A companion piece to Differentiating Types of Attraction.
[note: this post has now been translated into Spanish!]
On the surface, attraction and desire would appear to be equivalent and interchangeable terms, especially for those who have only experienced the two simultaneously, but the assumption that follows — that they’re “basically the same thing” — only makes sense if you’re unaware of or have not considered the ways in which one can exist without the other. You may quibble that one of these should be redubbed with another name, but what’s relevant is that two different possibilities exist, with the potential to overlap and the potential to not.
Unlike arousal, sexual attraction and sexual desire both occur on the psychological level, and both are generally thought of as “wanting to have sex with someone”, which is accurate, in a sense, but only sometimes — to the point where such a definition can muddle understandings once it’s taken into other discussions, thanks to the errant implication that “not sexually attracted to” must always mean “does not want sex with”. Many people do “want to have sex with” the people they’re sexually attracted to and no one else, but generalizing their experience as universal fails to take the subtle but consequential distinctions between attraction and desire into account, which hurts everyone who’s ever experienced one of the two without the other.
Drawing a distinction between these concepts is a complicated issue, one I’ll be tackling in this post, and to help explain the difference, I’ll be using a cuddle analogy.
Note: “sexual desire” can be used to refer to any desire for sexual activity, including non-partnered self-stimulation/masturbation. I do not disagree with this usage, but for the purposes of this post, the use of the term “desire” will be more geared toward partnered activity.
My relationship with physical contact is a complicated one, but let me just say that there are times when — especially when I’m home alone — I experience an abstract craving for (nonsexual) physical affection, especially cuddles, hugs, nuzzles, couch-sharing, etc. Because the interest in acting on that feeling is willing and active, I classify it as a “desire” — given the right opportunity, it’s something I’d actually want to do. This feeling can occur with or without being stimulated by thoughts of any particular person.
Sensual attraction, on the other hand, is something that I’ve described in my types of attraction post, but to reiterate, it’s this sort of involuntary, internal impulse to initiate physical contact with a specific target of interest. You know when you see something soft and fluffy and it looks like it’d be nice to pet or put your hands on? It’s like that. When it’s directed at human beings, sometimes it can be sexual, but it’s also possible for it not to be. For me, sensual attraction is usually directed at forearms or faces and is bafflingly nonsexual.
It’s possible to never experience sensual attraction, of course, and that’s not necessarily indicative of a problem. This post is using a nonsexual sensuality analogue not because it’s supposed to be more universal or relateable, but because it’s a way to take the issue out of the politically-fraught context of sexuality and put it under a different lens.
Anyway, for me, sensual attraction feels like a very specific, out-of-nowhere impulse to touch someone, with the out-of-nowhere notion that to do so would be satisfying. Whether or not I decide to try to act on it (or rather, request permission to act on it), that attraction will remain something that I’m feeling at the moment and cannot be wished away on its own because it’s purely a feeling and not an intention. We don’t get to choose who we’re attracted to.
However, even in the absence of a specific sensually-attractive person, there have been times when I’ve just wanted to cuddle — and I would say “with anyone”, but realistically, I wouldn’t let myself be touched by anyone-anyone, since 1) I don’t trust people that much and 2) there are plenty of people I wouldn’t want to ask, for various reasons. So the desire ends up being constrained by other factors, but nonetheless, it’s not always motivated by attraction, even if there’s a preference for some people over others (ex. close friends rather than strangers).
Point being, I can report that there is a distinct difference between “experiencing sensual attraction to a person” and “experiencing sensual desire/cuddlewants”, the latter of which can be fulfilled by anyone, but preferably would be fulfilled by a narrower demographic based on criteria like familiarity, consent, their own respective comfort level, whether or not they creep me out, etc.
From this delineation we can recognize the possibility of several different scenarios. For example:
- experiencing random sensual attraction to someone, but not caring to do anything about it
- feeling like you need a hug, and one of your friends happens to be around, so you ask them for a hug
- thinking someone looks really cuddly, but you also happen to hate their guts, so nothing comes of it
- wanting some physical affection and being willing to accept it even from people you find really unattractive
And so on and so forth. It’s possible to not actually want to pursue your attractions, and it’s possible to give or ask consent for something that wasn’t motivated by attraction — in short, desire and attraction are not interchangeable concepts. Desire can happen without being sourced from attraction, and attraction can happen without leading to desire.
All of this can just as easily be applied to sexuality. The difference between sexual attraction and sexual desire, at its most basic, is cognitive. Attractions are involuntary; desire is the degree of will directed toward action.
Due to the narrower focus of attraction, people tend to assume that desire is a less person-specific feeling, but that’s not necessarily accurate. For example, if you’re a monogamous asexual person with a spouse and with a capacity for sexual desire, then that desire would be “directed”, in a sense, at your spouse, in that your spouse is the only person you’d want to satisfy it with in practice. In the same way, when I feel like getting a hug, I’d want to get a hug from someone I’m comfortable with enough to allow that, but the desire doesn’t necessarily spawn from a specific attraction to such a person.
This is not a trivial squabble over semantics. The distinction between sexual attraction and sexual desire is important for anyone who is attracted to someone they don’t want to have sex with, as well as for anyone not attracted to people they do want to have sex with. This distinction sometimes becomes relevant in discussions of asexuality (lack of sexual attraction is the defining feature, whereas sexual desire can go either way), in which some contest that people who like sex can’t be asexual, and others contest that a pleasurable sexual experience would change an asexual’s orientation, reflecting (among other things) an inadequate understanding of how sexual attraction can be isolated from other aspects of sexuality.
More generally, making the distinction is a means of reconciling the non-optionality of sexual orientation and the more elective optionality of actually “wanting” sex with the individuals you’re attracted to. For some people, sexual attraction and sexual desire may only occur in tandem, but if you treat them as synonymous, you’re neglecting to acknowledge the role of individual will and agency. Of course, sexual desire isn’t something people can be “persuaded”* into either, but that’s a topic for another day.
*This post is for helping people who experience attraction and desire separately, not for supporting people who want to use the distinction to try and cajole aces into having sex. A decline of consent should always be respected, no matter the circumstances, and no matter how they identify, people who like sex and people who dislike sex both deserve to be left alone about it.