Love, Sex, and Romance
If the lyrics of rock-n-roll songs are a guide, love is about sexual attraction. Harlan Ellison put it this way, “Love ain’t nothin’ but sex misspelled.” The view that love and sex are identical may seem crass. But the two words are often swapped in common use.
Few would deny the intense sexual attraction that accompanies the experience of “falling in love.” Because we recall these passions, we might think some basis exists for the widespread intuition that love and sex are related.
We who have once fallen in love also know that the initial burst of attraction often does not last. The flames of romance almost inevitably dissipate. Often only glowing embers – sometimes even dust and ashes – remain.
When the fire dims, we wonder if love keeps relationships together. Perhaps it is friendship instead. Perhaps the glue is really habit or social customs.
ANCIENT LOVE MYTH
The ancients proposed a myth for why two lovers seek one another. As Aristophanes tells the legend, humans were originally joined in pairs. Humans once had four legs, four arms, two heads, and displayed the characteristics of both males and females. People were self-sufficient, and they possessed great insight and strength.
The legend says humans were so strong they began attacking the gods. In response, Zeus struck upon a plan to cut humans in two to weaken them. Since this time of great separation, humans have been condemned to roam the earth seeking our other (“better?”) halves.
The moving force in our seeking is love itself. We find satisfaction and strength when we locate and embrace our soul mate.
This ancient myth suggests that sex and romance are powerful expressions of a deeper urge: the urge to reunite with one from whom we have been separated. The myth of love, accordingly, is the story of reattachment.
Today, ancient myths have largely been replaced by science. People seeking serious answers to the questions of love, romance, and sexuality look to anthropology, biology, and psychology. Science point to evolutionary history when talking about the relationship between sex and love.
Studies of our primate relatives – including lemurs, chimpanzees, monkeys, and apes – lead to theories about human sexuality. If human mating habits evolved over time, study of nonhuman primates should give clues about the sexuality of human primates.
Research of various types suggests that all primates are social. Social behavior is vital for caring for the offspring that sexual activity sometimes produces. Research also suggests that the urge for sex has a genetic basis.
Many human sexual practices differ from the practices of nonhumans, however. Humans are more likely to commit themselves to one sexual partner. Humans in general have more self-control than other primates when responding to sexual urges.
Humans are also unique in that they marry. In fact, marriage is a phenomenon of almost all human cultures. Nonhuman primates do not have the ritual of marriage, although they may dedicate themselves to one partner for life.
BIOLOGY EXPLAINS SEXUAL FAITHFULNESS?
Explaining why humans are more sexually faithful than nonhuman primates is a research project for some scientists. Some speculate that the secrecy of human female ovulation is the evolutionary explanation for human monogamy. Unlike females of many other species, human females show little or no sign of their fertility. Nonhuman females often show obvious signs of ovulation.
According to this explanation, males restrict their sexual activity to one female, because they cannot be sure when the female is ovulating. The risk that another male would fertilize his female is too great to leave her unprotected. Because creatures want to extend their genetic heritage, the need to protect one’s sexual partner led humans to commit to exclusive pair bonds.
A second theory for human marriage and sexual monogamy relates to the first. According to this theory, human sexual monogamy serves the genetic interests of both males and females by providing a better environment to protect and nurture children. A solitary female is more vulnerable to forces that may prematurely end the lives of a couple’s children.
The reasons females choose a mate differ from males. According to these scientific theories, females want to reproduce with males who have status, power, and wealth. Such males are more likely to protect the female’s offspring.
Females also choose males who will likely help with child rearing. Because females select males with such traits, so the theory goes, an evolutionary tendency toward monogamy emerges through female selection practices.
PSYCHOLOGY WEIGHS IN
Many think evolution does not fully explain human sexual and marital behavior. To say it another way, the evolutionary drive for reproductive success cannot fully explain romance, sex, and marriage.
Sigmund Freud, for instance, believed that our desire for our opposite-sex parent drives us to find union with someone similar to that parent. Others say an unknown magnetic force brings together very different people: males and females. The maxim that opposites attract may indicate that aesthetic forces unite couples. Marxists and social constructionists claim that economic concerns and the possibility for increased power unite lovers.
Most, if not all, of these explanations surely sometimes possess a measure of truth. But surveys of the motivations behind human sexual activity and marriage reveal a wide variety of alternative explanations.
If we ask people what motivates them romantically and sexually, the most common response is personal attraction. These attractions can be physical, e.g., another’s body features, mannerisms, gait, or voice quality. They can be nonphysical, e.g., perception of status, intimacy, friendship, or wealth.
Psychologist David Buss notes that all major psychological studies reveal that the first and most important factors humans consider when choosing the ideal mate are factors related to caring, kindness, generosity, and other such personality traits.
In one study, Buss interviewed more than 10,000 people. He asked these people to rate 18 possible qualities of a mate. Both men and women rated the same qualities among their top five most important. These qualities included dependability, emotional stability, a pleasing disposition, etc.
EROS AND LOVE
Although many factors affect our sexual and matrimonial choices, one element unites them all: attraction. This attraction is the driving force behind our choices to be romantic, sexually active, and marry. Attraction may be to something physical about the other. We may be attracted to what the other has to offer in terms of power, wealth, security, or status. Or we may be attracted to the other’s character or personality.
The word “eros” perhaps best accounts for this attraction for the other. Unfortunately, however, contemporary people almost exclusively use eros and its derivative “erotic” to refer to sexual matters. The classical use of eros is much more expansive.
Plato’s ideas about eros have shaped the way many understand attraction. Plato used eros to describe desire for or attraction to the beautiful, valuable, or good. One could express eros for the gods, society, the good life, one’s country, and a host of other nonsexual things.
THE LANGUAGE OF LOVE
Today, those who want to speak clearly and consistently about love must make a choice about language. They must decide to equate eros with love or to think of love as greater than eros.
I recommend considering love as a category greater than but including eros. After all, we often use the word “love” to talk about acting toward those to whom we are not attracted or do not find highly valuable. Sometimes we love in spite of the fact that we do not feel attracted to the other.
The Christian tradition tells us that love may not primarily involve attraction to what is beautiful, valuable, or good. Christians, for instance, are instructed to love their enemies.
DEFINING LOVE AND EROS
The easy equation of sex/romance and love drives me to be as clear as possible about what love means. It drives me to define love as best I can.
My definition of love is the following: to love is to act intentionally, in sympathetic response to God and others, to promote overall well-being. This definition suggests that love’s goal is overall flourishing, genuine happiness, blessedness, the kingdom of God, and the common good.
With this general definition of love in mind, I identify eros as a form of love that intends to promote well-being. Eros as a love form involves intentional response to promote well-being when attracted to what is beautiful, valuable, or good. Eros love seeks the good or beautiful in others and seeks to enhance or enjoy it.
Given my definitions of love and eros, we can see that sex and romance may or may not express love. When sex and romance promote well-being, they are acts of love. When sex and romance promote ill-being, they are not.
I am trying to change my habits of language on this issue. I try to use the word “love” in relation to sexual attraction, romantic feelings, or sexual activity only when I think overall well-being is promoted. I try to use words like “fondness,” “affection,” “passion,” “attraction,” “romance,” “sex,” or “intercourse,” when I am not sure overall well-being is intentionally being promoted.
Old habits die hard, of course. But I suspect that we would all gain greater appreciation for the word “love” if we were more careful how we use it.
To sum up: Love is not sex misspelled. Sex and romance may be expressions of love. But they may not. Love promotes well-being – whether sex and romance are involved or not.
Love seeks well-being when the fires of romance rage. But love also promotes well-being when passions die down to embers or ashes.
– This text draws from material in my book, The Science of Love: The Wisdom of Well-Being (Templeton Press). My newest book engaging these subjects is Defining Love: A Philosophical, Scientific, and Theological Engagement (Brazos Press).