What does sensual attraction mean for queerness?

I’m curious.

There’s been some revival of the asexuality & queerness discussion over at the Asexual Agenda, and while I have little to (directly) contribute to that, it brought up a question for me regarding where sensual attraction fits in relative to other types.  Aside from transness, a conservative definition of queerness/qualification for an individual to ID as queer tends to require same-gender romantic or sexual attraction.  Sensual attraction is usually treated as irrelevant.

Which is interesting for me because this is not the case any time people (indirectly) speak of same-gender sensual attraction outside the context of asexuality debates.

For the purposes of this post, I’m defining sensual attraction as any impulse/involuntary interest in kinds of touch that, to the individual, would not be defined as having sex.  Kissing, for example.

We know that you don’t necessarily have to have a crush on someone to want to kiss/enjoy kissing someone (i.e. it can be recognized as a purely physical attraction/desire/pleasure).  And we know that you don’t have to be sexually attracted to someone to want to kiss/enjoy kissing someone (ex. some sex-averse romantic aces like this).  Therefore: kissing is neither necessarily romantic nor sexual.  Individuals may feel it’s one or the other or both for them, but such categorization doesn’t have to be true for everyone or every case.

Yet ladies kissing ladies is often considered queer (or grounds for queerness), and the same goes for dudes kissing dudes.  Granted, it could be argued that, in these instances, kissing is being read as synechdochic for romantic and/or sexual feelings.


I believe I’ve seen same-gender sensual attraction itself being labeled as gay or queer, and so I wonder if that’s contingent upon it being accompanied by other forms of attraction as well, or if people really do interpret “I wanna smooch this person of the same gender as me” as itself queer (or “worthy of being deemed queer”), irrespective of the person’s sexual or romantic orientation.

In any case, it casts what I’d previously only regarded as an error in a new light — that is, whenever people define sexual orientation as who you’re “physically attracted to”, implying inclusion of nonsexual physical attractions (what I’ve been terming here “sensual attraction”).

The desire for cuddles isn’t generally considered relevant to this conversation, and that may be fair, but then again, I don’t see why certain sensual activities should carry more weight than others.  Do we just group things according to the concentration of nerve endings in a given body part, then?  Wouldn’t that make hand-holding a significant one, if that were true?  Does same-gender physical attraction only become possibly-queer once it involves genitals?  Where does that leave butts and boobs, then, which are conventionally sexualized by some cultures?  How thick is the line between same-gender physical attractions that are “worthy of queer”, so to speak, and those which are not?

15 responses to “What does sensual attraction mean for queerness?

  • Vasha

    This is something I’ve kind of been thinking about for awhile too (though maybe not in so many words), since I’m not really sure if I’m allromantic or just sensually attracted. Sadly, the lines between romantic attractions and sensual attraction don’t seem very distinct whenever I talk to other people :/

    • acetheist

      I’ve had that problem too, on occasion (and my uncertainty with my romantic orientation is ongoing). I dunno if that’s a bad thing, though — that is, it’s inconvenient for putting things into neat and tidy boxes (boo! give us convenient tidy boxes!) but it also goes to show the messiness of describing human experience and how these things don’t always follow easily-defined rules, which can itself be comforting in some respects. Means we don’t have to worry about siding ourselves as either-or if either-or isn’t a definite categorical system in the first place.

  • Mxtrmeike13

    Hmm, this is definitely thought-provoking! I’ve been wondering that myself. I’m starting to just identify as queer so that I don’t need to bother with my usual laundry list of labels (i.e. sapioromantic demisexual and gender-neutral transmasculine person). But no one’s really stopped to tease out the nuances of what “queer” as a label really means. Nice post, you said that all a lot more intelligently than I could have.

    • acetheist

      Aw, thanks. I’m sure lots of people have tried to tease out the nuances of queerness before; it’s just that I hadn’t seen this particular angle addressed.

  • katyklopps

    I have a friend who is a girl and sometimes sensually attracted to girls, but she still considers herself straight because it’s not enough for her to really do anything with it. On a spectrum, she wouldn’t be completely heterosexual, but since she is mostly, it’s the classification that suits her best. I think it’s a matter of where the line is drawn, since everyone has their own sexual/sensual nuances.

  • embodiedinlanguage

    This is such an interesting question! Personally, my experiences of sensual attraction play a big role in my strong attachment to labeling as bi as well as gray-ace/grayro. Sexual and romantic attraction are pretty ambiguous for me, but when they do happen, they tend to emerge out of a strong sensual or platonic attraction, so it made sense to use my much wider experience of those to define a gendered direction for my orientation.

  • Calum P Cameron

    Whether or not something gets labelled as “queer” seems to be linked to whether or not something gets labelled as “sexual”. For example, girls kissing girls in a non-tongue-related way is not always thought of as “queer”, but it seems to be that many of the times where it ISN’T are the times when there’s some “negating factor” that stops it from being labelled as “sexual” in the first place (the girls were related, say, or possibly French). Tongue-based kissing meanwhile is viewed (in my culture, anyway) as inherently sexual and therefore same-sex kissing of that kind is pretty-much ALWAYS viewed as “queer”, even if the participants are only doing it for some kind of non-sexual, sensual pleasure.

    In my own speech (because I am unspeakably old-fashioned) I tend to use “queer”, if at all, to refer to anything that would have been considered unnatural during the days when “queer” was synonymous with “unnatural”, which doesn’t actually necessarily include same-sex sensual acts (like kissing) unless they’re prolonged or done in a “suspiciously passionate” kind of way. Not helpful to the wider discussion, really, but I guess I’m an egomaniac so I’m saying it anyway.

    This strangely specific personal definition of queer is also why I tend not to identify as queer myself, since as a mostly sex-neutral, celibate, aromantic asexual I probably could have fit quite easily into a society with a Victorian mindset towards the subject; at worst they’d probably just assume I was a monk.

    • acetheist

      While I have no authority on these matters, isn’t the (hyper)sexualization of queerness recognized as… y’know, a bad thing? This sounds like a problem.

      • Calum P Cameron

        I think it’s just one aspect of the overarching problem of the (hyper)sexualisation of human relationships in general. I don’t think we’ll be able to get a cultural consensus on the queerness of sensual attraction without culture getting it’s crap sorted out with regards to sexual vs sensual stuff in general.

  • Hezekiah the (meta)pianycist

    This post is especially relevant to me, because I’ve had people tell me that my similar-gender partner-relationship could never be a gay relationship due to the lack of sexual and romantic attractions…even though I’m marrying my partner!

  • Ace

    I don’t think you can ask this question without also considering the flipside: “Is opposite sex sensual attraction automatically and always ‘straight’?”

    I think it’s fine if an individual uses their own sensual attractions to figure out whether or not they are romantically and/or sexually attracted to someone, but I have a huge problem with any version of the logic that goes: “All human relationships and intimate behaviors therein are either gay/queer or straight.” For one, aromantics can experience sensual attraction and really love sensually physical affection, whether they are sexual or asexual, and to force an aromantic either into the “straight” or “queer” box without their agreement is wrong. Furthermore, I really, really have a problem with the sexualization and romanticization of sensual touching in general, precisely because these perspectives condition people into viewing touch as innately romantic and sexual and therefore cause them to avoid engaging in affectionate/sensual touch with anyone they are not romantically/sexually interested in, which is really fucked up and detrimental to people as a whole. We should have the freedom to be sensual in friendship and to not have our friendships viewed through the lens of sexuality, unless they actually include sex. We should not have to live in a world where outsiders observing two friends engaging in sensual touch label their feelings, relationship, or orientations “queer” or “straight” or “gay” based on the assumption that sensual touch = romantic and/or sexual attraction and involvement. Making sensual attraction universally indicative of either queerness or straightness basically shuts out friendship as a context where sensual physicality can happen. And that’s bullshit.

    I personally associate sensual touch with love, but love has nothing to do with romance, sex, or the relationship types and orientations associated with them. If I have a relationship with someone–a nonromantic, nonsexual relationship–who I love and we’re physically intimate with each other, it doesn’t matter what the gender of my friend is in relation to mine: we are not queer or straight for being physical with each other. What we are is friends. Friends who love each other and friends who are intimate. Our actual identities are irrelevant. Even if one or both of us has a preference for who we form friendships with, “queer” and “straight” are inappropriate labels to describe that preference alone. Homosocial or heterosocial would be more fitting, if such a preference even needs to be labeled.

    • acetheist

      “Is opposite sex sensual attraction automatically and always ‘straight’?”

      Not always, I’d say.

      To what extent does something have to be romantic or sexual in order to be queer?

      • Ace

        If two people engaging with each other are romantically and/or sexually attracted to each other, their interaction and/or relationship can be called “queer” or “straight.” But my point is, sensual attraction and sensual touch are neither innately romantic nor innately sexual, so treating sensual attraction as a qualifier of queerness or straightness in the absence of romantic and/or sexual attraction is wrong and problematic. If you’re not romantically or sexually attracted or involved with someone but you do love them and feel sensually attracted to them or are physically intimate with them, your friendship is not queer or straight unless, for some odd reason, you and your friend want to label it that way. Outsiders don’t have the right to call a friendship or people in a friendship “queer” or “straight” based on sensual physicality in the friendship, which they would only do in the first place if they read romance and/or sex into the sensuality. Love exists outside sexuality, outside romance, outside queerness and straightness. The same goes for touch, even the very sensual kind.

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