What Causes Sexual Desire?

by Jason Stotts

It’s interesting how some phenomena defy all explanation. These mysteries are then handed down, from thinker to thinker, throughout the ages waiting to be unraveled; waiting for a true philosopher. It matters not how many, nor how often, mediocrities rail against these mysteries: they rail in vain, for the mysteries of the ages can only be answered by great minds. The issue of sexual desire is one of these great mysteries; it is a phenomenon that has persisted since before the Greeks, a phenomenon as old as sexuality itself. The issue, at first, seems as though it should be painfully obvious: have not all of us experienced sexual desire? Yet, for most, introspection becomes revelation: few can explain why they are attracted to some and not to others. This, then, is our purpose here – to explain the nature of sexual attraction and its causes. To do so, we shall have to carefully consider many issues and draw careful distinctions, lest we be led into error by haste or carelessness. We must begin in the only place possible to us, the brute fact of sexual attraction.

Let us say that you see a beautiful woman and you are instantly sexually attracted to her: she ignites in you lust almost unbearable. Now, what if you were told that this same woman had a deadly disease that is easily sexually transmitted, would you feel the same? What if, instead of a deadly disease, this woman was the mother of three children; would you be more or less attracted to her than your initial impression? What has changed about the woman?

Let us say that now you see a rather nondescript man and you feel no attraction to him. Would you suddenly find yourself attracted to him if you found out he was an extremely popular musician? What if you were dying of cancer and found out this man had just found the cure that would save you and countless others, would you find him attractive then? Did anything change about the man?

What if you meet a person through correspondence, whether by letter or online, and you are very attracted to their intelligence, their wit, and their ability to see the best in every situation, but find out (upon meeting them in person) that they are also hideous in appearance, would this affect your attraction? What if, instead of being hideous, they instead lied about their gender, would this affect your attraction?

It’s clear that there is something strange going on here: attractions that appear at first to be solely physical are either destroyed or heightened by intellectual judgments, while attractions that appear at first to be solely intellectual are either destroyed or heightened by physical considerations. The issue is not how, or indeed whether, your personal assessment of the person changed, but the clear fact that such change is possible. Clearly, there is some connection between judgments and sexual attraction.

One should carefully note that I have just shown that there is a connection between judgments and sexual attraction: an obvious, but historically vehemently denied, connection. Perhaps it’s due to the immediacy of the response or perhaps it’s due to poor introspective skills, yet nevertheless few people recognize the element of judgment in sexual attraction until it is pointed out for them. Thankfully, once the aspect of judgment is elucidated, most people are able to introspect on their own situations and see that it is indeed operative in their own lives. To say that judgment is operative in sexual attraction is to merely find a starting point – the apparent profundity of the position lasts until one realizes that judgments are not irreducible.

It’s clear that judgments can be based on different things; above we saw judgments based on beauty, on intelligence, on gender, on fame, et cetera. In each judgment, an individual is judged according to his possession, or lack, of certain characteristics. These characteristics are either values or disvalues to the judge – consequently, they are either pursued or avoided. Thus, attraction is based on a specific kind of judgment: value judgments.

A value is that which promotes our lives; a disvalue is that which retards it. Given that we are mortal agents, we must identify values and act to acquire and secure them for ourselves. Failing in this endeavor is literally deadly. Consequently, we have become so adept at quick value judgments by the time we are adults that we rarely need to perform this process consciously. Instead, we rely on subconscious evaluation to answer most of the mundane questions that occur throughout the day. But, while this ability to perform these judgments instantly and sub-consciously is a great value to us in most aspects of our lives, in more complicated issues this automation has left many of us in a position of helplessness. Since we do not usually perform value judgments consciously, it takes a great deal of concentration, time, and introspection to actually perform a conscious value judgment or to re-create consciously an implicit judgment. This means, that for all but exceptionally good introspectors, we are on “auto-pilot” with respect to evaluations. It is for this reason that people do not understand sexual attraction – or, more broadly, their own emotions.

Emotions are the existential experience of our automatic value judgments. When we experience an emotion, let us say that of sexual attraction, we are experiencing an instantaneous response to prior value judgments. We are judging, albeit implicitly and instantly, that the person for whom we feel attraction would be a good lover. Now, what this means for any one person could vary based on their particular value judgments and sense of life.

A person’s sense of life is much like their emotional response to life itself, except that a sense of life is not itself an emotion. A sense of life is the summation of a person’s judgments about their life: about the nature of reality, their own efficacy, and other people. This gives rise to an emotional appraisal of life and gives a person a sort of leitmotif; it sets a person’s baseline emotional state. A person who sees reality as operating by discernable law, who believes himself to have the ability to control the course of his own destiny, and who sees others as fellow rational agents, will have joyous sense of life. Conversely, a person who sees reality as completely random, who believes himself to be powerless to affect his own destiny, and who sees others as dangerous to his well-being, will have a malevolent sense of life. Now, a sense of life does not cause an overwhelming emotional state, such that someone with a joyous sense of life will always be happy or someone with a malevolent sense of life will always be despondent, but rather it sets the tone of our experience so that someone with a joyous sense of life is more likely to see things positively, while someone with a malevolent sense of life is more likely to see things negatively. Thus, a person’s sense of life has a great effect on their emotional experience of their life.

It is not solely, nor even indeed predominantly, through sub-conscious evaluation that one’s sense of life is formed. The impossibility of that position is manifest when one considers that there must be some basis for sub-conscious value judgments, as all judgments need a standard of reference by which to judge. The most important component in sexual desire, and also all evaluation, is one’s conscious philosophy. I should perhaps pause and ask you to consider the implications of this claim. I have just claimed that your beliefs – the sum of what you believe to be true and false, your understanding of the very nature of reality – determines who you will find attractive.

All sub-conscious judgments are ultimately traceable to conscious philosophy. One’s conscious judgments form the standard of evaluation used by one’s sub-conscious in judgments. This is why someone experiencing a completely novel situation will have no emotional response to it until they consciously judge whether the experience is good or bad for them. When we consciously accept a principle such as altruism is the standard of moral action and internalize this principle, we then have positive emotional responses to altruistic action and negative emotional responses to egoistic action, with the intensity of the emotional response being directly related to the strength of our conviction. The stronger we believe that our belief is true, the stronger our emotional response. Once we have consciously accepted a set of beliefs, these beliefs are “internalized” and become the standard for subconscious judgment. If you remember from above, these subconscious judgments cause our emotional responses. Thus, we can see that our conscious philosophy literally causes our emotional responses, as well as our sexual arousal. However, it must be remembered that emotions are directly caused by subconscious evaluation, not directly by conscious philosophy; i.e. one cannot consciously cause an emotion by an act of will.

We now have the knowledge necessary to understand how, and indeed why, a person’s sexual desire changes based on considerations that few would consider prima facie sexual. In the next essay we will look at actual philosophies and their implications for sexual arousal.

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