Be My Baby
In 1963, the Ronettes recorded Barry, Greenwich, and Spector’s single, “Be My Baby” a lush pop tune that Rolling Stone would later list as #22 on its “500 Greatest Songs of All Time,” Billboard would name as “The #1 Greatest Girl Group Song of All Time,” and Brian Wilson of the Beach Boys would call “the greatest pop record ever made.”
It wasn’t the first time, of course, or the last, that anyone had referred to a romantic partner as their “baby.” Untold thousands of poems, love letters, and pop songs have done the same.
But what’s with the idea of calling your lover “baby” in the first place? How does that make any sense?
As a sex therapist, I’ve been interested in this question for a long time. And I think the answer can teach us something important about human sexuality.
Love and the Fourth Trimester
Animals have sex. But as far as we know, their motivations are purely practical. Human sexuality is different: There are typically a lot more emotions involved.
As sex therapists, we do our best to help people get aroused, have good orgasms, and so on. But what we really want is for them to laugh, giggle, and be silly and vulnerable, and to enjoy the kind of total absorption that you only really get as an adult when you’re having sex.
Why should human lovemaking be infused with such regressive elements? To me, the only explanation that makes sense is that we humans spend so much time as helpless infants. During the so-called “fourth trimester” after birth, we’re completely dependent on our caregivers. As a result, we bear a much deeper psychological imprint from early life.
The following brief passage, of uncertain authorship, has circulated for years on the internet: “It was a hot and humid August day, and they had been perspiring. Now it was dusk. The apartment was empty save for the two of them. As they lay in warm embrace, this room, this bed, was the universe. Aside from the faint sounds of their tranquil breathing, they were silent. She stroked the nape of his neck. He nuzzled her erect nipple, first gently with his nose ̶ then licked it, tasted, smelled and absorbed her scent. He pressed his body close to hers, sighed, and fully spent, closed his eyes and soon fell into a deep satisfying sleep. Ever so slowly she slipped herself out from under him, lest she disturb him, cradled him in her arms, and moved him to his crib.”
Of course, right?
Eros recalls our attachment to the first people who held us, rocked us, enjoyed us, and told us we were wonderful. That’s surely why during really
good lovemaking, you feel in touch with your deepest, most valuable self.
Can there be any doubt that this is the reason so many love songs have the word “baby”? The idea that adult sexuality contains elements from our earliest childhood seems to have been first mentioned by Freud in his Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality (1905). But there’s now a broad consensus that mother-infant bonding helps form the template for healthy eroticism in adult life (Dinnerstein 1976; Scharff 1982; Scharff and Scharff 1991; Johnson 2008, 2013).
In my new book, Love Worth Making, I argue that you can’t really understand human sexuality ̶ or help people with sex problems ̶ unless you grasp that certain aspects of adult eroticism are fundamentally infantile.
To quote Dorothy Dinnerstein (1976), sex “resonates, more literally than any other part of our experience, with the massive orienting passions that first take shape in pre-verbal, pre-rational human infancy.”
But this idea is easily misunderstood. As one of my early Amazon reviewers put it:
“In our minds the perversion and specialization used in relation to breastfeeding multiple times in this book completely discredit the author’s
reliability. In no universe or reality is breastfeeding the infant’s first exposure to sexual intimacy, penetration, or anything else sexual, as Snyder says it is.”
Is breastfeeding the infant’s first exposure to sexual intimacy, per se? Obviously not. But adult sexuality, like all aspects of adult experience, is built on the foundation of early childhood experience. And the emotional/physical
bond between mother and baby seems to have its echo in the intense pair bonding that characterizes most people’s adult erotic life.
When you were very young, physical sensation and emotion were all wrapped together in one package. During lovemaking, they still are. Really good sex evokes infancy in all its contradictory aspects ̶ tender yet ruthless, urgent yet relaxed, serious and carefree at the same time.
If all goes well, there are moments when one becomes like an infant pulling at the breast for dear life ̶ and then giving in to drowsiness, like a small child falling asleep on its mother’s lap.