In his highly regarded book, The Erotic Mind, Jack Morin describes four cornerstones of eroticism that give life to one’s arousal template. These are the interpersonal dynamics that, once incorporated into an arousal template, ratchet up the level of desire. Though each of the four cornerstones is not evident in every sexual fantasy, at least one and often several are usually in play.
The four cornerstones of eroticism are:
- Longing and Anticipation
- Breaking Taboos
- Searching for Power
- Overcoming Ambivalence
Interestingly, all four of Morin’s cornerstones straddle the line between attraction and obstacles. Basically, we want something, but if for some reason it’s not easily had, we find ourselves wanting it all the more.
Longing and Anticipation
With this cornerstone of eroticism, sexual arousal is heightened when someone is unobtainable (longing), or not yet but may soon be available (anticipation). The challenge of overcoming the “unobtainability” can, for many people, increase sexual desire.
Typically, this theme emerges in childhood with parental attractions (the unattainable loved one), and childhood stories like Cinderella (the unattainable Prince). This message repeats itself throughout school, where many students fantasize about a teacher or coach, and carries forward into adulthood, where bosses, people who are married, and other seemingly unattainable people carry an added erotic charge simply because of their status.
- Joseph, a 33-year-old gay man, finds straight men unbearably attractive, simply because he can’t have them.
- Elizabeth, a 42-year-old married, well-to-do woman finds “rough trade,” like the guy who pumps her gas, extremely sexy, perhaps because this type of man is the opposite of her husband – a thoughtful, hard-working, emotionally engaged professional.
- James, a single 20-year-old college student, likes to hook up with older women that he meets on Ashley Madison, an app for married people looking to cheat. He says the thrill of having a woman who belongs to another man is incredible.
- Martin, a 69-year-old retired executive, secretly longs for his brother’s wife – not because she is more attractive or personable than his own wife, but because he can never be with her sexually. Even if he were single, she would be off-limits to him.
The appeal of breaking sexual taboos has been widely recognized since the time of Freud. Walking the tightrope between inhibition and titillation can, for most of us, turn up the sexual heat. Typically, sexually taboo thoughts, fantasies, and behaviors are shameful to the individuals. And then, paradoxically, the idea of transgressing the taboo by indulging in the behavior because highly erotic.
When breaking taboos is involved, shame, because it is such a powerful and intense emotion, melds with the sexual fantasy. The power of the shame actually increases the power of the fantasy. Sexual behaviors that do not fit into a carefully constructed and socially desirable persona, that might result in stigma and consequences, can be a turn-on for precisely that reason.
At the same time, rather than always striving to be perfect, many of us get a kick out of being “bad” sometimes, especially sexually. We get an erotic charge when we step over an invisible sexual line. As Morin states, “Without boundaries to push against, there is no joy in naughtiness.” So part of the erotic charge here is knowing that we’ve crossed a boundary.
- Thomas, a 30-year-old self-described “nice guy from Kansas,” says he gets more turned on by prostitutes than the women he dates, and that part of the turn-on is knowing that if his friends and family knew what he was doing, they’d be shocked and disappointed.
- Stacy is a 52-year-old civil rights attorney who says that, for her, having sex in public places is an incredible turn-on. The possibility of being seen by others adds to the intensity of the sexual act.
- Regan, a 24-year-old skydiving instructor, self-identifies as a porn addict and says that his addiction has escalated in recent months to bondage porn, rape porn, and even snuff porn. He says that the “good” part of him is shocked that he is drawn to the violence in the porn he views, while the “bad” part of him finds it incredibly arousing.
- Sondra, a 29-year-old software engineer, engages in what she calls #MeToo behavior with her male subordinates, mostly by making inappropriate sexual comments and acting as if she is available to them. She says she gets a sexual kick from teasing them in this way, even though she knows her behavior is sexual harassment.
Searching for Power
At its most blatant, searching for power in an eroticized way involves the ritualized acting-out of dominance and submission. It also exists with infinite variety in the form of subtle negotiations and exchanges.
At times, this erotic cornerstone arises because an individual feels powerless in his or her life or some element of his or her life. To overcome these feelings of powerlessness, two sexual strategies may be used. The first is through direct action, such as taking steps to assert one’s sexual will. The second involves what Morin calls “highly refined surrendering,” where submission in a safe and scripted setting allows someone to regain a sense of control.
Generally, patterns related to interpersonal power are learned early in childhood and acquire erotic overtones as we age. Since our childhoods are filled with an endless array of power dynamics (with teachers, parents, siblings, friends, enemies, etc.), themes of taking or surrendering power are a central part of many erotic scripts.
- Todd is a married 48-year-old financial professional who is community-minded and active in his church. He loves his wife and kids, but has cheated throughout most of his marriage, always with much younger women with financial needs that he could help with. He says that now, 25 years into his marriage, he struggles to be sexual with his wife because their relationship lacks this power dynamic.
- Chantelle is a single, 27-year-old self-described “pencil pusher” at an accounting firm. She says that as the only woman of color at her workplace, she often feels singled out, watched, and judged. In her sex life, she has eroticized these feelings by engaging sexually on webcams, where she is alone and being watched by others.
- Evan is a single, gay, 19-year-old working in an upscale retail clothing store for men. He fantasizes about following older male clients into the dressing room, pushing them to their knees, and receiving oral sex from them. All of his actual boyfriends are sexually submissive older men.
- Maria is a 33-year-old legal immigrant sex worker, earning her living as a dominatrix. Her clientele is almost exclusively white males (and occasionally females). She says she enjoys her work and gets a sexual charge when she calls these individuals dirty names in her native tongue.
The overcoming ambivalence cornerstone of eroticism is less intuitive than the first three, but equally powerful. Overcoming ambivalence is sometimes eroticized because, unfortunately, we have all been hurt or let down by people we love and upon whom we are, especially as children, in some way dependent. In such situations, we can’t help but work to overcome the “ambivalence” of the person who has hurt us.
As adults, this can become eroticized, often manifesting as an attraction to emotionally unavailable people or, more destructively, to people who are verbally, emotionally, or even physically abusive.
Admittedly, it seems odd or at least counterintuitive that we would be drawn to someone who could or does harm us in these ways, but when erotic themes are understood in the context of neutralizing emotional pain by eroticizing aspects of that pain, this type of behavior makes sense. In fact, almost everyone can describe an experience of being attracted to someone without understanding the basis of that attraction – even people who seem obviously wrong for us.
Morin says that the role of ambivalence in sexual desires and behaviors is often unrecognized because it is a transient feeling, largely disappearing by the time we become aroused. Unlike breaking taboos, which tend to heighten a sexual experience, the intensity of overcoming someone’s ambivalence adds to the buildup of sexual excitement preceding the encounter.
- Neal is a 35-year-old African American medical doctor raised by his mother after his father passed away at a young age. His mother spent so much time making ends meet that he rarely, if ever, got any positive attention from her, though when she did respond in a loving way, his feelings bordered on ecstasy. Today, Neal finds himself perpetually chasing preoccupied, emotionally unavailable women. He also says the “chase” is more of a sexual thrill for him than the actual sex.
- Lindsey is a 20-year-old student at a prestigious university. She grew up with two college professors for parents, and she constantly found herself vying with their research and speaking engagements for attention. Now she feels “stuck” in a relationship with a studious boy who seems to value his studies more than their dates. Lindsey says she would dump him, but when she does succeed in pulling him away from his schoolwork, she feels more intensely loved and wanted.
- Jason is a married 46-year-old social worker who grew up in an addiction-riddled home. He says he continually fights the sexual desire he feels toward some of his clients, and that the more detached they are, the more attractive he finds them.
- Allen is a 38-year-old married gay man. His parents divorced when he was young, and he spent the majority of his childhood shuttling back and forth between parents who said (but didn’t act like) they wanted him. Today, even though he is “mostly” happy in his marriage, he often romanticizes his memories of the intense sexual excitement he had with his previous boyfriend, a workaholic who was only available to Allen when there was room in the schedule.
In Part 2 of this post, we will examine the interplay of substance abuse with secret sexual desires and the four cornerstones of eroticism. Until then, if you or someone you care about is struggling with sexual behaviors, with or without the added element of substance abuse, help is available. For residential treatment, online lecture series and workgroups, and weekend workshops, contact Seeking Integrity. For free resources, including blogs, podcasts, webinars, discussion groups, and more, visit SexandRelationshipHealing.com.