Because sexual attraction usually (but not always) comes mixed with other kinds of attraction, prying them apart for categorization can be a tricky process, firstly because some allosexuals resist attraction disambiguation on the basis that it’s “not necessary” — for them, because they experience these attractions simultaneously. However, even a bisexual friend of mine reports having experienced sensual attraction to a man she was not sexually attracted to. We were in the midst of a discussion about attraction types when she came to this realization, with a sudden exclamation of “OH, that’s what it was!”
[This article is now available en français! Thanks, Valentin!]
At the time, she couldn’t identify what it was she was feeling, and thus was unsure how to act on it, caught between thinking the guy wasn’t sexy and yet feeling physically attracted to him. This demonstrates a flaw in the common practice of explaining sexual orientation with phrases like “physically attracted to” or even just “attracted to”. People can be attracted to people in nonsexual ways. While I can acknowledge and sympathize with the skeptics who think all attraction is the same (and that mincing it into types is just an excuse for aces to avoid admitting we aren’t really asexual) there’s too many reasons to believe that the theory of simultaneous attraction uniformity is not accurate even for allosexuals. For me as a gray-a, this fact has been a point of confusion for… well, pretty much up until I discovered an explanation of different attraction types.
This post might be useful in helping to clarify a few attraction terms, but primarily, it’ll consist of personal reflections on how the conflation of these concepts has hindered my understanding of myself and other people. In effect, a discussion of how these wires get crossed might even be more useful to some people than a strict guide.
This post will not deal with romantic attraction (which I find pretty difficult to identify, if I’ve experienced it at all) or other emotion-centric forms of attraction — not because those aren’t valid, real, and worthy of discussion, but because I’d like to focus on problems that arise when “physical attraction” and “sexual attraction” are used as if interchangeable. They’re not, and this post will illuminate why.
Attraction, in this discussion, is used to mean a feeling of being drawn to, or experiencing a pull toward, a recipient whose qualities inspire an impulse of a particular nature. This is not the same as being willing to engage in a behavior with someone, nor is it the same as experiencing a general desire that you’ve selected someone to satisfy. This definition may seem a bit convoluted right now, but bear with me.
My first understanding of attraction, as a kid, was a very heteronormative understanding of aesthetic attraction. I’ve already talked about how being a person on the asexual spectrum in a heteronormative environment can make a mess, but in essence, I was starting with a complete lack of understanding of how sexual attraction was different from aesthetic attraction. Aesthetic attraction is a feeling pertaining strictly to appearance, creating an impulse to gaze the recipient, and it can be experienced toward objects and animals as well as people.
The widespread belief in this culture, and what some would argue, is that aesthetic attraction toward a member of the same species (and of the appropriate gender) is automatically, or basically the same thing as, sexual attraction. Depending on your sexual orientation, the people you’re aesthetically attracted to are the people you’re sexually attracted to, and there is no difference.
This makes less and less sense the more you think about it, but I didn’t think about it much when I was younger. You can understand the source of the confusion if you think about some of the ways people describe people they’re sexually attracted to: pretty, handsome, beautiful, dashing, gorgeous. All words that could equally pertain to aesthetic attraction — in fact, much of the time, sexual attraction and aesthetic attraction go hand in hand. I possessed a vague awareness that not all aesthetic attraction is sexual, even though I couldn’t name it in those terms, but it never occurred to me that sexual attraction could occur without aesthetic attraction.
That’s why it baffled me when I read a certain passage of October Sky in which a girl was referred to as “Old Glory”. The details escape my memory, but she was, according to the first-person narrator, somehow very ugly and yet had an appearance that made her desirable as a sex partner. She was not aesthetically attractive, but she was hot.
I didn’t get it. I thought being aesthetically attractive was what made girls hot. Now I was learning that there was something else. Puzzled, I assumed that it either had something to do with these boys having high sex drives or her being more aesthetically attractive below the neckline. Since nobody talks about the fact that sexual attraction and aesthetic attraction are different things, and since I’d never even heard attraction specified by type before, I was unequipped to make the realization that sexual attraction is its own distinct concept. Thanks to this and heteronormativity, I was also unequipped to realize that I wasn’t straight. That’s not to say that I never questioned my orientation — I did, and I tried to open myself to the possibility that I might be gay or bi, and I gave it all the due consideration I knew how to give, but only accurate term for myself was one that nobody talked about or treated as real.
Since I was unable to figure it out on my own, the problem left my mind until years later when I was studying a book called Passing. The story is told in third-person limited point of view from the perspective of a woman named Irene, and there’s a passage that goes into intricate detail to describe a woman named Clare. From the text, it’s clear Irene thinks Clare is a beautiful woman. I found nothing odd or remarkable about this. Women regard other women as beautiful all the time, and if you believe and understand that straight women can tell when other women are aesthetically attractive, then how do you suppose they accomplish this if sexual attraction and aesthetic attraction are (in the case of human beings) synonymous?
Suffice to say I interpreted the text from a very asexual perspective. Imagine my surprise, then, to discover how prevalent an interpretation it is among academic literary critics that Irene is sexually attracted to Clare, with evidence drawn chiefly from this passage.
This time, I wasn’t just confused, I was annoyed. Don’t get me wrong; if a reader believes that Irene thinks Clare is a sexy lady — fine. I’ve got no beef with interpreting characters as queer. However, the use of that section of the text as uncontested evidence was a point of consternation for me, because when I read it, nothing about it seemed sexual at all. There was no reason to differentiate her attraction to Clare from regular old visual appreciation, no additional element to indicate any erotic undercurrent, nothing explicit or suggestive enough to make it unambiguous. Convinced of this and frustrated with near-unanimous consensus otherwise, I kept going over in my head the difference between thinking someone’s hot and thinking someone’s generally attractive, mulling over my absolute certainty that I could think people were pretty or handsome without the feeling being sexual. Heck, I think my sister’s pretty sometimes, and if you think I must be sexually attracted to my sister, then you’re creeping me out.
These internal protests drove me to defend my beliefs about my orientation again, mentally negotiating with myself, assured that those readers were sexualizing a description that was just detailed, not sexual — something I was adamant about because how Irene seems to feel about Clare sounded exactly like what I sometimes feel toward my own gender, and does that mean I’m gay? I kept coming back to the question, but I was sure that I wasn’t. However, what I overlooked — and what was probably the source of some anxiety underlying this insistent internal contention — was that when it came down to it, the way I felt about members of my own gender was none too different from how I felt about the members of other genders whom I (as a “straight” person) was supposed to find hot.
So did that mean I was bi? I didn’t think so. It didn’t seem to fit right, somehow. I’m still straight, I told myself. I’m interested in people of the “opposite sex”, I’m fascinated by their bodies, I want to touch them most places, I just… don’t care much about their genitals. But I’m still straight, I told myself, because I’d never heard of another word for what I was feeling. Maybe some people are just more straight than others.
I’m luckier than many aces in that I had certain buffers, certain aspects of how I was raised, to make it easier for me to accept this about myself. In a way, I did know myself and what I was, just not how to name it — that I’m a person who doesn’t experience sexual attraction. It’s tough to come to that conclusion in a culture where almost all touch between genders is sexualized. Sexual attraction, as it’s typically depicted in media, often includes aesthetic attraction and sensual attraction mixed in as if inseparable, as they are for many people. Nonsexual aesthetic attraction is sometimes treated as believable, especially between women. However, nonsexual sensual attraction is treated with a little more skepticism, a problem not helped by the fact that some people use the word “sensual” as a euphemism or synonym for “sexual”.
Sensual attraction is a feeling pertaining strictly to touch, creating an impulse to initiate contact with the recipient. A nonsexual example of this would be touching someone’s face or embracing them in a hug. Since this is a type of attraction, it’s not the same thing as wanting to cuddle someone as a way to comfort them when they’re sad, or as an expression of affection, or because you’re craving contact in general. All of those are valid, real feelings, but they’re not what I use the term to refer to. The best definition for it I’ve ever seen — and I can’t find the source where I found this, unfortunately — is that sensual attraction is “the feeling you get when you see a fluffy kitten”. For me, this term is a useful description for how I sometimes feel a random and inexplicable (but controllable) urge to touch people.
This conjures the ghost of an objection I dealt with earlier, which is that if you’re physically attracted to a human, then it must be a case of sexual attraction (i.e. sensual attraction cannot occur without sexual attraction) but I think my bisexual friend would disagree with you. After all, it’s not as though she doesn’t recognize in herself the capacity to be sexually attracted to members of his gender — she just wasn’t, that time, and it makes a lot more sense to allow all people to recognize the particulars of what they’re feeling then it does to push them toward a mindset in which all intimate touch must ultimately be for and about sex.
Unlike romantic and sexual attractions, sensual attractions are not generally regarded as a basis for a separate orientation, and only once have I seen someone refer to themselves as “pansensual” as an identity label, among a string of others. Nonetheless, borrowing from the logic of demiromanticism and demisexuality, I can envision a scenario in which someone might be “demisensual”, never experiencing sensual attraction except for sometimes when they’ve gotten to know someone very well. Again, these attraction terms are not about willingness to engage in a behavior but about the experience of a particular internal impulse. In theory, there might be people who have never experienced sensual attraction at all.
It’s useful and comforting for me to know about these terms so I can better understand my own experiences and find words for what I want. The problem is that I need other people to understand these terms as well, and I’m not sure that they do. As a supporter of bodily sovereignty, I believe in requiring consent for all, even nonsexual, forms of touch — but I’m shortchanging myself of what could be a mutually consensual cuddly interaction due to uncertainty that my requests would be understood. I feel uncomfortable even asking to touch people because expressing sensual attraction has a pretty low chance of not being interpreted as sexual attraction, and I’m pretty keen on not sending the wrong message. The worst case scenario is not that someone says no, but that someone takes my interest in physical contact as an interest in sexual contact. I just want to live in a world where I can say I want to cuddle someone without anyone thinking that has to come with anything else — but that’s never going to happen until our culture abolishes the notion of the touch escalator.
Man, I just think some people look cuddly, okay? Sometimes it’s not indicative of anything else but that, and if I express any of these sentiments offline, I don’t want to have to be anxious about what people will think. It’s not that I want more people to be okay with casual cuddling — any reason is a fair reason not to. It’s just that I want there to be wider awareness that it’s even a legitimate possibility.
So when you use the phrase “physical attraction” to mean “sexual attraction”, you’re neglecting to acknowledge that aesthetic and sensual attraction can exist on their own terms, which misrepresents the experiences of people of all orientations. It’s especially damaging to people on the asexual spectrum, who already have enough demands to explain and defend our orientation without this additional confusion. Finding people physically attractive does not necessarily negate asexuality, because not all physical attraction is sexual, and that’s what we need more people to understand.
There can also be other forms of attraction that weren’t discussed here, including something I’ve heard termed “intellectual attraction”, and you’re encouraged to find words for whatever sensations you’d like to find words for.* Tell me about ’em in the comments.
* I’m very confused by anyone who claims there can possibly be “too many words” for anything.
Something that’s always struck me as odd is the way that advertisers will sometimes declare something to be an “attractive offer”. Attractive how? Could we say there’s another type of attraction, some sort of “financial attraction”? It’s an amusing thought, anyway.