Too Hot to Taste

The pleasures of sexual attraction can lead us to think: if some is good, wouldn't more be better? We might incline to think: can there really be such a thing as 'too sexy'?

Too Hot to Taste?

Here's a funny thing about pleasure: too much is actually not pleasurable. Most of us enjoy a little spice in our food. But what happens when you put too much in? The obvious answer is that it burns. There is actual physical pain and discomfort. But there is another effect.

If you make it too hot then you can't taste anything.

The heat overpowers all the other flavours. You can no longer discriminate between the different flavours, and no longer even clearly detect the flavour of the meal itself. Spice is meant to give a lift to the flavour, to add piquancy, and enhance the blend of the other flavours. It is not meant to obliterate them.

A similar thing happens with music. Some kinds of music benefit from being fairly loud. I remember attending a rock concert in my youth where the band was so loud it was absurd. Two days later when the ringing in my ears still hadn't stopped I was getting concerned. Fortunately it subsided not long after. But that wasn't why I remember this particular concert. I remember it because it was the first time I had a clear recognition of this phenomenon:

The music was so loud you couldn't hear it.

Sure, you could hear something, but you couldn't distinguish any of what made it music, what would have made it enjoyable. I honestly couldn't tell you whether the band was any good or not. I couldn't tell you whether they could even play their instruments well. All of what makes music pleasurable was overwhelmed.

Having such experiences can lead you think: maybe spice is bad. Maybe loudness is bad. So you cut them out of your life. This is understandable as a reaction to an extreme experience but it would also be disappointing because something that can bring legitimate pleasure is foregone through a misunderstanding.

I had a contrasting musical experience which can help to illustrate. In the same period of my life I attended a concert by Bo Diddley, one of the foundational rock and rollers. It was memorable because for the first time I actually experienced and understood what rock music could be. It was also the quietest rock concert I ever attended. I don't mean it was actually quiet, but it was the least loud. It was only as loud as it needed to be to have the desired effect. By then he was a very experienced musician. At the time I thought he was old. He knew exactly what he was doing, and didn't need to amp everything up to try and impress anyone.

The loudness was of a type that gave punch to the rhythm. By contrast, the other band I mentioned turned everything up, and considering that a key feature of their sound was jangly guitars, it was pretty excruciating. (I had an even more absurd experience one time. I made the mistake of taking mum and dad to what was billed as a folk music group - an Irish band. It was just four fellows with acoustic guitars singing, but they seemed to think they were a rock band. Again, it was so loud you couldn't make anything out, and anyway I soon had to leave because mum was getting physically distressed by the volume.) But Bo Diddley knew about contrast and balance. It was simple music, but effective. And I came away with new insights into what makes rock and roll work.

What makes attraction work?

Attraction works by 'holding open a space' in which the attractiveness of the opposite sex can work its effect. The key thing to understand is that this attractiveness is not something simplistic. It is not just any one thing, but is like a dish with many ingredients mixed in a pleasing blend. It is like music, with melody, harmony and rhythm. Attraction is not just spice, or loudness. If there is too much spice or loudness it closes off the space in which what is attractive can be experienced.

Strength of passion is analogous to spice and loudness. The maximum of passion is not about attraction but consummation. It is about the end, not the journey. If the only thing you are interested in is the end, it crowds out what makes the journey enjoyable. The journey soon enough becomes short and unenjoyable.

The journey is the relationship. It is fostering the inter-relatedness of two people so that they find out what is enjoyable in the other person, what makes it worth the effort to hold open that space.

Sex is the 'end' that confirms all that has been discovered about why you love this person.

If you just want to jump 'to the end' it is like just wanting the hotness of a dish without any flavour. You may as well just drink chilli juice.

No Time for Attraction

Did you ever see the movie "Groundhog Day"? The Bill Murray character gets stuck in a time loop where he keeps re-living the same day over and over. He has some romantic-sexual feelings towards the Andie MacDowell character. At first he gets some enjoyment from trying to woo her. And gradually it works, but of course he has to start everyday from scratch. He becomes impatient, and wants to move on to a more sexual relationship. Eventually he tries to press himself on her more sexually and she reacts badly. From her perspective he has only just begun to be interested in her and tried to jump 'to the end' without having established a relationship. He didn't leave open that space and time for mutual attraction to work.

The same dynamics affect the pleasures of sexual attraction in general.

We can be inclined to think: if sexy is good, wouldn't more sexy be better?

Hey, can't we turn the dial up past '10'? Why can't I have it now? But the same thing happens. That which makes it pleasurable starts to be lost from sight. Why are men attracted to the sight of a sexy woman? The distinctive pleasure consists in the imagination and the emotion. But if you always just want to 'jump to the end', to physical sexual pleasure, the experience comes to an end. However, attraction only works in that space if it is 'held open'.

If your sense of sexual pleasure is only of something physical, there is little scope for the enjoyment of 'sexiness'. Women's efforts to be attractive will be lost on you, seeming to be only brief impediments to what you really want. But what are women hoping for by being attractive? Are they looking to be rushed off to bed? Not usually. Perhaps eventually. But there is a space in between in which a relationship needs to be established.

Too Sexy to Feel?

Pleasure depends on emotion. Without emotion pleasure is just sensation. It is like friction.

As long as it causes heat who cares what two things you rub together?

But it is an empty heat. What is it that enables a 'full' heat?

It is the meaningfulness of what is enjoyed. It is what engages emotion and deeper feeling. It is this depth that is the reward for holding open that space which enables the richness of the flavour to be experienced.

Being satisfied only with sex as sensation is the equivalent of being satisfied with heat and no flavour, or loudness and no music. Sure, you feel something, but it is 'feeling' evacuated of meaningfulness. You have less and less reason to 'hold open that space' in which you could discover what makes sex something relational, and because of that, truly pleasurable.

It is interesting in this regard that in our times, of hookup culture and casual sex, that there has been a great diminishment in the cultivation of attraction-behaviour between the sexes. Dating and romance disappear, as does a lot of the cultivation of feminine attractiveness. 'Sexiness' replaces beauty but many of the forms of supposed sexiness are either drab or garish. Extremes replace a sophisticated middle ground.

We end up with so much that is 'too sexy to feel'.

That is, there is sensation but little feeling in the full sense. There are lots of things that look like they are supposed to be sexy but they have less effect than intended. We lose traction on the feeling of the sexual, because we've turned up the dial too far on 'sexiness'. But when you do that, like music that's too loud, you can't even tell whether it's actually enjoyable or not. The subtleties and distinctions that could make it work are lost in the blare of obviousness.