optimal experience of visibility and self-objectification requires interaction with a member of the opposite sex. We all carry male and female aspects within us; but in man, the male principle ordinarily predominates; in woman, the female principle predominates. In relating to the opposite sex, we are permitted to experience the full range of who we are. The polarity between man and woman generates and accentuates this awareness.
Of course, there are aspects of this ability which are best achieved with members of one's own sex. A man knows what it feels like to be a man in a way no woman can know; a woman knows what it feels like to be a woman in a way no man can know. But a wider range of possibilities can be explored between members of the opposite sex. Such a relationship represents a vaster keyboard on which more notes can be hit and a richer music can be created.
A member of the opposite sex, with whom we enjoy a strong mutuality of mind and values, many fundamental affinities, as well as complementary differences, is capable of perceiving and personally responding to us both as a human being and as a sexual being. The unique, gender-induced perspective of man and woman, in confronting the opposite sex, represents, at least potentially, the fullest possible range of "knowing" the other.
I shall not attempt to deal here with the difficult and complex question of homosexuality and bisexuality. Obviously the entire context of this discussion of romantic love is heterosexual; we deal with the model of man/woman relationships, even though much of what is said clearly applies to homosexual love relationships. If one regards homosexuality or bisexuality as representing fully as mature a level of development as heterosexuality, some of the preceding observations will be unacceptable. If, on the other hand, one takes the view, as I do, not that homosexuality or bisexuality are "immoral" or "wrong" or should be illegal, but that they generally do reflect a detour or blockage on the pathway to full maturity as an adult human being, then my reasoning will have, I believe, more persuasiveness. To say more would take me farther afield than I care to go.
To be sexually desired, in the context of romantic love, although not necessarily in the context of more casual relationships, is to be seen and wanted for what one is as a person, including what one is as a man or a woman. The essence of the romantic love response is: "I see you as a person, and because you are what you are, I love and desire you, for my happiness in general and my sexual happiness in particular."
Our spiritual-emotional-sexual response to our partner is a consequence of seeing him or her as the embodiment of our highest values, and as being crucially important to our personal happiness. "Highest," in this context, does not necessarily mean noblest or most exalted; it means most important, in terms of our personal needs and desires and in terms of what we wish to find and experience in life. As an integral part of that response, we see the loved object as being crucially important to our sexual happiness. The needs of our spirit and of our body melt into each other; we experience our most enraptured sense of wholeness.
Nathaniel Branden is the author of The Psychology of Self-Esteem, Breaking Free, and The Disowned Self. This article is excerpted from his forthcoming book, The Psychology of Romantic Love (J.P. Tarcher). Copyright © 1980 by Nathaniel Branden.
This article originally appeared in print under the headline "The Human Value of Sex".