Plenary address at the annual meeting of the National Council on Family Relations in Toronto, October 22, 1965 published in Journal of Marriage and the Family, vol 28, 1966, pp 134-142.




The Secret Ranking


ABSTRACT. A  person’s erotic rank is defined as a privately kept probability that he can induce a state of emotional overcomeness among persons of the opposite sex. The concept of erotic ranking serves as a bridge between theories of courtship and marriage and several well-known aspects of theoretical sociology, e.g., theories of secret societies, visibility, stratification, mobility, ascription, achievement motivation, and anomie. Sexual morality is seen as a special case of the social norms governing interaction in hierarchies and secret societies.


After all, what is marriage?…It completely regulates the life of passion…and closes the horizon.


In a business enterprise the president wanted to fire his obvious crown prince. The board of directors objected, because they liked the up-and-coming man, had invested company funds in his training, and had gladly met the offers he had received from competitors by paying him a very high salary; in fact, they had done all this at the suggestion of the president who now wanted him fired. A look into the situation showed that the president’s private secretary had fallen in love with the young man. As far as one could tell, it was a purely emotional surrender and involved no sex relations nor any proven attempts by the young man to get access to information that should remain confidential with the secretary and her boss. Nor was there any indication that the president and the secretary were or had been lovers. Yet the behavior of the parties resembled the triangle of a love story in which an older rival attempted to remove a younger one with aggressive unreason. After a consultation with a sociologist, the problem was readily solved at modest cost to the corporation by removing the secretary instead of the young man. She was helped to a better job with another company; a storm in an office teapot had been averted and a company had been saved from the high cost of replacing an executive.

This incident is trivial enough and on the surface hardly worth much attention from the consulting sociologist. However, conceptualizing a problem like this one to gain a basis for a recommendation is not simple. The ready-made sociological view of the above problem conceives of the young man as a charismatic leader who by the personal loyalties he can command, disturbs the formal authority of other officers and upsets the work flow in the organization.1 Given this diagnosis, the alternative solutions to the problem, with the most preferable one last, would be to remove or isolate the young executive, keep him where he is but neutralize his charisma, or let him assume a formal authority within the organization that matches his charismatic authority so that his charisma works for organizational rather than personal aims.

In the above instance this sophisticated model appeared less relevant. Psychodynamic as well as common sense talk about love and jealousy seemed as close to the truth as theories of routinization of charisma; although, neither seemed entirely relevant. The sociological consultant had hit upon a helpful solution for his client, but he did not really know why it was helpful. The process of applying social theory to a practical problem had revealed a hole in his theoretical knowledge.

Wading through some similar problems, one eventually stumbles upon ideas for a new theory that allows a diagnosis more sensitive to the facts involved. In helping boards of directors to tackle problems such as major reorganizations or firing of the big executive, there is always a need to know the actual hierarchy and communication flow within the organizations. Because the organizational chart is too rough an approximation of these patterns, a consultant pursues other ways to establish who has power and prestige and who can talk effectively with whom. In the course of establishing the real hierarchy and the real communication pattern, he repeatedly encounters a latent but considerably significant rank order which, for want of a better term, might be called the erotic ranking. The young man in our illustration had bypassed his boss in the erotic ranking in the company. The reaction of the boss is understandable from the dynamics of interaction in hierarchies, and the solution recommended by the consultant is one of several compatible with well known theories of relations between ranks. The missing link in our theoretical knowledge turns out to be the concept of erotic ranking.

We will now present a theory of erotic ranking. The evidence backing the theory is admittedly anecdotal. Nevertheless, a concept of erotic ranking can claim a status in science as a hypothetical entity that may be used to explain some findings, familiar events, and common sayings in stories about love. Today such a  concept is only justified as a theoretical construct − like the electron in early atomic theory − that forms necessary conceptual bridges between a variety of theory fragments. At some future day researchers may actually have found a way to measure it objectively and study it directly.




Erotic rankings enter into the “rating-dating complex” observed on some American campuses2 as well as in other patterns of courtship. Its operation, however, is usually intermingled with and obscured by other more conventional rankings. The hero of the football field, the owner of the flashy sports car, the president of the fraternity, and the senior student, are ranking persons on campus not primarily because of their position in an erotic stratification, but because of their position in the hierarchies of athletics, publicity, consumption, power, and occasionally education. The rating-dating complex is highly visible; one advertises one’s rank by being seen with a ranking figure in public. The point of the rating-dating game is to catch a high-ranking partner and be seen together. By contrast, the erotic ranking is incognito.

The secrecy of the erotic hierarchy, as we know it, may be reinforced by the puritan culture in which it is encountered. Yet the private nature of the erotic hierarchy is best seen as a part of its definition; the emotional overcomeness we here deal with thrives only in privacy. It stands to reason that the one who has surrendered emotionally is unwilling to have this fact advertised; but one may go further − although hesitantly − and say that to openly show this kind of overcomeness is to change its very nature. To preserve it, all parties must keep it from open inspection by others. The erotic hierarchy, as well as love, belongs in “the hidden society.” The erotic rank is one of the secrets of love. “Love is sacred in that its secrets are essential and must remain secrets if the phenomenon is not to change character,” says Aubert.3 An erotic rank may also be one of the aspects of a profound sexual union and as such resist public analysis. What Doris Lessing in her Golden Notebook says about the difficulty in writing about sex for women applies particularly to the emotional overcomeness that defines erotic rank, “Sex is best when not thought about, not analyzed. Women deliberately choose not to think about technical sex. They get irritable when men talk technically, it’s out of self-preservation: they want to preserve the spontaneous emotion that is essential for their satisfaction.”

The private aspect of the erotic ranking makes it an elusive topic of study. Novelists have, of course, dealt with it. In the classical erotic literature one may single out Les liaisons dangereuses (1782) as laying bare erotic stratification and describing the ascents and descents along its ladder. The steps up and down are not necessarily signalled in the form of sexual relations between the principals − such instances, although plentiful, are rather trivial from the point of view of a person’s placement in the erotic hierarchy − but as events when someone no longer is the master over his feelings. The critical events are the emotional surrenders, not the sexual conquests as such. Throughout its long existence this book has been considered viciously immoral and pornographic. Although it lacks a close-up view of sexual acts, like pornography it violates a privacy taboo, the private quality of emotional surrender. The naked struggle for erotic hegemony − the pursuit of erotic success rather than erotic pleasure among the characters in Laclos’ book affects the readers so that they respond by putting the book into the pornographic category. It is precisely this strong reaction against making the erotic ranking public that suggests an element of privacy in its definition.

To sum up, a person’s erotic ranking is the secretly kept probability that he can induce an emotional overcomeness among persons of the opposite sex. It is not altogether the same as love, for love is a many-splendored thing; but it enters as an element in love.

A rank in the erotic hierarchy can presumably be assigned to an individual, but it is discernible only in his interaction with others. For a man and woman, we get two measures − one, her surrender to him and the other, his surrender to her. For larger groups the establishment of erotic ranks becomes more complicated, because we obtain more measures than there are persons. The problem of quantification of the ranks is not likely to get out of hand because of the requirement of privacy, which tends to keep the groups small. Probably the mathematics used to compute sociometric ranks from friendship choices can be adapted to compute erotic ranks. For sexual minorities, such as homosexuals, the measures must relate to the object of their choice regardless of its gender.

In searching for the erotic hierarchy, one cannot expect to find it equally pronounced everywhere. In the lowest classes of society this hierarchy might he more salient than elsewhere simply because the poor, powerless, and uneducated have bottom positions in all other respects and, thus, may turn more to the rewards offered by erotic ranks. Erotic rankings are particularly significant among teen-agers, who have not yet grown into the ordinary community ranks that dominate adult life. One may surmise that teen-ageing will forever remain puzzling unless we learn to understand interaction in erotic hierarchies. It also makes sense to assume that the erotic hierarchy is more salient in coeducational organizations, such as hospitals, laboratories, and offices, than in settings where one sex prevails. (The common conception of army life as preoccupied with erotic ranks may not be entirely correct.) The question in what settings this ranking becomes dominant remains puzzling. In some occupational communities, e g, filmdom and advertising, the erotic hierarchy is part of the folklore but in others it is not, as in publishing and banking. Variations seem great also between otherwise similar organizational structures. In one university department the erotic stratification may be so emphasized that the female graduate student who is offered an assistantship does not know whether her academic or erotic competence has brought her the job. In the same university there may be other departments in which academic competence rules supreme. An easy − perhaps too easy − explanation for such differences is that the leaders of an occupational community or the heads of divisions and departments set personal examples which eventually spread among their subordinates.

Since erotic hierarchies are made up of secret ranks, everything we know about secrets, ranks and stratification should apply to them. Therefore, we turn our attention to the theories we have of these phenomena.




A secret group has several features. The political conspiracy, the guerrilla, the insiders trying to corner the stock market, the spy network, all engage in activities that, if revealed to the general public or its law enforcement agencies, would cause failure and disaster to the group. Common to all these, therefore, as shown by Georg Simmel4, are several societal devices to protect the secret.

When an erotic hierarchy is made public to the participants and their environment, there seems to spread among them an unusual amount of disgust and sense of degradation. This may again be mostly a result of our puritan culture, or, as previously suggested, this may be the nature of the beast The erotic hierarchy never seems the same after it has been publicized; and making it visible generally leads to reorganization of social relations. Hence, the erotic hierarchy is a secret to be preserved. Around it forms a group with the characteristic norm of secret societies − thou shall not squeal. Upon the observance of this norm depends the continued social relations of the group.

The preservation of the secret nature of erotic ranks is further guaranteed if the participants are also involved in other activities that require privacy. Lawrence Durrell concludes correctly in his Alexandria quartet that love reinforced by conspiracy is the most unbreakable kind.

The instability of love is otherwise proverbial. This may be due to the fact that the stability of a secret rank is no simple average of the stability of secrets and the stability of ranks. Secrets can be very stable; some family skeletons in the closet undoubtedly count their age in decades. Ranks can also be very stable; some count their age in centuries. But the chemistry of social life does not guarantee any more than the chemistry of matter that a compound formed by two stable elements will also be stable. Among the unstable sociological compounds, we count the secret ranks; for ranks do not naturally stay incognito but need public recognition, and secrets about glorious things urge to be told and thus lose their secrecy. Here then is a possible explanation for the fleeting quality of love − yesterday it was with us; today we are uncertain about it; and tomorrow it is gone.

The most heinous crime in a secret society is to inform outsiders. The informer threatens the very existence of his group. He gets the most despised status in the group. The outside world may give him some compensation for his loss of status in the ingroup so long as he keeps informing. (Hence the pressure on the informer to fabricate evidence about the ingroup.) In the end, however, even the out-group distrusts him.

Those who gossip about erotic ranks and give them away are treated very much like informers, wreckers of something worthwhile. Even the one who takes a problem involving an erotic ranking to a marriage counselor or psychiatrist may be given the stigma of an informer, and, as such, he is never really welcome back into the group whose secret was revealed.

The norm against informing applies with equal force to an offended party who has lost his erotic rank. Smarting under jealousy and the pain of having been replaced, bypassed, or abandoned, those who complain publicly about their degradation will not readily be reinstated to their former rank. Thus, the old advice “to grin and bear it” applies to all such degraded persons who want to keep a realistic possibility of regaining a lost love.

The norm against informing applies also to the ones who have gained erotic rank. One must not brag about this rank if it is to be kept. If a person illicitly has made an advance, and guilt feelings have accompanied his climb in the erotic hierarchy, clinical practice gives him the advice to talk about it and get if off his chest. While a confession may help in coping with his guilt, the procedure may have the costly complication that he destroys his standing with the loved one and gives up his high erotic rank. Thus, the usual ideology of clinical counseling with its “let’s-talk-about-it” and “tell-it-all” rules is not necessarily appropriate here.




A general rule about the way in which we perceive hierarchies, first used by Max Weber,5 may be formulated in this way: if a given dimension of ranking becomes less visible, associates tend to assume that a person’s position on this less visible dimension is commensurate with his ranks on the visible dimensions. When, for example, the Calvinist theology made a person’s religious standing invisible − no one but God knew who belonged among the elect or the damned − the ordinary Calvinist parishioners began to use their visible stratification criteria as a symptom of their religious standing. Economic success in particular was thought to be an indicator of religious standing. Ranks held on the visible dimensions thus suggested the rank on the invisible one.

This proposition is obviously relevant for erotic hierarchies since by definition they are private. We all have seen instances in which students fall for their teachers, airline stewardesses for their pilots, theatre-going gentlemen for a ballerina or actress, men for the rich belle at the ball, nurses for their doctors, secretaries for their bosses, bobbysockers for a pop idol, laboratory assistants for a scientist, the females in the congregation for the minister, et cetera. In such instances they may be attracted to an assumed high erotic rank: ranks in the world of money, power, academic competence, sacredness and artistic taste provide cues for assumed erotic ranks. Of course, the high community rank need not be real; it is enough if it appears high to start this process.

Many novels describe a seduction process that makes use of the likelihood of falling for visible ranks. The plot may show an ambitious but poor family banding together in an attempt to appear blue-blooded and honorable. They sacrifice to dress up one of the daughters to attract desired suitors. The prospect falls for the visible and is then stuck with the privately kept truth. Here is perhaps also the explanation why someone with a low erotic rank can be a little Casanova. For a man who has many conquests but who nevertheless lacks a commanding erotic rank can with the help of this process seduce his ladies by emphasizing his visible ranks, be they real or faked. Often enough such men give an appearance of riches not backed by a careful credit investigation, or academic honors not backed by a check in school or university records, or a noble background that is faked. The philanderer is called “false” and this may be true in more then one sense.

If a surrender to visible status is pursued into the private world of the object of infatuation, the actual erotic rank may end up very differently from the one inferred from visible status characteristics: the famous doctor may turn out to be a narrow-minded bore, the rich girl a drab lover, the celebrated actor or popular singer an insecure mother’s boy, et cetera. That “disappointment in love” should be a prevailing theme is thus quite predictable.

The constellation of a high visible rank in the larger community but a modest erotic rank leads to a pattern of attracting partners all the time but soon finding that they are either dissatisfied and leave or, that they hang on for reasons other than erotic ones. Persons with this constellation of ranks are thus changing partners quite often. One mistakenly speaks of “their high sex drive or their “nymphomania” or “philandering.” The truth is probably that they cut a painfully modest erotic rank. Perhaps the most stable relation or marriage they can have is with a “gigolo”, that is, a person who uses and comforts the unhappy, lowly erotic state of another in return for money or the other advantages of his victim’s high community rank.

The frequent failures of marriages formed after brief courtships may also be seen in this context. Both lay and professional marriage counseling holds that one should not make lasting commitments on the basis of a first love-impulse. We can perhaps refine this and say that love is fine as a basis for immediate commitment, but since it consists of rather private qualities, invisible to the outside, it takes time to cut through the visible misleading paraphernalia. “Love is blind”, one says. Its blindness can be of two entirely different kinds: one can fail to see things that are there, and one can see things that are not there. The person who is falling in love is usually blind in the second sense: the presence of more visible desired things leads us to believe that the less visible desired quality is there. Great love can be blind in the other sense: our erotic rank exalts us so that no other consideration matters, concern over one’s worldly station and the pursuit of ordinary goals become totally unimportant by comparison. As Antony says to Cleopatra, “We have kissed away kingdoms and provinces.”




Like other ranks, the erotic one is accorded a person by others. It cannot simply be taken, but must be granted. Those who say and act as if they were generals, kings, or physicians without being certified by others as occupants of such ranks are treated as fools or psychiatric cases. Erotic ranks are accorded by others; but the private, small groups in which this takes place make the process more personal − there the rank is personally given. Thus, love is said to be not a right but “a gift.” Those who lay claim to erotic ranks that are not theirs, given them freely, are the fools of love.

We know from the theory of the looking-glass self6 that a person’s rank is reflected in his self-evaluation. Low ranking strata of the population have a lower conception of their own worth than have the established high strata. Thus, we also expect a high self-esteem among persons who are superiors in the erotic hierarchy.

The dynamics of interaction in hierarchies are very much linked to the psychodynamics of the self-image. The topic is too complicated to cover here, but it should be pointed out that the direct relation between a person’s downward move in the erotic hierarchy and threats to his self-esteem allows us to pursue a number of psychodynamic mechanisms well-known in the clinical literature. The erotic downgrading leads to the whole web of aggression, projections, reaction-formations, regressions, distortions, rationalizations, etc, that fill the psychiatric and clinical dialogues.

A comfortable self-esteem is an asset in most social relations; it allows one to have greater tolerance for ambiguity, depart with greater ease from conventional ways, assume more readily the tasks of leadership, and be less anxious in new situations. To the extent that we need such persons to fill particular positions in society and organizations, we must pay attention also to their place in the erotic hierarchy. Common sense considerations about the importance of “virility” in a man and “poise” in a woman when they are judged for a job in this way can receive a theoretical rationale.

The pressure to equalize erotic rank with other ranks can also be observed. We have, in other words, a new application of the Rank Equalization Theorem7. A person who gets his self-esteem built up by community ranks signifying money, power, or knowledge will not tolerate a low erotic rank that hurts his self-conception. Throughout history the high and the mighty have usually extracted a tribute from the tender sex and considered it their fair due. Public opinion has usually accepted that the strong deserve the beautiful. Contrariwise, someone without high community rank who is firmly established in a high erotic rank can lay claim to power, money, and other kinds of status. Public opinion as it is captured in fairy tales also rationalizes this tendency − he who wins the princess’ heart gets half the kingdom, while the rivals who lost leave the court and the land to seek their fortune elsewhere. Whether some comings and goings of executives, politicians, white-collar workers, and professionals in the real world follow parallel principles is an open question.

However, among the norms that govern interaction in all hierarchies are always some that reduce the risk of capricious down grading in rank. Arbitrary demotions lead to more than personal agonies for the degraded; they confuse the communication system and destroy morale among those who remain in their ranks. Hence, the pressure for tenure norms or other safeguards.

The Justice Proposition in theoretical sociology, formulated by George Homans8, says that resentments are generated among those who see others obtain high ranks without commensurate effort. Bitterness particularly besets those who in spite of committed strivings fail to advance and are left by the wayside. It is conceivable that this applies also along the erotic hierarchy. For the erotically high might be envied much like the very rich or the very powerful. Some lows may conceivably band together against someone high and plot his downfall. A high may behave like a typical snob and contemptuously ignore the lows; or, if someone is on the rise in an erotic hierarchy, an established high may put all kinds of blocks in his way. All this may be observed in adolescent society.

However, nowhere in history have we seen recorded an outright erotic class struggle. The reason for this is presumably the secret nature of the erotic ranking. What we do not know cannot be a basis for class consciousness. An individual or a small coalition of individuals can protest on the basis of indignation at their erotic ranks; but nothing can be observed on the level of the total society.

Hugh Duncan9 has made a good case for the proposition that equals in rank have a broader spectrum of communication and also enjoy being together more than those who talk and meet as superiors and inferiors. While experimental support for this contention still is largely missing, we may take as a worthwhile assumption that equals in erotic rank get along best. They surrender to each other in equal shares and seem to have a wide range of conversation and fun. The matchmaker is probably most successful when pairing off equals. Yet minor asymmetries in erotic ranks are as common as in other kinds of status; one person usually outranks another, and one usually surrenders more than the other. When the asymmetries are large, the problems may be great; for there is immeasurable agony in loving without being loved in return. However, small rank differences also can have large emotional consequences. Baudelaire in his Intimate Journals pinpoints the torture these differences may bring. “For even when two lovers love passionately and are full of mutual desire, one of the two will always be cooler or less self-abandoned than the other. He or she is the surgeon or executioner; the other, the patient or victim. Do you hear these sighs − preludes to a shameful tragedy − these groans, these screams, these rattling gasps? … A terrible pastime, in which one of the players must forfeit possession of himself.”

The adviser in matters of the heart has to deal with interaction in hierarchies, although his work is not usually perceived in these terms. Marriage counseling may have much to learn from the general study of interaction in hierarchies, conducted on the level of organizations, markets, and communities. And the experience of marriage counselors may benefit those who consult with large complex organizations. What is needed here is that we lift our thinking to a theoretical level with enough informative value to apply to all hierarchies.




The motivation to hold one’s rank in the erotic hierarchy may be considered universal. However, the motivation to achieve higher ranks is something that only develops under special circumstances, if we are to assume that it follows the pattern of other varieties of achievement motivation. The circumstances that give rise to achievement motivation include a person’s encounters with those who use more demanding scales of status symbols for the gauging of his standing than the ones to which he is accustomed. When he takes over these more demanding standards of self-evaluation he simply must do better. Since status symbols change according to a dynamic of their own, the individual has little control over the process. For example, in an expanding economy an individual must achieve to keep up with the Joneses, to maintain his standing.

Applied to our problem, this means that the desire to climb the erotic ladder becomes more pronounced the more invidious comparisons of erotic ranks are made. By keeping the erotic hierarchy secret, society discourages a large-scale emergence of erotic achievers.

The question of ascription, that is, the measures taken to keep persons in a given position, applies to all hierarchies, including the erotic one. In our culture the social norms allow to a person achievement along the erotic hierarchy during his courtship but frown on efforts to make others surrender to him after he is married. Marriage thus follows the pattern of academic achievement − one is free to aim high, and once the chosen degree is achieved no one is allowed to remove it. What is gained through achievement becomes ascribed. A wedding in our culture is like a college commencement ceremony, transforming an achieved status into an ascribed one to last for better or worse until death does the parting. The present difficulties in upholding this pattern are apparent in the divorce statistics.

The secrecy of the erotic hierarchy keeps opportunities hidden from view, so that they do not generate temptations to pursue further heights of the hierarchy. That erotic achievement would stop, for all practical purposes, at the cutting of the wedding cake seems problematic; since the rest of society nowadays is arranged so that opportunities for erotic advancement are present in virtually every setting, particularly in the white-collar city. Love stories as well as pornography aid the process of breaking down secrecy, making it a less efficient check. The literature on love is not merely a more or less idle pursuit of more or less artistic value with more or less beneficial effects on the sexual imagination. It also helps to remove ascription from the erotic hierarchy. Since secrecy about the erotic ranking aids a conservative view of marriage, it is understandable that conservatives − although they do not usually know why − are against Kinsey-type research and favor censorship of books on love and sex.




The most interesting insights into the conception of the erotic hierarchy come from its confrontation with the theory of anomie. Anomie as Durkheim used the term is what prevails outside our customary range of ranks. To suddenly lose all one’s money would place a person outside his accustomed rewards. Likewise, to quickly come into a huge amount of money places him outside the security of the familiar range. Such sudden changes up or down leave a person without his bearings and are dangerous; in extreme cases they may result in suicide.

The secret nature of the erotic hierarchy implies that people in general have a very limited accustomed range of erotic scale. Breakouts into anomie territories are therefore possible for most. Feelings of, “Where have I been? I never knew anything like it,” are thus predictable as new experiences are encountered. In love one discovers letters before a and others after z, and life translates into new languages. The sudden great falls into anomie, when the comfort of the familiar no longer embraces us, may of course be desperate. To be totally bereaved of erotic rank causes despair and in extreme cases, suicide. To suddenly gain rank beyond all imagination is also frightening and, in extreme cases, as we have heard, the great lovers seek death together.

Anomie, here as elsewhere, is countered by norms and social controls. Durkheim noted this in one of his striking insights into the sociology of marriage.


It [marriage] completely regulates the life of passion, and monogamic marriage more strictly than any other. For by forcing man to attach himself forever to the same woman it assigns a strictly definite object to the need for love, and closes the horizon.10


The horizon of the erotic hierarchy closes, restricting men to whatever have become their customary ranges. This Durkheim sees as a gain.


Thus we reach a conclusion quite different from the current idea of marriage and its role. It is supposed to have originated for the wife to protect her weakness against masculine caprice. Monogamy, especially, is often represented as a sacrifice made by man of his polygamous instincts, to raise and improve woman’s condition in marriage. Actually, whatever historical causes may have made him accept this restriction, he benefits more by it. The liberty he thus renounces could only be a source of torment to him.11


His argument that the restriction to a customary range is beneficial becomes more eloquent in an article written several years later.


In assigning a certain object to desires, definite and unvariable, it prevents men from exasperating themselves in the pursuit of the ever new, the ever changing .... It prevents the heart from becoming agitated and from tormenting itself in a vain search for happiness … it renders more easily peace of heart, that inner equilibrium which is an essential condition for mental health and happiness.12


The phrase that “marriage kills love” can now be appreciated as an important half-truth: marriage restricts the pursuit of erotic rank to a customary range. Upon marriage, the spouses become members of castes, be they high or low, prohibited from leaving their accustomed territories.

Durkheim presumably wrote about the Frenchman who settles down after having established a fairly wide accustomed range. From his theory one may also argue that the premature closure of the range to which one gets accustomed is equally inappropriate, since it leaves him vulnerable to any erotically ranking person who may cross his path. To be rigidly confined to one narrow ascribed range was called ‘fatalism’ by Durkheim and illustrated by the hopeless condition of a slave.




All this talk of an erotic hierarchy may have lead some learned colleagues to visualize a sociometric ranking of who sleeps with whom within a community. Of course, every coeducational office, hospital, laboratory, or college has more or less appealing men and women; and the issue of who has access to whose bed is not an idle one. However, as we have seen, what is at stake in the erotic hierarchy, namely, emotional overcomeness, is different from sexual intercourse. This emotional surrender may, of course, lead to, be achieved with, or be confirmed in sexual intercourse. But the latter is not necessarily involved; and, as is well known, there are many sexual relations that do not involve any emotional surrender of either party. The connection we may have between the sexual sociometry and the erotic hierarchy must be specified by hypotheses and not taken as true by definition.

A person’s place in an erotic hierarchy may be confirmed through a variety of activities; but some, such as flirtation and dancing, may place a person more readily than others. Sexual intercourse seems to produce an erotic rank for a person more easily than anything else. The fact that sexual intercourse can produce not only children, but erotic ranks is of the greatest importance to an understanding of the norms that govern it. One of the more interesting aspects of the theory of erotic hierarchies are the predictions it allows about the content of sexual norms.

Social norms range from conducive requests to coercive commands. The former are numerous and varied and seem to depend so much on accidents of tradition and situation as to escape systematic prediction. At any rate, we must here forego the attempt to explain the sexual norms that might be called the etiquette of seduction. We have to restrict ourselves to the ones having a more coercive quality, that is, to fundamental sexual morality.

It is clear that society wants to regulate something that produces its new members, particularly since human offspring need so much care and training before they can fend for themselves. Traditional sex norms served, among other things, to restrict unregulated conceptions and births. Some of these norms are being replaced in our generation by norms requiring the use of contraceptives. Here, indeed, we notice a big change. However, the planned children that result from this pattern must still be cared for. The norms around “procreational” sex relations insure that parenthood is established, responsibility for the offspring assigned, and the offspring placed in the proper stratum of the society. These norms have not been changed much, except that they now tend to be phrased not in terms of “When and with whom may one have sexual intercourse?” but rather “When and with whom may one have sexual intercourse without using contraceptives ?” The question that is currently much debated is entirely different. It is whether sexual activity not involving parenthood − “recreational” sex − should be pursued freely, in the sense that one is free from social controls that go beyond the prescription to use contraceptives.

The argument for erotic hierarchies which we have sketched gives us an answer. It is known that society regulates whatever places persons in any one of its dimensions of stratification. In all societies, norms govern the acquisition and assignment of economic, political, academic, and religious ranks. It seems entirely reasonable to assume that norms emerge to govern erotic ranks as well. If sexual relations produce ranks, that fact in itself will generate a set of social norms.

If our theory is correct, the norms of love must be those of a secret society and of hierarchy. From the theory of the secret societies, we trace the norms of privacy surrounding the sexual relation. From the theory of interaction in hierarchies, we trace the norms protecting the individual from capricious erotic degradation.

Such considerations lead us, first, to an explanation of the incest taboo. From the varying and sometimes fantastic explanations offered for this set of norms, we can now select the one that implicitly assumes an erotic hierarchy as the one deserving special attention. In other words, we follow Kingsley Davis.


Suppose that brothers and sisters were allowed to violate the incest taboos. Consider first the effect of the sexual rivalry which would develop between brothers and between sisters. If, for example, there were two brothers and only one sister in the family, sexual jealousy would probably destroy the brotherly attitudes.… Moreover, since the number and sex distribution of the siblings in different families is impossible to control, no standard institutional pattern could be worked out so that jealousy would be a support rather than a menace.... If sexual relations between parent and child were permitted, sexual rivalry between mother and daughter and between father and son would almost surely arise, and this rivalry would be incompatible with the sentiments necessary between the two.13


The family is only one of the primary groups in which insurance against erotic degradation emerges. Other groups in which we are also much involved, such as friendships, neighborhoods, and work groups, develop similar prohibitions. A social norm that, in addition to the ordinary incest taboo, is irremovable from any society is, thus, a prohibition to steal a friend’s, workmate’s, or neighbor's spouse. In other words, the minimum sexual morality is an extension of the incest taboo to cover not only close relatives as before, but friends of the family, workmates, and neighbors. For sexual license in groups in which people are so intimately engaged makes for shifts in erotic hierarchies that cause too much agony to be tolerated.

The one who violates the incest taboo is certain to be abhorred in every society; the one who violates the extended taboo that puts a spouse beyond the sexual access of immediate friends, colleagues, and neighbors is also likely to be despised. This is true even where all other restrictions on sexual relations are dropped; friends, colleagues, or neighbors in prostitution consider it immoral to sleep with each others’ pimps. Thus, there is always a minimum code of honor for sexual behavior. Free love in the sense of sex unregulated by any social norm is a sociological anomaly. The sexual revolution of our times that abolishes conventional morality will predictably stop in front of an extended incest taboo covering all primary relations, not merely immediate blood relatives. Those in the current debate who formulate and teach the abolishment of conventional sexual morality in return for an extension of the incest taboo may well be judged as the wisest.




New theoretical ideas require special care. On the one hand, one must not believe in them and act as if they were true; for they have not yet met the test of research. On the other hand one must show them much confidence and attention and help them grow strong before they are hit by tough formal logic and hard research data. Thus, there is an emotional ambivalence in the nursing of a new theoretical idea. It is not unlike the parental hypocrisy that calls the same child “a big boy” in the morning when he manages to get dressed by himself and “a little boy” in the evening when it is bedtime. This theory is presented in the happy morning hour when standards are generous. We have taken key ideas from sociological theory as developed by Durkheim, Simmel, Weber, and others and applied them to a new field. A theorist is supposed to link together ideas and propositions from various fields into a parsimonious bundle that then is handed over to the researchers, who guide further investigation, and to the practioners, who make use of it in their recommendations to clients. What they say about it at the end of their working day must now be awaited.




* THE AUTHOR, Hans L. Zetterberg, FL, is publisher of The Bedminster Press, Incorporated, Totowa, N J, and Executive Director of the Tri-Centennial Fund of the Bank of Sweden.

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2. Wallace Walter, ”The Rating and Dating Complex”, American Sociology Review (1937), pp 727-734.

3. Vilhelm Aubert, The Hidden Society, Totowa, N J, Bedminster Press, 1965, p 209.

4. Georg Simmel, Soziologie, Leipzig, Dunker und Humblot, 1908, ch 5.

5. Max Weber, Gesammelte Aufsätze zur Religionssoziologie, Tübingen, J C B Mohr, 1922, vol 1.

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8. George C Homans, Social Behaviour: Its Elementary Forms, New York, Harcourt, Brace & World, 1961, ch 12.

9. Hugh D Duncan, Communication and Social Order, New York, Bedminster Prss, 1962, ch 24.

10. Emile Durkheim, Suicide, Cited from English translation, Glencoe, Ill, Free Press, 1951, p 270, (1897).

11. Ibid, pp 273-274.

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13. Kingsley Davis, Human Society, New York, Macmillan, 1949, pp 402-403.