How to Pick a Lover

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Picking A Lover: The Rating Game

Women are moved by sexual impulses towards particular men, not towards men as a whole, and men will never understand women as long as they do not understand this.
—H. M. Swanwick, The Future of the Women’s Movement

When you look around a party or when you go through your email address book or when you count on your fingers and toes men whom you have found attractive, you make implicit decisions about their appeal relative to one other. You also make decisions about their attractiveness to you. You have formed impressions based on appearance and conversations and, perhaps, on reports from other people; and you mesh these together into an overall response to the man. The many factors involved in sex appeal or animal magnetism or whatever it is called are difficult to define, but they combine to form an impression that is easy to recognize.

Every time you meet a new man, you form an opinion about him. Sometimes you feel indifferent, sometimes you feel a faint distaste, sometimes you feel drawn to him. In your responses, you subconsciously rank him from terrible to terrific, from fatuous to fascinating, from disgusting to delectable. It’s fortunate for everyone that the man who seems exactly right to one woman may not even seem passably attractive to another.

Helen of Troy

Helen of Troy (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Christopher Marlow in Dr. Faustus describes Helen of Troy as having “the face that launched a thousand ships.” Some irreverent young men, not attuned to the sacredness of classic poetry, borrow this line to rate their women. Out girl watching, they will say cryptically to each other, “Five hundred ships, huh?” “No, I don’t think so. Three hundred at most. But look at that one! Eight hundred easy.” The popular 1980’s movie Ten, featuring Bo Derek wearing rows of corn braids and not much else, was based on a variation of this perennial theme where men rate women on a one-to-ten scale.

Long-distance love affairs call for another sort of rating scheme. Just ask yourself: how far would you be willing to commute for a rendezvous? Some men are attractive enough to draw you across the street. Some are attractive enough to rate a drive across town, if it isn’t raining. Some of the spectacular ones are worth a bus trip from Boston to Philadelphia. A few even rate a transatlantic flight.

On the other end of the scale, to quote a woman friend of mine, “Well, if we had twin beds, and his was all the way across the room, it wouldn’t be worth the trip.”

When you are thinking about rating various men and comparing their pros and cons, there is another problem to be taken into account. In assessing a man and the pleasure he gives you or might give you, you cannot always average out the good with the bad. Sometimes, the bad is so bad that it destroys all of the rest.

In Fats Waller’s song, “Ain’t Misbehavin’,” the man turfs out his girlfriend, complaining, “Your feet’s too big!” If shoe size is that important to you, then a beautiful smile and charm won’t compensate. However, it’s important to learn to overlook unimportant quirks and refrain from making arbitrary judgments over insignificant flaws. The more tolerant you can manage to be, the more people you can find potentially compatible, and the more tolerance you can expect in return.

Except for axe murderers, many of the so-called fatal flaws of physique or character are not all that fatal. Sometimes, however, a potential lover has a trait that makes him beyond the pale as far as you are concerned. He’s like a phone number you dial by memory. If you correctly remember six out of seven numbers, your memory is 86 percent correct, but you still don’t get the person you were trying to call.

Six correct out of seven is pretty good; but with phone numbers, as with people, it’s not good enough.

Lovers: Birds of a (Different) Feather

A man only understands what is akin to something already existing in himself.
—Frederic Amiel, Swiss Philosopher

One dimension of loving is the feeling that you understand the other person and that he understands you. The more completely you can feel that his actions are predictable and the sources of his emotions comprehensible, the more you can be tolerant of his behavior and appreciative of his actions. Whether or not you really understand him, and vice versa, is perhaps of secondary importance to the belief that you do.

Some men who would make exemplary lovers for some women may not be quite right for you either because you do not understand the issues which are of prime concern to them or because you do not understand the morality or lack of it which governs their behavior. They remain enigmas to you and may, therefore, be difficult or impossible to relate to satisfactorily.

You Just Don't Understand


Although similarly held worldviews can be important for compatibility, some differences are not all that critical. For instance, there is no need to pick a lover who is in the same profession as you are. In fact, there are a number of disadvantages when this occurs, not the least of which is the implicit problem of too direct competition. You can have good relationships with people in diverse fields as long as you have some understanding of what their work involves.

The more passionate you are about your work and the more passionate he is about his, the more important it is that you be in some way fellow travelers. This means that your fields of interests must at least be conterminous—that is, share some boundary where they touch on common ground. Anthropologists are like sociologists, singers are like musicians, chemists are like physicists, and salesmen of any product have a lot in common with all other salesmen. If there is, at least, some sharing of areas of interest, the work-focused conversation of one party has a chance of striking a spark of sympathy and comprehension in the other.

If a potential lover is in a totally different field, talking about your work will be like speaking Greek to a non-Greek and you must then make the uncomfortable choice between keeping silent or being alternately bored and boring. Of course, you can take the time to learn about your lover’s profession; but if he does not reciprocate by learning about yours, you are very likely to be resentful, which is hardly an auspicious foundation on which to build a relationship.

A lover of similar, if not identical, interests is of special importance when one of you is involved in a field of great passion such as religion or politics. If you meet a union organizer who is devoted to the cause and you think that an “agitator” is something in a washing machine, you are headed for trouble. Not only will you not appreciate his greatness and his accomplishments, such as they may be, but you will also be unwilling to recognize the legitimacy in his mind of the many occasions when his passion for the world and its concerns will take precedence over his passion for you.

If your lover is a man of the cloth or aspires to be one, then even if you do not share the same religion exactly, it is important that you, at least, share enough of the spiritual worldview to be sympathetic with matters of conscience and with such psychological dynamics as the inevitable crisis of faith. The happy heathen has no patience with such problems. From the start, you will find such men with their manifold doubts unfulfilling as lovers, no matter how passionate the Elmer Gantry part of them remains.

Eroticism and Nonverbal Dialogue: The Conversation of Gestures

For a fine performance only two things are absolutely necessary—maximum of virility combined with the maximum of delicacy.
Sir Thomas Beecham, Beecham Stories

When the British conductor Sir Thomas Beecham was talking about “performance,” he presumably was thinking of musical performance, but his observation is equally valid when applied to sexual performance.

When a couple is together, they communicate in many ways other than with words. The way they meet or do not meet each other’s eyes, the way they lean toward each other or away, and the way they touch or fail to touch transmit emotional messages. Body movements, tone of voice, or the inclinations of a person’s head all convey specific emotions, ranging from tenderness to reproof. What is done is always interpreted in terms of how it is done. Even a dog knows the difference between being stumbled over and being kicked.


Nonverbal dialogue conveys many clues as to what a man or a woman do or do not want sexually at a particular time. The lover who is skilled at nonverbal communication is able to read your mind or, more precisely, to read your body so that he knows with a high level of accuracy if you do or do not want to go on to the next level of erotic intimacy, and if so, when.

The skilled lover never offers a proposition unless he is certain that the answer will be yes. This basic skill is very face-saving for everyone. Nobody wants to ask and to be turned down. Nobody wants to have to turn somebody down.

In the same way, the woman who wants to initiate sexual interaction should also be skilled enough to read a man’s nonverbal communication so that before she makes a move, she correctly anticipates that his response will be positive.

Sometimes, it means that sexual interaction, especially among men and women who do not know each other well, will be tentative and indirect; but it is always better to be oblique than to be offensive. If the message is positive, then it will not take long for you—or him—to get that message. Pay attention to how he touches you. Look at how he moves when you touch him. Pay attention to the eye contact or lack of it, the inclination of the head, the accidental and not-so-accidental contact of hands and feet. Seductive men will invite you to come closer to share more, but they will invite you in such a subtle way that if you do not choose to accept, you both can gracefully pretend the invitation never happened.

That way, no one can ever be really insulted, and no one’s feelings can ever really be hurt.

The Role of Pillow Talk in Making Love

By the time you swear you’re shivering and sighing,
and he vows his passion is infinite, undying—lady,
make a note of this: one of you is lying.
—Dorothy Parker

Making love is like a play. It has a script of sorts, partly dictated by the culture, partly created through the continual revisions made by the couple themselves. It is a play with an overture: an apt analogy because, in this case, even the word is the same.

Making love begins with someone making overtures. It has a first act made up of various kinds of foreplay. It reaches a climax in the second act. It has a third act, an afterword. There are intermissions. And as in the theater, there must be a willing suspension of disbelief.

When watching a play, you know at some level that it is not real life. Actors are killed, but not really. It takes place in the eighteenth century, but not really. The scene takes place deep in the forest, which is, really, only painted trees on cardboard. To enjoy the play, you must willingly suspend disbelief: knowing it is not real, you nevertheless agree to go along with whatever the author and the players tell you, as if you did believe.

Pillow Talk (film)


Pillow talk, like a play, needs some suspension of disbelief. When he says, “You are the most beautiful woman in the entire world,” you don’t stop to wonder about his criteria for beauty or what kind of survey he has taken with what kind of international sample. When he says, “I’ve never been this happy before,” you don’t ask, “What about when you were sixteen and your father surprised you with a red Mustang convertible?”

You believe that, at the moment, it is true . . . even if it isn’t true. Pillow talk exists in the realm of feeling, not fact. It is not a time to be too literal.

An exasperated friend of mine told me that he breathed into his girlfriend’s ear, “I love you,” only to have her bolt upright and demand, “What do you mean by ‘love’?” There may well be forty-seven meanings of the verb “to love,”
but this is not the time or place for semantics. The circumstances of pillow talk are not conducive to accuracy. The whispered words and promises, the hyperbole and dreams have to be considered in context.

If you want reality, listen to what your man tells you the next morning while you are sharing coffees and hangovers.

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