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Intimate Behavior Signals

Open invitations to sexual intimacy can be spotted in genital substitutes. Every human body is constantly sending out signals to its social companions.

Lindsey Wixson by Ellen Von Unwerth


The female form bristles with genital substitutes. The mouth, red lips and all, is really pinch-hitting for the vagina, and so is the navel which, in modern woman, is becoming increasingly slit or vulva-like. By the same token, the breasts are biologically developed copies of the buttocks. They send out powerful sexual signals when a woman is standing up.

The man who has analyzed these open invitations to sexual intimacy and traced their evolution is zoologist Desmond Morris author of The Naked Ape—a study of human behavior in relation to apes that caused such a stir years ago.

The Naked Ape by Desmond Morris

In an equally provocative study called Intimate Behavior, Morris probes into patterns of human intimacy and comes out with some truly original—and often startling—insights.

Every human body, says Morris, is constantly sending out signals to its social companions. Some of these signals invite human contact, others repel it. When we meet someone, computers inside our skull make almost instantaneous calculations based on the person's characteristics to decide whether we should touch or not touch.

Man's love to touch and be touched, to love and be loved, Morris finds, is rooted in the months just before and after birth. Having left the warm bliss of the mother's body, the child cries for the loving attention of his mother and responds to her with intimate gestures of his own. These earliest yearnings of the human infant and his overwhelming need for comfort may well set the tone for our entire lives.

As an adult, our body signals our need for touching, intimacy, and sex. Since our primary genital region, the crotch, is also a major taboo zone, exposing this region directly to invite intimacy is too strong a sexual signal. Which is why humans use suggestive coverings such as tight pants and bathing suits.

Genital Signals

Millie Morgan by David Collier

A less direct method of transmitting genital signals is to use some other part of the body as a genital echo or copy. This enables the primary sexual message to be transmitted, while keeping the real genitals completely obscured.

The mouth is by far the most important of these, says Morris, as "it transmits a great deal of pseudogenital signaling during amorous encounters." Morris then alludes to the unique development of everted (out-turned) lips in our species, and goes on to say that their fleshy pink surfaces have developed as a labial mimic at the biological, rather than purely cultural level.

Like the true labia, they become redder and more swollen with sexual arousal, and surround a centrally placed orifice. He goes on to relate how, since the earliest times, women used artificial lip colorings to heighten their sexual signals—usually something in the pink-red range—"thereby copying the flushing of the labia during the advanced stages of sexual arousal."

Morris qualifies his findings by pointing out that many authors and poets have seen the lips and mouth as a powerfully erotic region of the body with the male tongue inserting itself, penis-like, into the female during deep kissing.

As an important orifice-substitute, the female navel is second only to the mouth, and Morris has been doing a great deal of original research in this barely explored area. He observes:

“Since their reappearance, the naked navels of the Western world have undergone a curious modification. They have started to change shape. In pictorial representations, the old-fashioned circular aperture is tending to give way to a more elongated, vertical slit. Investigating this odd phenomenon, I discovered that contemporary models and actresses are six times more likely to display a vertical navel than a circular one, when compared with the artist's' models of yesterday."

A brief survey of 200 paintings and sculptures showing female nudes, and selected at random from the whole range of art history, revealed a proportion of 92 percent of round navels to 8 percent vertical ones. A similar analysis of pictures of modern photographic models and film actresses shows a striking change: now the proportion of the vertical ones has risen to 46 percent. 

Navel is a More Overtly Erotic Signal Device

"How this change has come about and whether it has been unconsciously arrived at or knowingly encouraged by modern photographers is not entirely clear... The ultimate significance of the new navel is, however, reasonably certain. The classical round navel, in its symbolic orifice role, is rather too reminiscent of the anus. By becoming a more oval, vertical slit, it automatically assumes a much more genital shape, and its quality as a sexual symbol is immensely increased. Since the Western navel came out into the open and began to operate more overtly as an erotic signal device.”

Getting down to the buttocks, Morris observes that these hemispheres of flesh are uniquely a human feature, being absent in other species of primates. If a human female were to bend down and present her buttocks visually to a male, her genitals would be seen framed by the two hemispheres of smooth flesh. This association makes them an important sexual signal for humans, leading to a great deal of attention being paid to their display.

But not as much attention, in some cultures, as that paid to the female breasts. Morris sees this pair of “swollen, hemispherical mammary glands” as another mimic of the primary sexual zone—the buttocks.

The male lover who kisses the nipple of his female's breast may well be harking back to the pleasures of infancy, rather than kissing a pseudo-buttock, he allows, but the amorous male who ogles or fondles a female's breasts may well be responding primarily to their hemispherical buttock shape.

These pseudo-buttocks, his researches have satisfied him, are enhanced when pushed together to "make the cleavage between them more like that between real buttocks."

If you are a leg lover, be advised that, in addition to their anatomy, the posture of the legs is capable of transmitting sexual signals. The reason, in many cultures, why girls are told it is improper to sit or stand with legs apart is because to expose the opened crotch, clad only in panties, remains too strong an invitation signal.

A Girl Who Presses Her Legs Too Tightly Protests Too Much

Photo by Nicoline Aagesen

But, the observant Morris points out, a girl who presses her legs too tightly protests too much and thereby makes a new kind of sexual comment. As with all puritan statements, she reveals that she has sex very much on her mind... the girl who tries to protect her genitals unduly draws almost as much attention to them as the one who exposes them to view.

The eye, often used for eye-to-eye contacts in face-to-face encounters—in other words, looking—is also more than it appears to be for tears, in the opinion of Morris, have evolved into substitute urine, a plea for mother to dry you.

When sexual signals are answered, sexual intimacy may result and Morris describes 12 stages that man and woman pass through on their way to the total sexual embrace. These range from eye to body through hand to body (for many young females, this is a point at which a temporary halt is called) to genitals.

Morris traces man's more complex sexual acts—from hand-holding in courtship to passionate arousal actions in foreplay—to the intimacies of mother-infant relationships in childhood years. ("A wave of shared security envelops the young couple and as in babyhood, the hurly-burly of the outside world has little meaning...")

In contrast to the lavish bodily contact between lovers, Morris examines the cautious and inhibited behavior that marks so many of our social contacts. When the adult lacks genuine human warmth, he seeks out the substitute intimacies our culture provides in doctors' offices, beauty parlors, barber shops, with cigarettes, candies, and cups of coffee, with household pets, water beds, and even with our own bodies.

Cigarette smoking is an obvious example of an inanimate object being used as a substitute for a real intimacy with another human being. Says Morris: 

"Having something between the lips is a comforting experience for the human animal, since it spells reassuring contact with the primary protector, the mother. Fondling a cigarette, when it's taken from the mouth, testifies to the urge to hold on to the comforting tobacco nipple even when it is not in oral use."

Cigar smokers are even more guilty of seeking nipple-substitutes. Morris calls the cigar "the businessman's super nipple" and piercing or snipping its end is really an act "to ease the comforting flow of warming smoke-milk."

Indeed, Morris finds few everyday human actions that are not connected to our in-the-womb and infancy days, from coffee-tea drinking (mother's milk substitutes) to taking a bath at "womb temperature" and going to bed with our head on a "breast-pillow."

Rubbing, Leg-Hugging, and Other Forms of Self-Intimacy

Flower by Harley Weir

Scratching, wiping, rubbing, leg-hugging, and other forms of self-intimacy all point to our desire to touch and be touched, and Morris offers some astonishing revelations in this area: It is possible to identify 650 different types of hand-to-head contacts. By the time he dies, the average clean-shaven man will have spent over 2,000 hours scraping and rubbing his face. Two thirds of all hand-shaking is done between males. Morris sees the current trend toward freer body contacts-in group encounter sessions for example-as adding one more string to the bow of a person seeking a license to touch context.

Basically though, the human animal is hardly likely to respond to Morris call to indulge in a magical return to intimacy, preferring instead to seek comfort in less inhibiting substitutes, from cigarette-nipples to mouth-vulvas.

Which led a New York Times critic to speculate: 

If we allow that evolution is a continuing process (as witness the astonishing percentile leap of genital-shaped female navels), it seems possible that the labia, compensating, will eventually emerge as a mouth mimic. One day women, like egg-timers, will be the same right side up as down... Not in our time, certainly, but when our great-grandchildren pass from self-intimacy (head-scratching leg-crossing, masturbation) to the joys of full scale pair-bonding, they may encounter true serendipity, that is to say, a laughing labia, or possibly one that can even tell stories. In a word, a pseudo-mouth substitute.

Or one that may dictate books on intimate behavior with strange insights, such as this one perhaps.

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