Modern Emotions and Perennial Drives: Love and Sex

By Liah Greenfeld

If you ever wondered, love–the identity-affirming one we all desire–is not dependent on sex and can well thrive without it. Love, as already Shakespeare said (and Shakespeare–see Modern Emotions: Love–was the expert on the subject) is a marriage of minds, after all, and the bodily element in it is at most secondary. Of course, the experience of that love we are discussing here is essentially erotic in the sense that the emotion is ecstatic and self-transcendent–finding that perfect understanding (the understanding that allows one to understand and accept oneself) in another person implies virtually merging with the other person in one’s innermost self, making the other person an essential, vital part of one’s identity. And this self-transcendence, merging of the minds, is naturally felt as a physical longing, a desire to become physically one–expressed as sexual desire. But sex, in this case, is an expression of love, not the other way around, and love can have numerous other expressions, it does not necessitate sex under all circumstances.

Here in America, we prefer materialistic interpretations of everything, which leads us to see all emotions as a function of our biological constitution, so love is usually understood as an essentially sexual feeling, as an expression of sexuality. We tend to equate “romance” and “romantic” with sex and sexual. As a result, sex acquires a far greater importance in our society, than it has in many other societies, and it leads many of us to mistake sex for love and therefore to have disappointing relationships or even become disillusioned in love altogether and settle for sexual attraction only. This is a peculiarity of the American culture; many other cultures would not even connect the primary emotion of sexual arousal to the tertiary emotion of love, whatever their specific concept of love (see Are Human Emotions Universal?).

The association of sex with the new—our–idea of love (as identity-affirming, revealing one’s true self, and making life meaningful) in the 16th century in England ennobled and purified sex, which was considered fundamentally sinful in the Christian worldview (it was the original sin, you will remember; because of our discovery of sexuality we were expelled from Paradise and became mortal), and legitimated it outside marriage where it was by necessity allowed (while making marriage itself, if loveless, illegitimate–nobody thought of making love a condition for marriage before).  Yet, this association, which encourages the contemporary American to see sexual attraction as the source and foundation of love, was quite accidental for the English culture where our idea of love emerged. Shakespeare, the great love poet, had very little to say of sex that was good. Far from being the foundation of love, loveless sex (which he called “lust”) was revolting: it led to nausea, not to love. Consider this:

Th’expense of spirit in a waste of shame

Is lust in action; and till action, lust

Is perjur’d, murderous, bloody, full of blame,

Savage, extreme, rude, cruel, not to trust;

Employ’d no sooner, but despised straight;

Past reason hunted; and no sooner had,

Past reason hated, as a swallow’s bait,

On purpose laid to make the taker mad:

Mad in pursuit, and in possession so;

Had, having, and in quest to have, extreme;

A bliss in proof, — and prov’d a very woe;

Before, a joy propos’d; behind, a dream:

All this the world well knows; yet none knows well

To shun the heaven that leads men to this hell.

So love, which we all today want and the ideal of which was first presented to us in Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, is not a sexually driven emotion. It may be more akin to the exemplary male friendships of antiquity, which allowed one person to find his alter ego (his “other self”) in the other. For his reason, this ideal, identity-affirming love can be found not only in homosexual relationships, but in relationships in principal lacking any sexual dimension. It is on these that I shall focus in my next post.

[Originally published in]

1 thought on “Modern Emotions and Perennial Drives: Love and Sex

  1. Pingback: Can Sexless Love Be Fulfilling? | Liah Greenfeld

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