Dorothy Tennovs concept of limerence as an approximation to sexual incentive motivation

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One of the few scientists who can provide some useful information as to how human sexual incentives may act in the initial stages of approach behaviors is Dorothy Tennov (Tennov, 1979). At the outset it must be made clear that her account is based on interviews rather than on direct observations of behavior. She interviewed a large number of persons (more than a 1000) over a period of several years and used her skills as an experienced psychologist for extracting meaningful information from these interviews. However, descriptions of past events or emotional experiences given in an interview do not necessarily coincide with reality. The memories of past events or emotional reactions may have been transformed in several ways unknown both to the interviewee her/himself and to the interviewing scientist. In a situation where we have almost no usable knowledge at all about how human sexual incentive motivation works outside the laboratory, we are forced to accept that even preliminary, imperfect notions may be helpful. In the best of cases, these kinds of uncertain notions can help us in formulating testable research hypotheses. The formulation of testable hypotheses is a requisite for progress in the field and, despite its shortcomings, Tennov's work may constitute a basis for informed hypothesis formulation. I have found no more appropriate account of the processes by which humans are attracted to each other in the first place, how they continue to be so and how attraction may end.

Although Tennov never used the expression 'sexual incentive', her analysis of a mental state called limerence can be of great interest in the present context. Limerence is defined in the following way:

When a person, A, is in a state of receptivity and an attractive member of A's sexually preferred category, person B (hereafter referred to as 'LO' for limer-ence object), is presumed by A to have exhibited, or can be expected to exhibit, amorous interest in A, then A enters a state of limerence with LO as its object' (Tennov, 2001, p. 112).

We can see from this definition that the notion of expectancy is basic. The limer-ence object must emit some sign or signs that A interprets as indicative of a possibility for successful approach, i.e. a sign or signs giving A an expectancy of successful approach. What this sign is (or these signs are) is not mentioned, not even speculated about. Without having any data in support, I pose that the kinds of signs emitted by the limerence object, and their interpretation by the limerent person, are learned through the process of social learning. The existence of some kind of culturally independent, universal signs expressing acceptance or rejection of approach seems very unlikely. Concerning the processes determining the choice of limerence object, Tennov's data do not offer much information. It appears that the limerence object may be 'any attractive member of A's sexually preferred category'. The factors determining attractiveness were of no concern to Tennov. In fact, she considers that the initial contact between A and B basically is a random process.

Equally important as the origin of limerence is the end of it. There are at least three circumstances that efficiently can reduce or eliminate the state. One is the loss of hope of reciprocation by the limerence object. When success seems impossible, the state disappears. Another circumstance leading to a reduction of the intensity of limerence is that the limerence object enters into a committed and monogamous relationship with the limerent person. The effect is reinforced if the limerent person gets convinced that the reciprocation will be sustained. A third condition ending or reducing limerence toward a particular individual is the replacement of this individual as limerence object with another. This process appears to be facilitated if one or both of the preceding conditions are satisfied.

I would like to propose that the state of limerence is the conscious experience of sexual incentive motivation. There is indeed some support for this notion. The limerence object must be a member of the sex which the limerent person prefers for sexual interaction. In our discussion of non-human sexual incentive motivation, I repeatedly made clear that the sexual incentive stimulus must be emitted by an individual with whom sexual interaction is potentially possible. Otherwise the stimulus may activate social motivation rather than sexual. A female rat can be a sexual incentive only when receptive, a castrated male cannot be a sexual incentive, and so on. Likewise, limerence can only be activated by an individual with whom sexual interaction eventually may occur. We must remember that humans can have mental representations of events that have not yet occurred but that may occur in some future. This means that the limerent person's expectancy of future sexual interaction is enough for satisfying the criterion that only a potential mate can activate sexual incentive motivation. Moreover, it is likely that the limerence object activates visceral reactions indicative of sexual arousal, like erection (full or partial) in men and vaginal lubrication in women. Tennov does not provide us with data on this delicate issue, but mentions that sexual desire increases as the intensity of limerence increases. I do not think it is unreasonable to suppose that limerence, as she describes it, is associated with visceral reactions like erection and vaginal lubrication. Introspective data might support this contention, although such data are of no scientific value. Nevertheless, if correct, this point constitutes rather direct evidence for limerence being the conscious experience of sexual incentive motivation.

Additional arguments for considering limerence as a kind of sexual incentive motivation could come from an examination of the factors that end or reduce it. In non-human mammals, the execution of copulatory behavior is known to reduce the intensity of motivation, at least temporally. However, this does not appear to be the case with limerence. On the contrary, a majority of subjects report enhanced limerence following the execution of copulatory behaviors. This contradiction can perhaps be solved taking into account that the experience of limerence, or of human sexual incentive motivation, is partially or entirely determined by social learning. The emotional experiences activated by intimate human relationships are strongly affected by the beliefs about such relationships commonly held by the members of the culture. One such belief is that sexual activity reinforces interindividual emotional bonds. If the limerent person establishes a lasting and committed relationship with the limerence object, the limerent state will disappear, according to Tennov. It is not impossible that a lasting and committed relationship includes sexual activities. In case it does, and in case that sexual reward is obtained when executing these activities, no reduction in the sexual incentive value of the limer-ence object would occur, as we will see in Chapter 7.

The point to which I have been aiming for a couple of sentences is that, although limerence may be the conscious experience of sexual incentive motivation, this experience is only partially similar to sexual incentive motivation as known in non-human mammals. Learning, particularly social learning, is probably a main determinant of the human experience of sexual incentive motivation. The notion of any innate experience, independent of the cultural context, of sexual incentive motivation in the human is untenable. This means that in contrast to the automatic connection between sensory input and approach responses found in non-human mammals, no similar connections can be expected to be found in the human. However, as we have already seen, there may well be some automatic connections between environmental stimuli and arousal responses.

Assuming that limerence indeed is the conscious experience of something similar to sexual incentive motivation, and knowing that limerence is based on expectancy of successful approach, we are obliged to conclude that human sexual incentive motivation is activated by expectancy of success. This is a prominently cognitive process, based on subjective interpretations of signs emitted by the limerence object. The attribution of meaning to signs such as words, facial expressions or body gestures is the subject of semiotics, and any serious discussion of that issue would be extremely pretentious on my part. What I might dare to suggest, though, is that the interpretation of signs is something we learn. It is also most likely that we learn which signs to emit when we want to attract someone, in the same way as we learn which signs to emit when we want to repel someone. Human ethologists have discussed the possible existence of signs with unconditioned mechanisms of expression and interpretation, like facial expressions of emotions. Their underlying assumption was that both the expression and the interpretation of it were innate, or instinctive, automatic processes established in the brain through evolutionary processes (Ekman et al., 1972; Eibl-Eibesfeldt, 1973). Although rather popular in the 1970s, these ideas seem to have disappeared from the scientific discussion of sexual incentives.

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