Differentiating Sexual Attraction and Sexual Desire

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.

A cheesy picture of candles and bed sheets was absolutely necessary.

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.

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50 responses to “Differentiating Sexual Attraction and Sexual Desire

  • Linn

    Thank you for this post! This is very helpful and precise, even though I am an allosexual!

  • Linkspam: December 20th, 2013 | The Asexual Agenda

    […] The Ace Theist differentiates between sexual attraction and sexual desire. […]

  • Victrix

    Your description of sensual attraction and desire is very similar to what I experience, I’m going to have to remember to refer back to it when I start to confuse myself when trying to separate the two concepts.
    Also that article I mentioned I was writing on one of your attraction posts a few months ago has been finally been done.

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  • Ace

    Reblogged this on The Thinking Asexual and commented:
    Ace Theist wrote a super awesome post explaining the difference between sexual attraction and sexual desire. To refresh your memory: asexuals do not experience sexual attraction but some can experience sexual desire (which is usually tied into having a libido, though having a libido doesn’t mean an asexual will desire partnered sex).

  • Shokubutsujin

    May I share this on facebook?

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  • voidedbylove

    I happened upon this article while I was searching for answers- yes in both the literal sense and figurative sense. I was wondering if you had any thoughts on my situation- I am a girl who dated this other girl for 9 months and have never been happier- fell madly in love. But sex was always an issue (she was the first girl I’ve been with). I always craved to be naked with her, always wanted her touch (still do)… but found myself not being sexually aroused by her. I found that there was random boys who I think aroused me, but I had no desire to be with them (I have never had sex with a boy and they kind of gross me out). I only wanted to be with her. But sadly, we broke up because she doesn’t want to be with someone who isn’t attracted to her. But I am in love with her and want to be with her and I don’t know what to do because I don’t know what sexuality I am.

    • Spade

      What label best describes your sexuality is something only you can decide, because you’re the one who best knows what it is exactly you’re feeling. I’d encourage you to keep exploring new resources and thinking about it. My thoughts are currently that I’m a bit confused, because you implied you’re not attracted to her — however, what you described could apply to sexual attraction and/or desire, depending on how you experience it. Regardless, if the issue was primarily one of physical arousal, that doesn’t necessarily have any bearing on whether you’re experiencing attraction to a person or not. You might also consider how your romantic orientation might differ from your sexual orientation, which is a distinction some people make. I can’t tell you how to handle your situation, but I hope these provide some starting points.

  • Avery

    Thank you for this post. I was having trouble figuring out how sexual attraction was not necessary for sexual desire, but I was conflating desire with arousal. Now that I have read this article, I don’t understand why I was being so illogical.

  • IThinkIMightBeAnAce

    Thank you so much for this post! This cleared so many of my doubts and definitely I’m not feeling like a weirdo for not caring about sex. Thanks!

  • shannon

    I have been with my wife for 2 years and we have struggled bc of her past she has had sex with lots of girls but says she wasn’t attracted to any of them they never turned her on but she did it for the attention is this possible?? even not liking it with them but going back over and over just for attention??

    • Coyote

      Anything is possible. That you’re asking this question, though, suggests to me that you either think she’s lying or confused, and the best advice I can think of for this situation is for you to think about what led you to suspect that.

  • shannon

    I feel like she is lying cause I myself couldn’t sleep with someone without attraction but she says she has even more then once with the same person just for attention.. I just find it hard to believe and don’t quite understand if someone can sleep with someone over and over without an attraction at all…. I just want to be able to believe her and that her story seems true.. :-(

    • Coyote

      I can tell you one thing, it’s important not to judge what someone else would do solely on what you yourself would do. And there have been other people who’ve had sex without attraction, so this wouldn’t be the first time. A few ace people report doing the same, though not necessarily for the same reason.

  • shannon

    Coyote I know just cause I wouldn’t doesn’t mean someone else wouldn’t just nice to hear other opinion that her story of having sex with multiple people sometimes over and over with the same person without the attraction is possible.. Also was wondering if it’s possible to feel gross during sex with them but to go back over and over even being grossed out???? thanks so much for listening and ur help

  • shannon

    I honestly want to I truly do but it just seems so far fetched….. It is nice thou to hear it from others that it’s all possible

  • shannon

    I worry cause she has lied before about small things regarding her past in counter and I told her in the beginning before we dated that I couldn’t be with someone like that and she opened up to me so she says and told me about being in a dark place in her life and the whole sleeping with people for the attention but wasn’t attracted at all… I have trust issues cause I have been lied to so much….

  • shannon

    I just don’t want her to be telling me all this just for me to stay with her…. I am just looking for answers and understanding if what she says is all possible

  • Neverland

    Thank you so much for writing this! I am a young ace and i just get really confused sometimes about the difference between so attractions so this has been really helpful :)

  • Woley

    I believe you may be confused when talking about desire. i believe you may be too engrossed in disproving current societal perceptions that you forget to sufficiently prove your own. You state that “desire is not always source form attraction.”But as rational beings, thought always comes before action. You may be confusing direct attraction and direct desire with other things. It possible to have desire for sex with someone whom you are not directly attracted to, but the subconscious mind creates a virtual object or mirage for you to be attracted to. this is how people fantasize about other people while having sex with someone. Thoughts?

    • Coyote

      “but the subconscious mind creates a virtual object or mirage for you to be attracted to.”

      What the heck does this mean?

    • Mercedes Schrödinger

      I don’t think the author is confused at all, but I think you are projecting your own experience. That’s normal when you can’t personally relate to what someone’s describing, but it’s not that person who’s confused.

      I don’t experience sexual attraction. For example, I never see a cute guy and think “I’d spread my legs for him.”

      I do experience sexual desire, meaning I can want to have sex without directing that want at any particular person nor picturing some kind of phantom person to have sex with.

      It’s exactly analogous to Cravings and Hunger, right down to the physiological processes but swapping out some hormones and body parts. Attraction is like a craving: there’s a particular food you want to eat, even if you’re not hungry right now. Desire is like hunger: you have this experience in your body that isn’t really attached to any particular food, or any image of a food, you just are hungry and you want to satisfy that hunger. Sometimes when people are hungry (desire), they go through a mental list of foods they like (attraction) and choose one that’s available (consent). Sometimes they don’t care too much what they eat, they just want the hunger to go away (desire without attraction). And sometimes they’ll eat the junk food even though they’re not remotely hungry (attraction without desire).

      • Chelsea

        Holy shit, ME TOO! You are literally the first person I’ve come across in years of searching for more info on Ace/Demi stuff. It feels incredible to know there’s someone else out there like me.

  • Gaia

    thanks alot for your post Coyote has helped me very much to understand something i didn’t want to accept, because i don’t experience sexual or romantic attraction towards men or women, i’ve never felt it and i think i wouldn’t do it never, but i have sexual desire, i feel that sex gives a kind of relief when you’re hungry, which is something weird, i mean is just a physiological response to a stimulus from your body, the example of the food is pretty accurate, thanks Mercedes Schrödinger.i have always felt uncomfortable with this situation i mean why i only have one, can’t i have both? but now i’m starting to deal with, and i think i’m not the only one with the disconnection between sexual attraction and sexual desire, it may be difficult for someone who doesn’t experience this disconnection, but for those who feel that way your post is very easy to understand, again thanks a lot

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  • A

    Wondering if you can help me with something I’ve been struggling with; I always see Asexuality defined as lack of sexual attraction which cannot be controlled, but sexual desire being portrayed as something that is optional and can be controlled. What about experiencing sexual attraction, but having no desire to act on it? That is not something I feel can be controlled, I cannot force myself to want to have sex with someone no matter how attractive I find them. So my main question is, can someone who experiences sexual attraction but a lack of sexual desire be considered Asexual or maybe Demisexual?

    • Coyote

      Of course! You’ll run into people who say otherwise, but my stance is that if something resonates with you in the label of “asexual,” and if there’s enough value to you in grouping yourself as part of the asexual spectrum, then it makes perfect sense to use an ace label for yourself. The phrase “people who experience sexual attraction but have no desire to act on it” is one I remember seeing to describe a portion of gray-asexuals even back when I was first learning about asexuality. There’s pretty much always been variations like that in the ace community, from its very start. :)

      • A

        Thank you, that was incredibly helpful and validating for me. I’m still not sure exactly where I fit in on the asexual spectrum, but I do know that the idea of being part of the ace community resonates deeply with me. I’ve never understood why everyone around me seemed to be so obsessed with sex, something that was just not very important to me. I never experienced the vital urge that my peers seemed to suffer from constantly. I always just wanted a cool person who likes me for me to hold hands and cuddle and kiss. It’s not that I’m averse to the idea of sex, it just isn’t a priority for me or something that I would seek out even if I was attracted to someone, and I have only ever truly experienced sexual desire once. The person being someone I had known for a very long time, was extremely comfortable with and for whom I had strong romantic feelings. Anyway, that was just a long winded way of saying thanks for making me feel like my feelings and experiences are valid even if they don’t match up with those of others :)

  • Anonymous

    Thank you for this article, It’s very precise! I really like this bolded line “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.”

    It explained my situation perfectly, and I was wondering If I was the only one who knew about this phenomenon.

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  • Anonymous

    I was wondering whether I am asexual or not, but I’m not sure. It seems that sexual attraction is more initiative of the person, which I haven’t done. However, when I was younger, guys would do sexual things to me and I would reciprocate those urges, but I didn’t really want to have actual sex. Now, I don’t really care for sex. I think part of the reason is because I am abstinent and at times I really don’t like the idea of sex. Even when my fellow Christians say it’s a good thing, I just don’t really care and don’t find it a big deal. So, does that make me a graysexual or just sexual?

    • Coyote

      It doesn’t “make” you anything. It’s up to you to decide what are the most important parts to highlight about your sexuality. What I can tell you is that for the things you just told me, there are definitely people who share those traits with you, and some of them identify on the asexual spectrum and some of them don’t. Both of those choices are acceptable.

      What stands out to me, though, is that you’re wondering whether you’re asexual, you don’t feel sexual attraction, and you don’t want sex. Whether or not you choose to identify as ace at any point in the future, I hope you will find the ace community a place that welcomes and validates having those traits.

  • Anonymous

    Thank you. I found out what asexual was not long ago and all of the descriptions I found described me exactly but I’ve enjoyed sexual things before even though I’ve never felt that look at a person and want them feeling and I read some articles that said it was different but nothing ever explained why. Thank you for making it so clear and showing that you can have faceless desire or attraction without wanting sex. This article really made it a lot easier to understand and gave me a way to put the things I understand/feel into words so others can understand it too. Thank you.

  • Anonymous

    Omg, thank you so much! This is a really good thought distinction. It still only gives a starting point to really understand myself better, but it is a wonderful starting point and surely a good read for anyone not familiar with some of these experiences.

    I know I am a demi-sexual, but I also realize the way I experience sexual attraction more often seems to be “different” from what I learned from others. I do have a certain pull and feel more willing and wanting to do things in general around my mate, but it feels very different from the way he feels towards me, as I am far less person-orientated. It’s hard to really put into words yet, and I haven’t found any labels truly telling the story, which is ok. (aside from a post here n there, which was a lovely emotional support)
    Here’s to enjoying the journey~

    Cheers!

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