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Chapter 6 A THEORY OF SEXUAL INTERACTION IS SEX A NATURAL biological drive or is it socially constructed? As sociologists , we are inclined to say it is the latter, constructed upon the basis of the former. But this very general, conventionally palatable answer leaves everything dangling. How strong and how constant is the biological component, and by what mechanisms does it become transmuted into the myriad variations of sexual behavior? Can we predict on theoretical grounds who will do what with whom, and in what historical circumstances? Let us say that sex is motivated by pleasure in the genitals, and that this physiological mechanism has been evolutionarily selected to promote reproduction. But genital pleasure-seeking does not account for many aspects of what people widely recognize as sex. Why are breasts considered sexy in some (but not all) cultures? A evolutionary biologist would answer that breasts signal a woman’s mothering capacity. But this does not explain why adult males would derive pleasure from grabbing, touching, or sucking women’s breasts; and it leaves us with the puzzle as to why we commonly distinguish between nursing (not usually considered sexy) and breasts as sexual. Similar problems crop up as we move further afield from the reproductive organs. Why is kissing widely considered sexual? Why only in certain societies, and for certain kinds of kisses? What is the pleasure of touching lips and tongues, surely far from the biological mechanism of genital pleasure? Why is it sexually arousing (for some social circumstances ), so that one thing leads to the other? Why is it that for some persons, the height of sexual pleasure is to combine kissing and licking with genital contact, sometimes touching the mouth to all parts of the body? This touches on the problem of fellatio and cunnilingus. Seeking genital pleasure explains why someone might enjoy having their penis or clitoris sucked; but why should some persons find it highly erotic to perform oral sex upon someone else? Anal sex raises similar questions. One might account for anal penetration as penis-pleasure, in the case of the male penetrator. But if there is pleasure in passive anal sex in both homosexual and heterosexual intercourse, what is the mechanism of pleasure? Why are there other anal elaborations, enjoyed by some individuals or in some erotic sub- 224 CHAPTER SIX cultures, including anal licking,“fist-fucking,”1 and, relatedly, spicing sex with being the recipient or witness of defecation and urination? There are a host of mild and relatively respectable examples of sexual attractions that have nothing to do with genitals: faces, hair (why should one like to run their fingers through a lover’s hair? why should blondes—in some historical periods—be considered sexy?), or, as in Japan, the nape of the neck. In the nineteenth century, off-the-shoulder gowns were female high fashion, and men would proclaim the beauty of a woman’s shoulders. We take it for granted that a sexual partner should preferably be attractive. Aside from the fact that standards of attractiveness vary historically, by what causal process can we account for how nongenital bodily features become sexually arousing? In the twentieth century, especially between 1930 and 1950, women’s legs were considered extremely sexy as they approximated certain ideal curves; even the remote appendages, ankles, insteps, and high-heeled shoes were capable of arousing erections and ejaculations. Various forms of voyeurism and sexual aggressiveness, as well as consensual love-making, were aimed at touching these objects. Again we must ask: where is the pleasure? Finding a mechanism to account for such erotic experiences is the general problem of all the examples we have been considering. Let us list a few more types that need explaining: holding hands— why is that felt to be pleasurable, as well as part of a sequence of erotic behaviors? Why do incipient lovers sometimes play footsie under the table? Why is general body contact, hugging or being hugged by another person, in some social circumstances (but not in others) a major part of sexual pleasure? The kind of answer I am seeking will not be of the form “that is the way things are defined in this culture.” And it does not help much to add “sexist” or “patriarchal” or “capitalist” to “culture” (or “regime”). There is an important component of bodily and emotional interaction in these social actions; these are not merely cultural signals, arbitrarily assigned out of the big code-book in the sky that many...


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