If you perceived personalities in objects, this woman and teacup picture would be hot, hot, hot!
On June 6th, the National Geographic Taboo show, Forbidden Love, will air an episode called "In Love with the Berlin Wall." This episode features Erika Eiffel, one of the world's foremost activists for the Objectum Sexuality (OS) community. Because I've done some research and written about OS, I was filmed as one of the program's "experts." I had the easy job of making rather academic comments while sitting in front of a green screen.
Unlike Erika, I was not asked to bare my soul on camera.
This is the third time I've been paired with Erika on national television. I was asked for comments on Good Morning America (April 9, 2009) which was pre-taped, and I lost my live talk show virginity to the Tyra Show (Oct. 2, 2009). Appearing on national media is a kind of reputation-teetering exercise not necessarily condusive to heightening self-esteem. I mean, you may confront yourself on the screen and find yourself thinking: "my hair sucks, my lipstick isn't even noticable... why did I wear that? I look terrible!" And there's not a darn thing you can do to change it. I am at least happy that I've always liked how I've sounded. There's a real art in learning how to put across a collection of decent sound bites - never knowing what will actually be chosen for public consumption. So far, as a novice, I've been fortunate.
There's also the cruel aftermath to worry about. When programs about Objectum Sexuality air (or are posted on YouTube), there is an inevitable spewing of vicious commentary. It can be unnerving. I've been referred to as a "nutcase" and worse. The people who really hate me always put "sexologist" in quotes, as if I've simply concocted the title and my degree out of thin air. I've learned to not take this stuff personally and to examine the commentary as if I were taking the pulse of a profoundly out of whack culture. Which it is. But the comments about Erika and other OS people are far, far worse - and would not be tolerated (in most civilized circles) if they were directed at queer folk, ethnic minorities, or people with disabilities. Portrayals of OS seem to really trigger misogyny and other forms of hatred and fear in a lot of people, male and female alike.
And I still don't get why. Why the venom? I've never heard of an OS person committing a sex crime or hurting another person. They may be engaged in relationships other people consider eccentric, but the OS people I've surveyed mostly do not report much in the way of mental health issues (though some are anxious and depressed). Only a few have a history of sexual trauma and abuse. Generally, OS people feel normal and natural in their relationships with object beloveds, and suffer mostly from the social stigma and misunderstanding they encounter, should they reveal their erotic and affectionate orientation. Like members of other sexual and gender minorities, they are at times reviled or harmed for essential qualities which they cannot change. If you're beginning to get a picture of a vulnerable and underserved group, you're right on track. OS people are in as much need of schooling, jobs, housing, and adequate mental and physical health care as anyone else - but if they disclose the details of their personal lives, they are less likely to get the respect and services they deserve. This is doubly problematic, given the high percentage of people with autism diagnoses or traits in the OS population.
And so, as a sexologist looking into this orientation, I've considered factors such as the autism histories of some OS people, as well as the animist philosophies of others, of those who say all matter is conscious and alive and therefore our loves are not inanimate. And I've also stumbled over an extremely interesting condition which may have the potential to shed some light on the deep attraction that some people feel towards objects. This condition is called "object personification synesthesia" and it is, as you might imagine, rather rare. You may have heard of synesthesia. There are many forms, such as tasting colors or seeing smells. Other forms include sensing personalities in numbers, letters, shapes, days of the week, months of the year, and objects. People who experience synesthesia are not necessarily crazy - they just sense things in ways that many other people don't. And the way they sense feels real and natural to them.
A study published in the Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience in June, 2007, discussed the case of a young girl who consistently perceived "rich and detailed" personalities in "numbers, letters, simple shapes, and even furniture." (When "3" is a jerk and "E" is a king: personifying inanimate objects in synesthesia. Smilek D, et al.) This young girl even had such a pronounced antipathy to the personalites of some of her bedroom furniture that she asked her father to remove the disliked objects. The researchers tested and re-tested her object-personality pairings and found consistency, even down to her eye movements. To this young woman, her perceptions of these personalities feel real and natural.
As I read this study, I was especially interested in the girl's emotional reactions. After all, if a person can experience profound dislike for an object's personality, what emotions are possible when there is a feeling of compatiblity? Could romantic - and even erotic - attraction be possible in some cases? Given the overall human tendency to eroticize everything under the sun, I'd say it's quite likely. And OS people show me that this is so. Some people do indeed experience romantic and erotic attractions to objects that go far beyond the concept of fetishes or paraphilias.
I'm in the process of looking into this potential connection with synesthesia. I've done a second survey of members of OS Internationale which contains reports of various kinds of synesthesia perceptions, including object personalities. This data is not published - and may not be good enough to publish - but it's provocative, and could provide interesting incentive for further research.
So what is it that Objectum Sexuals can teach Human Sexuals? Well, that the impulse to love and create relationship is deeply engrained in most of us, and that these emotions feel real and natural, no matter what the size or shape or cognition of the beloved. Yes, there are problematic attractions and orientations in this world - and I will not argue that people who feel those attractions need help managing them or may even need laws to prevent indulgence - but in my opinion, OS is not inherantly problematic. True, it's not a reproductive relationship and won't provide grandchildren to gratify those who crave them, but otherwise, there's not much to worry about. Except for stigma and discrimination.
And that brings me to my final point. I probably could have titled this piece, "What Objectum Sexuals Can Teach Us ALL About Courage," because it takes tremendous courage to disclose this kind of orientation and to discuss these types of relationships. It takes tremendous courage to reveal one's true self, one's deep erotic self - even if that self seems wildly at odds with the rest of one's community and society. And so when Erika and others bare their souls and brave the cruel disdain of the general public, I applaud their courage. I see what is at stake for them. Like people in other emerging movements for social justice and acceptance, they'll confront strong, swirling currents of understanding and discrimination. A few may not survive the immersion.
Those of us who don't quite understand, or who might not even want to, can simply step aside with grace and tolerance and refrain from weighing in with negativity and cruelty. And some of us might want to expand our understanding of human intimacy by learning more about OS. Real lives - and real loves - are at stake. And when you think about it, this is true for us all.