To Artist Tracey Emin, the Perfect Husband Is a Stone. So She Married One.
Tracey Emin married a rock. Erika Eiffel divorced the Eiffel Tower. Objectum sexuality, the feeling of romantic attachment to inanimate objects, is for real.
Tracey Emin poses with the stone at her house in the South of France on their wedding day. Photo by Harry Welle.
In March 2016, the artist Tracey Emin announced that she had married a rock. She made the relationship public at the opening of an exhibition of her work in Hong Kong, telling press that she had exchanged vows with a sizable stone in the garden of her home in the South of France. The wedding itself took place in 2015. In a recent BBC documentary about her life and work, Emin explains that she had tried a ring on her wedding finger and superstitiously wondered if that meant she wouldn’t marry. She thought, “What can I marry really quickly? What do I like? What do I love? What do I love unconditionally that will always stay with me?” She put on a roomy white dress, ran outside, and proposed to the stone, touching its bulbous form in a ceremonial gesture. Photos show the couple together, Emin’s hair blowing in the wind.
Later that year, Emin opened a show in New York titled Stone Love, named for a lyric in David Bowie’s “Soul Love”: Stone love, she kneels before the grave / A brave son, who gave his life to save the slogans. Emin’s announcement pushed discussion of human-object relationships into more serious forums than the goading tabloids that had previously dedicated page space to the topic. “31-Year-Old Woman from England Gets Engaged to a German Chandelier!”; “Woman Engaged to Chandelier Reveals New Tattoo to Mark Her Love”; “I’m in Love with a Tree—It’s the Best Sex I’ve Ever Had!” read the headlines. You can find lists that detail with glee and cultivated awe the people who have fallen in love with inanimate objects. There’s Linda Ducharme from Florida, who married a Ferris wheel named Bruce after a 20-year romance. She appeared on the television show My Strange Addiction, though she insists her relationship isn’t addiction but love. There’s Jodi Rose, who married Le Pont du Diable, a French bridge. And there’s Babylonia Aivaz, who married a Seattle warehouse. She controversially declared her union a gay marriage, since, to her, the warehouse was female.
Journalists fall over themselves to mock object lovers without the least bit of irony, happy to ignore the fact that we live in the most object-obsessed, materialistic society there has ever been, where body-slamming a fellow shopper to acquire Black Friday bargains is a yearly tradition. Today’s culture of consumption is driven by the language of love. Nimble-fingered copywriters and gushing content creators rely on it, coaching us to treasure, swoon, and adore items before they even land in our digital shopping carts. The explosion of e-commerce outlets and click-to-buy social media posts has caused a rush of overwritten pillow-talk-like platitudes: You’re lusting after those Gucci shoes. You’re in love with Proenza Schouler’s first fragrance. You’ll die for that Christopher Kane clutch.
Before her rock-marriage, Emin had unabashedly promoted her heterosexual—and sexual—status in her previous works, including My Bed (1998) and her much-discussed tent, Everyone I Have Ever Slept With 1963–1995 (1995). She is someone who sleeps with men, and as many as she likes. With this in mind, her marriage to a rock seemed like a choice, rather than some strange, last resort of an isolated loner.
“I see the union as an act of self-empowerment,” Emin explains. “In my mind’s eye, I have a place of identity with something beautiful that has been there for eternity. It is a way of making me feel safe and not alone. Love can do this.” She doesn’t identify as a typical object lover. “It’s about how I objectify myself, and my refusal of how I identify myself with the rest of the world, and to go along with the rest of the world, and to think how they are thinking. The ability to measure things differently.” To her, the stone is the perfect husband. It offers stability, comfort, quiet, and calm. “The stone is not going anywhere,” she says. “The only way the stone changes is in the light, sunsets, sunrise, and its temperature by the warmth of the sun and the coldness of the air. It’s like marrying a poem.”
Ten years earlier, a woman named Erika Eiffel had embraced her passion for objects and “married” the Eiffel Tower. She tells me she was “drawn” to its architectural form and refers to their union as a “commitment ceremony.” Beyond her tango in Paris, she’s also had frissons with a Japanese martial arts sword, a P.A. system, and an archery bow—which is fitting given she’s a champion archer. (Her relationship with Lance, her competition bow, aided her world-class status, she’s said.) Eiffel is nervous to speak, arguing that the media drove her and the Eiffel Tower apart. “Our relationship ended many years ago after the first media sexualized and sensationalized my story to the point I was no longer welcome as I always had been. Though I still visit Paris often and hold Eiffel dear to my heart, I am in a new relationship and quite happy,” she says. Eiffel won’t disclose details of her new object partner, but she says that her family and friends support the union. “My partner lives with me, so no one can raise a stink that my partner is publicly owned.”
Eiffel defines as an “objectum sexual,” which she describes as “the orientation to develop significant relationships with objects.” Emin does not identify in this way, and instead views her union as an expression of personal empowerment. “O.S. may be confused with fetishism because of the word ‘sexuality’ in the term,” Eiffel says. “However, sexuality does not imply the act, rather the inclination toward said Latin prefix objectum.” But what is love when it’s pointed at an object? Well, who can explain any love, Eiffel counters. “The meaning of love has no decisive definition,” she says. “Love is the feeling of true happiness and fulfillment in the heart. Once one establishes the existence of an attraction, it is a matter of the heart if one pursues this allure.”
The term “objectum sexuality” was coined by the late Swedish model-builder Eija-Riitta Eklöf, who, in 1979, married the Berlin Wall. Keen to take her partner’s name, she unofficially added “Berliner-Mauer” to her surname. Eiffel, who also has a thing for the Berlin Wall, befriended Eklöf and the pair eventually started an online community for fellow O.S. people in 2008. Outside of her marriage, Eklöf was very attached to a red fence, so the community has made it their symbol.
“People with mainstream wiring also cherish and love objects,” Eiffel says. “The loss of some sentimental objects can leave a deep mental scar, however, the subtle difference is that O.S. people do not love objects—they are in love with them.” Glance at your smartphone, which you treasure so dearly and check constantly, and you may wonder if one can really draw that distinction. But before you consider sending out a “save the date” to marry your shoes, buoyed by the thought of the extra pairs you can put on your bridal registry, Eiffel reminds that O.S. is about more than an obsession or a little crush. Her relationships are meaningful—rooted in love, not mere desire or reliance. “Lust, infatuation, and dependency is perhaps how people view the O.S. connection to objects, because they cannot imagine more significant emotions regarding an object,” she says.
Indeed, literature, like the press, has not been kind to object lovers. They are painted as fetishists, misers, or weirdos. One of the earliest depictions is that of Quasimodo, fondling his bells. He “caressed them, talked to them, understood them,” writes Victor Hugo in The Hunchback of Notre-Dame, published in 1831. “From the carillon in the steeple of the transept to the great bell over the doorway, they all shared his love.... Claude Frollo had made him the bell ringer of Notre-Dame, and to give the great bell in marriage to Quasimodo was to give Juliet to Romeo.”
The Israeli novelist Lavie Tidhar tried to offer a kinder perspective in his 2014 short story, The Woman Who Fell in Love with the Hungerford Bridge, which addresses O.S. directly. Tidhar uses language that nods to the way some O.S. people gender their object partners. (Eiffel, for example, believes the Eiffel Tower is female.) The bridge “shines like a lover,” he writes. “Over him towers his kin, the great Ferris wheel, wreathed in light, turning slowly and ponderously with good humour, her humans inside her like the cells of hatching ovum.” Later, he calls London Bridge “an unloved and misanthropic Belle Dame, or so I’m told.” While Tidhar describes his protagonist, a librarian named Elisabeta, as fulfilled and at peace with her sexuality, he constructs her story around the interest of a male admirer, who finds her passion for the bridge somewhere between frustrating and bizarre as he tries and fails to win her affections. “Is it possible to feel jealous of a bridge?” Tidhar writes. The story ends with Elisabeta on the bridge, joyously laughing and holding onto the railings, while her admirer’s colleagues view her with disdain: “Look at that crazy woman talking to herself on the bridge.” From Hugo to Tidhar, these stories remind us of how unusual—and faintly humorous—O.S. has been viewed over time.
Sexologist Amy Marsh is one of the few professionals to devote study to O.S. She has interviewed 21 people who are in relationships with objects, and has put together statistics that try to frame objectum sexuality as a sexual orientation and shed light on O.S. people by gender, age, and mental health. She’s unsurprised that most interest is purely in aspects that can be sensationalized. Many news stories emphasize the link between Asperger’s Syndrome and O.S., but this research is still in its infancy. “People who seem odd, who are outliers of some kind, especially sexual outliers, have always been fodder for the media,” Marsh says. “Unusual behavior grabs our attention. Reporting it increases circulation, sales. Perhaps some people want to reassure themselves that they fit the mythical ‘norm’ better than those other people.”
Eiffel and Emin point out that, for many of us, objects already provide comfort and companionship. Over drinks at a party, Emin recalls the time she lost a small teddy bear at the Four Seasons Hotel George V, in Paris, when it was accidentally swept up in a pile of laundry. With utter understanding, worried staff struggled to retrieve the bear, immediately referring to “him” rather than “it.” “Often in this world we need a source of comfort,” she says, and objects are never what they seem to the casual observer. “My interest is more in a psychometry point of view. Certain objects have a feeling and a presence, so an old chair can carry the ghost of the person who always sat in it. A mirror can hold the reflection of all the people who always looked in it, and a watch can always hold the soul of someone who wore it.”
Most people have such treasured trinkets and heirlooms. Scoff at the thought of taking things one step further, but you’re likely already romancing objects—if not in everyday life, then at least in the bedroom. “At one end of an intimacy scale, the human-object relationships are largely utilitarian, including sex toys,” Marsh says. “Somewhere in the middle, the objects are sexually fetishized, but still not real or alive to the person using them. At the other end of the scale, there are the people who feel the aliveness of the object in some way and who have an emotional response to it. People in the O.S. community often refer to themselves as animists, viewing all matter as alive and sentient in some way.” While the use of props within sex is normalized, it’s the “relationship” part, or the breadth of objects that people fall for, that most struggle to wrap their minds around. Marsh reminds that there are plenty of fish in the sea when it comes to object partners. “The large object lovers get more attention, but small can be beautiful, too. People in my survey enjoyed relationships with fish-eye buttons, door closers, sports equipment. There is a whole subset of folks who have relationships with dolls—sex dolls and otherwise—or holograms.”
Our ideas of sexuality and relationships are ever expanding. “The history of the sexual vanguard in America was a long list of people who had been ridiculed, imprisoned, or subjected to violence,” Emily Witt writes in her 2016 book, Future Sex: A New Kind of Free Love, which considers a range of “alternative” relationships and sexual arrangements. Eiffel has grown accustomed to the scorn. “Because our expectations are so different from mainstream, people assume we cannot be happy with an object. They try to define our happiness by what makes them happy. They cannot accept that we can possibly be happy in a different way,” she says, noting that most people struggle to understand how one can be fulfilled by a partner who cannot talk or touch. “Humans try to standardize religion, politics, ideology, love—is that not the biggest problem with the world?” Eiffel looks forward to the day when she’s no longer “that lady who married the Eiffel Tower” but just another woman in love. Maybe, by then, more of us will be caressing buildings, marrying our cars, romancing our laptops, and having three-ways with our high fashion without fanfare or criticism, happy with the companionship they bring us. Either way, she’ll always have Paris.