Into the Intro: How Sexual Desire Works


Go Into the Intro of How Sexual Desire Works

In this excerpt from How Sexual Desire Works, step inside the enigma of human desire, a psychological puzzle that stumped even Casanova.

What Is Enigmatic About Sexual Desire?

Consider the time, I hope recently, when you saw a woman or man (fill in your preference) who awoke in you, within a matter of seconds, a distinct state of lust . . . The object of origin for that awakening presented itself, in all its glory, probably not whole but in parts. Maybe what first arrested your attention was the shape of an ankle, how it connected with the back of a shoe and how it dissolved into a leg, no longer seen but just imagined, under a skirt . . . .Or maybe it was the shape of a neck sticking up from a shirt. Or maybe it was not a part at all but the carriage, moves, energy, and resolve that propelled a whole body forward. (Damasio, 2003, p. 93)

It would be informative to discover how Damasio’s readers (and indeed mine too) have reacted to this invitation to reflection. If they are like the population sampled by sex researchers, some would find it hard to recall any such lust-filled moments, whereas others would be inundated with recent memories jockeying for occupation of the conscious mind. Some would doubtless find their desire triggered instantly by such parts of the whole as an ankle or leg, whereas a number might find it fuelled by the shoes worn. Others would only be excited slowly by a whole speaking and socially interacting personality.

The enormous variation in the reactivity of human sexual desire is why I use the term ‘enigma’ and is a feature that must be accommodated by any attempt to explain desire’s foundations. What are the implications of this wide spectrum of responses? Is there a healthy norm, while deviations to either side indicate that something is wrong? Accounts by individuals, both famous and not, on their experience of desire are invaluable in understanding how it works and they will be used widely throughout the following pages.

Personal anecdotes and explanations

Insight from biographies

I respectfully held out my hand to her and she took it with an air of utter indifference, but she pressed it firmly as she climbed into the carriage. The reader will be able to imagine the flame which this sent racing through my blood. (Casanova, 1798/1958, p. 192)

Leaning toward the table, she revealed nearly everything I desired. Then, slowly straightening up, she handed me the chemise. I was trembling so violently that I was unable to hold it. (Casanova, 1798/1958, p. 52)

I was a furnace of desire, and it was becoming impossible for me to resist the flame that was consuming me. (Casanova, 1798/1958, p. 81)

. . . but how could I go to sleep? I was still heated from the flame which Lucrezia had ignited in me. (Casanova, 1798/1958, p. 29)

The squeeze on Casanova’s hand was interpreted by him, rightly or wrongly, as a signal of reciprocity and encouragement. It would appear to exemplify a fundamental feature that can be associated with desire and serve to accentuate it: the resolution of uncertainty. In such terms, the ‘flame racing through the blood’ following the squeeze would have been triggered by a combination of an initial desire and the sudden assessment that desire might shortly be fulfilled. Investigators can now identify changes in the activity of the brain that form the basis of desire. Casanova used the metaphor of heat and flames and he documented the attention-grabbing aspect of desire associated with persistence of erotic images in his conscious mind. He witnessed the ability of erotic thoughts to interfere with sleep, a feature shared with fear and anxiety.

Remaining at the extreme end of the range of sexual desires, a century or so after Casanova there is a special place for a Victorian English autobiographer, known as ‘Walter’. Like Casanova, Walter would have found Damasio’s question very easy to answer, and might only have wondered why the suggested reaction time was as long as ‘a matter of seconds’.

Read the full excerpt here.

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