Auto-Sexuality: A Puzzle


Auto-Sexuality: A Puzzle


We observe a great many varieties of sexuality in the human population: heterosexuality, homosexuality, bisexuality, pedophilia, bestiality, necrophilia, and perhaps others. People can be sexually attracted to many things, and each category has non-trivial numbers of members. But there is one potential category that appears to have zero membership: sexual attraction toward oneself. There is no one who is attracted to herself and to no one else. Of course, there is no shortage of self-love, narcissism, and autoeroticism, but what we don’t see is a class of people who find themselves sexually attractive and no one else. No one reaches adolescence, looks around, and finds no one and nothing to engage their sexual interest, except the person they see reflected in the mirror. No one is aroused only by his own body, finds only auto-pornography interesting, and wishes to date himself alone. No one ever falls in sexual love with herself to the exclusion of all others. There are no auto-sexuals.

This seems odd: why does human sexual variety run out of steam at this point? We all regard ourselves as potentially sexually attractive to someone, but we don’t find ourselves sexually attractive to ourselves. We might do so de re, if we see our own reflection and mistake it for a reflection of someone else; but we don’t desire ourselves de dicto, knowingly finding ourselves uniquely enticing. No one gazes at himself and finds the exclusive object of his sexual fantasies. Sexual orientation seems essentially other-directed, unlike attitudes such as esteem, approval, aesthetic appreciation, amusement, or sexual pleasure. The last is particularly telling: if a person can give herself sexual pleasure while alone, why can’t she find only herself sexually attractive? What is to prevent auto-sexuality? Why isn’t this a recognizable human grouping?

            It might be said that it is genetically excluded because the auto-sexual will never reproduce his or her kind. But the same is true of homosexuality and that doesn’t prevent it from occurring. Also, the auto-sexual (like the homosexual) might have sex with people she is not attracted to for the sake of children, and this might be a common way of proceeding. If people who are auto-sexual keep in the closet, while living outwardly heterosexual lives, then they will reproduce their kind. But there is no reason to believe in the existence of such people; they simply do not naturally occur. Is it perhaps that auto-sexuality is so taboo that everyone born that way represses it into oblivion, not admitting it even to themselves? There is no evidence for that and it is highly implausible (wouldn’t it have emerged in psychotherapy with some patients?). In addition, no such taboo exists, in religion or elsewhere, the reason being that there is no human tendency that requires such a taboo for its suppression. Auto-sexuality doesn’t occur because no one feels its stirrings. It is the other that engages our sexual predilections. Of course, masturbation is commonplace, but that is quite compatible with many forms of sexuality and never goes with auto-sexuality. Woody Allen’s old joke, “Don’t knock masturbation: it’s having sex with somebody I love” works precisely because masturbation is not like that: self-pleasuring is not an expression of sexual love for oneself. People don’t masturbate because they find themselves sexually attractive—not in the way they find other people sexually attractive. Autoeroticism is not auto-sexuality: the former is common, the latter non-existent.

            A more promising line of explanation is that sexual preference is tied to romantic love: no one is auto-sexual because that would require the possibility of romantic self-love, which is not possible.  [1] The objects of our sexual attraction are typically the objects of our romantic love, but you can’t be in love with yourself, so you can’t be sexually attracted to yourself. That certainly sounds on the right lines, but it is not clear that sexual preference and romantic emotion are so closely intertwined. What about a person incapable of romantic love—couldn’t this person still have a sexual orientation? If sexual orientation can be detached form romantic love, why can’t it extend to the case of auto-sexuality? You don’t have to love yourself romantically in order to be auto-sexual, just as you don’t have to love others in the case of other-directed sexual attraction. What if a person has different kinds of romantic and sexual objects—say, a man who is romantic about women but sexual about men? Is this psychologically impossible? Apparently not: so sexual attraction can float free of romantic emotion (though this is certainly not common). We therefore can’t deduce the impossibility of auto-sexuality from the impossibility of romantic self-love. The latter is impossible because of the emotions associated with romantic attachment (jealousy, insecurity, and so on), but the same is not true of sexual attraction—one need not have any of these emotions in order to feel sexually attracted to someone. So we still don’t know why auto-sexuality doesn’t occur.

            One might resort to the idea that sexual attraction primitively requires recognition of otherness—we just can’t be attracted to someone who is identical with ourselves (and is known to be so). To feel attracted to X you have to judge that X is distinct from you, or else there is no thrill, no sense of discovery, no crossing of boundaries, no release for the solitary ego. But this is unsatisfactory as an explanation: why should non-identity be so crucial, especially given that autoeroticism is common? Why couldn’t someone be born with a tendency to sexually desire only himself? What psychological law would this violate? What kind of cognitive dissonance might it produce? Wouldn’t it be very convenient and easy to achieve? There would be no need to venture abroad, no need to court and seduce, no need to take risks—you just direct all your passion at yourself. Other people you regard with a shudder, but find your own self the height of erotic fascination. You move from simple self-love and natural narcissism to sexual identity: you restrict your sexual desires to a very local object, viz. yourself. And yet this seems psychologically out of the question: you could not find yourself feeling this way about yourself and you could not will yourself to feel this way. We can perhaps imagine someone with extremely catholic tastes who finds everythingsexually attractive (an “omni-sexual”), including rocks and cactuses, but it is harder to imagine someone whose sexuality does not extend beyond his own self. We can also imagine someone who never actually has sex with another person or object, but not someone whose entire sexual orientation is self-directed. Or rather, though this seems imaginable, it is not a feature of the human sexual landscape in all its variety. It is a puzzle why we don’t find instances of auto-sexuality, though it strikes us intuitively as outside of human possibility. It seems not to be a viable option, no matter how capacious our view of sexuality may be. This is presumably why it is not a moral or political issue.

            We can distinguish type from token auto-sexuality: sexual desire limited to tokens of the type exemplified by oneself and sexual desire for the token of the type that is oneself. I have been discussing the latter, but the former is an interesting case in its own right: is it possible to desire only individuals who belong to one’s own type? That is, can one have a sexual orientation limited to people similar to oneself (a “simi-sexual”)? Could someone fancy only her twins? Suppose people had many twins, not necessarily related—you can find them everywhere. A simi-sexual will be a homosexual, but will also require a much greater degree of overlap—the other has to be like oneself down to a fine level of detail. We don’t find this kind of sexuality as things stand, but if there were many twins for any given individual we might find that there are people who fall into the category. Indeed, it seems rather natural; so it is not that people are not auto-sexual because they crave qualitative dissimilarity from their objects of desire—they might even welcome the lack of dissimilarity. It is numerical identity that puts a limit on human sexuality: you can desire people who are just like you, but you can’t desire people who are you. Everyone is identical to himself, so the objects exist to ground auto-sexuality, but no one wants to take this option, and no one is born taking it. When it comes to sexual preference we are all prejudiced against ourselves: we refuse to regard ourselves as (uniquely) sexually attractive. We turn ourselves down as potential objects of sexual love—no one ever takes the unit set of herself as the group to whom she is exclusively attracted.



Colin McGinn          

  [1] I discuss this in “Is Romantic Self-Love Possible?” in Philosophical Provocations: 55 Short Essays (MIT Press, 2017).

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