Why do we find certain things sexy, and other things un-sexy? How much of our desires are governed by genes, or culture, or individual quirks? From being turned on by “normal” things like a glimpse of an attractive body to the less mainstream attractions like fetish wear and pain, there are a variety of factors influencing what people find desirable. Be warned, this is a somewhat rambling post, representing my attempt to get a hold on what is perhaps one of the trickiest aspects of sexuality: where desires come from.
Some desires are likely connected to our evolution and our genes, such as the desire for traits that are adaptive to survival. Prospective mates with regular features and all their teeth, for instance, would indicate a good chance of having healthy offspring.
But there’s more to sexual desire than our genes telling us “Go bang that person, you’ll have awesome kids.” Our genetic inheritance as desire-predictor has its limits, as proven by the fact that beauty standards vary across cultures. In the Middle Ages and Renaissance in Europe, voluptuous women were considered attractive because their body fat indicated a high social status, since they were able to get enough to eat. In contemporary America, however, thinness is considered more attractive since it’s also become a symbol of social status due to the overabundance of food. The amount of body fat that makes a woman reproductively viable varies with the individual, so an entire culture’s beauty standards tell us more about the culture than about the individual’s reproductive capacity.
Culture is also a predictor of sexual desire, but only up to a point. To take another example from contemporary America, women are more likely to be judged attractive if they have large breasts. However, breast size alone isn’t necessarily a good way of figuring out someone’s reproductive viability, so clearly it’s a cultural thing. However, culture is more than just background noise: cultural dictates about attractiveness truly impact individuals over the course of their lives, leading them to view certain desires as normal and healthy. There’s a certain “pack mentality” enforced by culture, which encourages people to go with the flow of whatever is perceived as sexy in the mainstream, whether it’s tight jeans or schoolgirl skirts.
I suspect that culture plays a more complicated role in creating desire, however. Why are scenes of domination and submission so powerful that leather, whips, and handcuffs have become shorthand for sexual desire in American visual culture? Dressing a TV or film character in leather is a surefire way to make them sexy, and the same is true for magazine ads and billboards. Add some handcuffs and a whip to access more of the references to a set of taboo fetishes, from domination and submission to sadism and masochism, as well as bondage and discipline (a grouping frequently known by the acronym BDSM). This cluster of sexy signifiers may be erotic simply because it goes against the grain of mainstream American sexuality, but I think these things are also sexy because they hint at core tensions informing American identity: power and oppression. American society is stratified by power, and though power roles have become less rigid than before–slavery has been abolished, and women can vote–there are still phenomena like the glass ceiling for women and people of color, as well as classist hierarchies that prevent minorities and the underprivileged from actually getting anywhere in life. There is still plenty of violence against minorities as well, from gays and lesbians to transgender folks and immigrants. Power and violence are pervasive elements of American society today, even though few people want to openly discuss them. So why should it be a surprise that images of power and violence have become tied up with sexuality?
Viewing cultural tensions as a key element in sexuality would help explain why, for instance, the infantilization of women (in schoolgirl outfits, as blushing virgins) is so common in visual culture, from advertising to pornography. Because women’s access to power is a fraught issue in contemporary America, it’s getting worked out in our sex drives, in our fantasies, in our play time. Looking for links between a culture’s core values and its expressive genres (from TV to storytelling to children’s games) informs my scholarly paradigm as a folklorist, and I think that the expressive culture of sex exhibits these links as well.
Finally, there are individual elements in sexuality. A person’s first experiences with sex, whether positive or negative, can inform what they’re drawn to or repelled by in the future. Maybe reading erotica or viewing porn gave someone an idea along the lines of “hey, that might be sexy to try sometime.” Or a person might associate a certain colors or scent or texture with a treasured memory. These things, perhaps, can be empirically measured and tested through longitudinal surveys and interviews. Additionally, there are personal quirks to take into account, which might be the hardest factors to explain logically. Why is a certain item of women’s clothing a turn-on? Why does someone want to be flogged instead of spanked? If we can’t trace something to previous experience, or genetics, or culture… where does it come from? I hate to wind down a post by admitting that we don’t have really good answers to these big questions, but in the end, I believe that the bewildering diversity of factors influencing our sexuality may one of the most exciting things about humans. We may not completely understand our desires, but the multiplicity and playfulness with which we approach sex is invigorating and inspiring.
Whether you’re sexually adventurous or mildly kinky or as vanilla as can be, your sexuality both connects you to your culture and the rest of humanity, and also marks your unique experience in this world. Unraveling the mysteries of sexual desire is not a precise science (though we do strive for precision and scientific accuracy where possible), but this is one instance where I think a little mystery is not necessarily a bad thing.
Follow us on Twitter @mysexprofessor. Follow Jeana, the author of this post, @foxyfolklorist.