Loss, grief, heartache: break-ups are no less painful when you're doing it with a bridge. Or a pylon. Or a wooden fence. Or the Eiffel Tower.
So argues Erika Eiffel, the tower crane operator and former award-winning archer made famous by the documentary Married to the Eiffel Tower. Erika is one of the few public objectum sexuals – people with a love orientation towards objects –and, as well as holding a commitment ceremony with the 186-year-old French iron construction, she has fallen for fighter jets, fencing and is currently in a relationship with a crane. She also runs the support website Object Sexuality Internationale.
We simply don't know how many objectum sexuals there are in the world – not enough data has been gathered and people are, understandably, reluctant to identify their orientation in such a climate of distrust and misinformation. We do, however, know that objectum sexuality is found in both men and women across the world. In 2010, the clinical sexologist Dr Amy Marsh wrote in the Electronic Journal of Human Sexuality that, while it is often assumed that OS is "a pathology" or related to "a history of sexual trauma", there is, in fact, no data to support such a claim and that "OS appears to be a genuine – though rare – sexual orientation."
There is very little data on the subject altogether – the Oxford English Dictionary doesn't even carry a definition of objectum sexuality. So it's perhaps unsurprising that so many non-OS people lump a love orientation towards objects in with autism and sexual trauma at one end, and fetishism and paraphilia at the other.
The hot tang of heartache was no less real for Erika Eiffel when she broke up with her "greatest love" because, for her, objectum sexuality is "not an affliction or an addiction; it's an orientation, the way we are inclined." And while it is one thing to have your heart broken by something as unruly, as unpredictable and as flawed as a person, it must be quite another to lose something as stable, as unmoving, as apparently constant as the Eiffel Tower.
Of course, objectum sexuality is viewed by most as a kink, at best. The image of someone getting sweaty-palmed over a balustrade, a wall, a fairground ride or an articulated lorry is ludicrous, laughable. At worst it's a dangerous perversion – a symptom of mental illness. And yet, as someone who once dreamt her baby was an orange plastic extractor fan or can be brought to tears just by thinking of my grandparents' old, paint-peeling garage doors, I can well understand the capacity objects have to evoke in us very human emotional reactions.
"I believe that everyone is animus as a child, that it's innate," says Erika on the phone from her flat in Berlin. "Children are picking up on all these sensations from everything around them. But as they get older that is unlearned. They're told, 'This is an it'. As a child I was always very connected to objects. I used to carry this little plank of wood with me everywhere I went and as a kid people think that's cute. But as you get older, their view changes." For many OS people, their particular love orientation isn't something that comes on during the trauma of adolescence – it's something that the world around them grows out of.
Theatre maker Chloe Mashiter interviewed eight objectum sexuals to write her play Object Love, which opens at Vault Festival this month. While each interviewee had their own private relationship to the objects of their affection, Mashiter did pick out certain common themes: "Not really liking plastics was something that came up a lot. Also, not liking medical objects or objects associated with death or hospitals."
Mashiter wrote to people who'd fallen in love with cars, bridges, even the folding armrest of a desk chair. "There's an English woman who's in a relationship with the Statue of Liberty who also has a human boyfriend, and he seems very supportive," she says. "But there are cases of families trying to get OS people to have counselling or even get sectioned."
For non-OS people the sticking point with objectum sexuality is, often, sex. "I understand that people are going to get visuals in their head and they are going to have questions about sex," says Erika. "When you see a building and a person you have questions, just like when you see a very tall person and a very short person together. You wonder how the mechanics work. But you wouldn't go up to those people and ask, 'How do you do it when you're so tall and she's so short?' The fact that people ask us those questions just shows how little they respect us."
Erika was disowned by her mother for her objectum sexuality, lost almost all her archery sponsors after admitting to a relationship to her bow and is has been publicly vilified for her sexual orientation. "The greatest heartbreak that I ever experienced was due to the media," she tells me. "A year after my commitment ceremony with the Eiffel Tower, a British documentary-maker approached me saying they wanted to cover it. I thought she was kind, but she kept pushing the sexual aspect."
Erika in her archery days. Image via Wikimedia Commons
In one pivotal scene Erika is seen sitting astride one of the tower's great iron girders, euphoric in her proximity to her partner. The scene cuts to a shot of Erika adjusting a stocking; we see her naked leg and infer that she's consummating her commitment. "It was horrifying," says Erika. Once the documentary aired in France, the staff at the Eiffel Tower "wanted nothing to do with me." Erika felt torn from her partner, estranged. "I don't even know how to articulate a heartbreak like that. It just wrecked me. It was this final blow and I just had to withdraw."
Erika, like lots of broken-hearted people, retreated to the comfort and security of an old companion. Only in this case, that companion was – somewhat controversially – the Berlin Wall.
"The Berlin Wall picked me up off my feet," she explains. "It was an object that was hated for being who he is. In the 1980s I felt empathy for him; he can't help where he was built. They focused their hatred on the wall, rather than the politics behind it. I felt like I was suffering in the same way. I went through a lot of rejection when I was younger because of my orientation".
People think I can just point at an object and decide to love it. They think I can't develop relationships with people so choose objects so I can have control. But I had no control over my relationship to the Eiffel Tower. If this was all about control, I'd love my toaster, you know? – Erika Eiffel
This animosity, argues Erika, is a specifically Western phenomena. "I lived in Japan for 10 years and was very open in how I interacted with objects. People just accepted me. Shinto is an animus religion – if you have a headache, you'll rub the Buddha's head and then rub your own; it's an exchange of energy. Here in Germany, I'll refer to my partner as 'my big love'. The only places where I have problems are USA, England and Australia. It's the puritanical basis of the way people think in these countries that's made me suffer a great deal. I've lost jobs, I've lost family and I lost my greatest love."
During the course of research, Mashiter heard a lot of break-up stories. "There have been instances where people have started to fall for another object. There are relationships where the communication breaks down. I've also heard of cases where the object ended the relationship; where the person feels like they're doing everything that they can but aren't getting anything back. And there are cases where the object is destroyed."
Even when you invest your affection in bricks and mortar, iron and steel, wood and hinges, that love is, it seems, far from secure. "People think I can just point at an object and decide to love it," says Erika. "They think I can't develop relationships with people so choose objects so I can have control. But I had no control over my relationship to the Eiffel Tower. If this was all about control, I'd love my toaster, you know?"
Erika is now working as a tower crane operator and, hundreds of feet in the air, is slowly building a new relationship with her crane. "It took me a very long time to accept that maybe it's okay to start another relationship," she explains, echoing the sentiments of widows and divorcees across the world. "I thought I'd never fall in love again. But, being a tower crane operator, no one can question or bar me from getting to know this object. I feel like the buildings we're creating together are almost like children."
Of course, a German tower crane is never going to replace the world's most famous monument to romance. But maybe that alright. "Everyone has an ideal in their head, but if you only look for that ideal then you'll probably end up being very lonely. It's like always lusting after a blonde with blue eyes, but you end up with a redhead who has green eyes. I'm still in a cautious stage with tower cranes because my heart is still broken. I can't have the perfect relationship. I have to accept that."
I can't pretend to share Erika's orientation. I am from a family that constructs buildings – not kisses them. I've nailed down plenty of rafters without once losing myself in a reverie of affection. Submarines may evoke terror, cooling towers may make my bowels tremble and I may stand back and admire the engineering of a well-built key stone bridge, but it feels a stretch to call that a persuasion.
And yet, when it comes to her descriptions of love, attachment and heartbreak – of losing intimacy and seeking comfort in old companions – maybe we're closer than you think.
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