The sky was grey and the winds blustery the day Erika LaBrie met her soulmate.
It was freezing in Paris, that day in January, 2004, when she and a friend set eyes upon the Eiffel Tower. When they entered, a special feeling came over her; one she can only describe as intense love, a chemical attraction. That feeling of finding The One.
"Everyone was all bundled up and I felt so warm inside," she says, recalling the moment with fondness. "I thought, 'I don't feel cold, I feel so much warmth coming from the Eiffel tower.'"
For three years, the professional archer from San Francisco would visit the object of her affection, going for weeks at a time, spending all day touching the tower. And then on April 8, 2007, Erika LaBrie became Erika Eiffel in a commitment ceremony before 10 of her closest friends.
"It was one of the best days of my life," she says. "I felt like I was setting myself free."
Ms. Eiffel is a self-described objectum sexual, one of more than 100 known others who form romantic relationships with inanimate objects. Instead of boyfriends and girlfriends, husbands and wives, their partners are things: cars, stereos, bridges and walls.
While experts are divided on the issue, objectum sexuals say it's much more than a fetish - it's a sexual orientation. In the past few years, objectum sexuals have been more open about their attraction to objects.
Earlier this month, 33-year-old Amy Wolfe from Pennsylvania made headlines when she announced plans to "marry" a thrill ride at Knoebels Amusement Resort, though many in the community feel her public display of affections misrepresents the way most of them love their objects.
Objectum sexuals are animists, who believe everything in the world has a spirit and a soul, Ms. Eiffel explains. Her first love was a bridge in her hometown. She has also had relationships with an archery bow and a Japanese fighting sword, to name just a few.
In February, 2008, she founded Objectum Sexuality Internationale, a resource for people who refer to themselves as "OS." They can have polyamorous relationships with both male and female objects. The OSI website reports that one-third of OS people have been diagnosed with autism or Asperger's Syndrome, disorders whose sufferers often struggle to form human relationships.
But they are still functioning members of society. "The misconceptions are that OS people are social introverts, that they can't connect with people, therefore they choose objects instead," Ms. Eiffel says. "Most OS people go to work, some are even married with kids."
While a handful of women were first to identify themselves as OS, a growing number of men are "coming out".
B.C. Hall-Ford, a 20-year-old freelance sound engineer in Oregon City, Ore., says the soundboards he's attracted to give off an energy. That's how he knows the emotions are reciprocated, he says.
"Your energy changes with how you feel, with what you're thinking, with what you're trying to communicate." When the connection fades, that's a sign the relationship is on the fritz.
Mr. Hall-Ford, who is autistic, says he is currently dating two small soundboards and is careful about telling people why he carries them around. His first heartbreak occurred when he was excommunicated from a church after being told he loved the sanctuary's soundboard more than he loved Jesus.
While most OS people prefer not to discuss their sex lives ("If I go and tell everyone how I'm intimate with the Eiffel tower, I basically cheapen something that's very special to us," Ms. Eiffel explains), Mr. Hall-Ford says he connects with his soundboard through gentle kisses and caresses.
"I like to say intimacy, not sex, because being physically close to my partners satisfies that," he says.
OS people are turned on by physical features, just as a man might lust after a woman's hourglass figure, says Laura Zilney, a sexologist in Brampton, Ont.
"Just like you would get pleasure from seeing and smelling and touching and tasting the person that you're with, they would get pleasure in the same way."
An OS person would be classified as a fetishist if one came to her for treatment, she says, since there is no pathology that defines it. But many of them don't seek help - and nor should they if their relationships aren't intruding on their daily lives or hurting others, she says.
Amy Marsh, a clinical sexologist in San Francisco who has been working with the OS community, says it's a sexual orientation and part of the continuum of a human's connection with objects.
"On the [one]side of the scale, we have people who just simply use sex toys for fun, but there's no emotional connection," she says. "Somewhere in the middle are the fetishes … and on the far end you have the people who have a great amount of their emotional and romantic and, in some but not all, sexual feelings tied up with their relationships with their object."
Her background studying sexuality and Asperger's Syndrome led her to the Objectum Sexuality Internationale community; she has surveyed 21 English-speaking members.
"For the most part, they felt very normal and couldn't understand why nobody else could see them that way," she says. "That goes way beyond fetish behaviour, which is where I think people for the most part would've stuck something like this."
More research should be done to help give OS people the courage to discuss their attractions with family doctors and therapists, she adds.
David McKenzie, a sexologist in Vancouver, says humans have a "natural proclivity" to have relationships with inanimate objects. Consider the 2000 movie Cast Away in which Tom Hanks connects with a volleyball he calls Wilson.
"When you look at somebody who is in love with a car or in love with their shoes and they'll sit down and watch TV with them, an argument could be made to suggest that this is a very safe kind of relationship, it's predictable."
But he also wonders whether many OS people have had troubled human connections in the past.
While some OS people acknowledge suffering abusive relationships, they say it hasn't affected their romances with others. Shannon Caffrey, a 31-year-old security guard in New Orleans, survived numerous sexual attacks as a young person, but she has since enjoyed healthy relationships with men and women - and is currently dating an archery bow named Haldier.
"I didn't turn to OS because I was afraid of being in a relationship with another human being. It's just something I've realized," she says. "I honestly don't think there's another object out there for me."