Reminders on attraction

In a comment on a prior post, Ib/Arofrantics mentioned seeing a problem with how some people talk about attraction, implying a kind of compensatory role. In their words:

It feels like aspec identities are so open to “I don’t experience [x] attraction but…. I experience [y].”

And based on the fuller context of that conversation, it sounds like this is another one of those topics subject to anxieties over some narratives being (ostensibly) centered over others.

I don’t run in the same circles as Ib, so I won’t claim to know exactly what they’ve seen, and that limits what I can respond to. Even so, it sounds like the issue merits further conversation. For that reason, I’m using this post to spell out some things that have been on my mind — a few reminders that I think some people need to hear: 1) attraction isn’t all (of the subtypes) or nothing, 2) attraction doesn’t need to define you, 3) attraction doesn’t need to define your relationships, and 4) attraction is not a source of legitimacy.

Reminder #1: Attraction isn’t all (of the subtypes) or nothing

This isn’t just another reminder about greyness, although it could have been. In the past five years, due to certain shenanigans on Tumblr, it’s apparently become customary to talk about differentiating types of attraction in terms of “using” that idea or “not using” it, bundled as a whole. But talking more realistically here, attraction subtypes aren’t all or nothing. Although some type-labels have gotten more popular than others, the full total of type-labels I’ve come across in my time is… fairly long (at least nine or ten, by my last count) — and I’m not expecting everybody to have a conversation with themselves on whether or not they “experience or don’t experience” each and every single one of those. That’s not how these things need to work.

Take me for example. Some subtyping language is language I use, and some of it is not. I’d definitively say I experience more than one kind of physical attraction, and I like having more specific labels I can use to distinguish between them. That was useful to my questioning process — and it’s still, to an extent, useful for understanding my experiences. And as for the rest of that language, I have no idea what anyone is talking about.

This largely goes for the entire umbrella of emotional attraction in general, be that romantic attraction, platonic (emotional) attraction, or any of the myriad others that people have defined in relation to those two. In defining such things, some of the people blogging about them clearly use “platonic” to mean something much more delimited than just “not specifically sexual or romantic.” And that… already diverges from how I understand the word, so naturally, anyone using that as a foundation is… not going to make sense to me. But even “platonic attraction,” itself, is a confusing concept to me.

And in both of these cases — “platonic (emotional) attraction” and other kinds of “not-specifically-romantic emotional attraction” — what I’m saying is different than saying “I don’t experience that.” It’s more like “sure, I can relate to some of the descriptions people have given of these, but it wouldn’t have occurred to me to talk about that within the frame of ‘attraction.'” If people want to do that, that’s their prerogative, just like it’s my prerogative to duck saying either “I experience that” or “I don’t experience that” and instead just discuss semantics.

To be clear here, it’s not that I definitively “don’t experience them,” but more like I read the descriptions and don’t really get what people are talking about. Sometimes this could be because I simply don’t understand what other people are feeling, but sometimes this could be because we parse the “same” feelings in different ways — I can relate to the “wanting to be closer to someone” description that I’ve seen given before, but it mostly wouldn’t occur to me to think of those feelings in terms of “attraction.”

As Cor has said before, the whole concept is a social construct anyway.

Reminder #2: Attraction doesn’t need to define you

Not everything necessarily needs to be described as an orientation. Not every conceivable axis — the sexual, the sensual, the aesthetic, and so on — needs to be funneled into orientation language for who you are as a person. If you do find it useful to do that for some of them, great. Otherwise: just because a tool or concept is there doesn’t mean you have to use it. Attraction doesn’t need to define you.

This holds true regardless of whether or not you do experience some attraction of a given kind. I’ll use myself as an example again — I mentioned experiencing some kinds of physical attraction, like sensual attraction, but I don’t consider myself to have a “sensual orientation.” I just don’t have any particular reason to use orientation language for that, personally. So I don’t. I may bring up sensual attraction when it’s relevant, but I’m not really inclined to compress “ace who experiences some specific kinds of attraction” into any kind of identity label.

But also, while we’re on the subject, it also goes the other direction, too — your orientation labels for yourself don’t need to be based solely on “attraction” specifically, either. Asexuality certainly hasn’t always been beholden to that rule, and other identities aren’t either. Plus, experiences of ambiguity can make it tricky to determine what you’re even feeling at all, which is one of many good reasons why we shouldn’t need to bank on clarity of “attraction” as the basis for anything.

There are all sorts of factors that might go into the use of orientation language or what identity labels to use — enough for its own separate post, even. For instance, when I’m questioning a label, I don’t just ask “Does this word technically describe me?” but also things like “How do the other people who identify with this term talk about what they’re using it to mean?” and “If I described myself this way, what associations and narratives would it invoke?” And the answers to that can have to do with a lot more than just attraction.

In both directions, attraction doesn’t need to define you. It doesn’t need to be foregrounded in what words you use to describe yourself. Some people do talk about it like it’s the rule, but I don’t abide by that rule, and nobody else has to either.

Reminder #3: Attraction does not need to define your relationships

Attraction is not the only basis for initiating a relationship. Attraction is not the only basis of maintaining a relationship. Attraction is not the only basis for defining a relationship. Attraction is not the only basis for figuring out who you’re compatible with. Attraction does not need to determine the relationships you can have in your life, at all.

As I mentioned in my definitions of friendship post, some people may talk like relationships are defined by attraction, but I and plenty others don’t operate that way. Personally, as much as I find “attraction” and its subtypes a handy little concept, its usefulness is just for me — it’s really not that important at all in how I seek or form relationships with other people.

For example, in the first section above, I went into how I don’t use “attraction” language for things like “liking someone” or “wanting to be closer to them.” So I’m not somebody who would say “I experience platonic attraction.” Yet does that mean I don’t have or want “platonic relationships”? Of course not. The way I understand the word, all relationships are platonic if they’re not romantic or sexual. Attraction is no requirement for any given kind of relationship — and so even if a given kind of relationship is important to me, the “corresponding” type of “attraction” is not. Attraction does not need to define your relationships.

That’s another reason, by the way, that I don’t use orientation language for a lot of things. Part of the reason why I don’t feel any particular need to label myself with a sensual orientation is because sensual attraction just… doesn’t affect my relationships with people. I’ve never asked someone out because they were sensually attractive, or anything like that. It’s just not meaningful interpersonally. So giving that an orientation label, to me, would feel superfluous. Especially if I labeled myself with an unorthodox physical orientation but not an emotional one — my concern is that’d make it look like physical relationships are more important to me, and that’s just not remotely the case. That’s not how I want to present myself. That doesn’t line up with my self-concept.

The point is, “what kinds of attraction I experience” and “what kinds of relationships I have, pursue, value, or care about” are not even close to mirroring each other. Attraction’s just not important for that to me. Doesn’t have to be for you either. Relationships can be defined in lots of other ways. Not every positive feeling you have about another person needs to be conceptualized as an “attraction,” and as belowdesire wrote, defining a relationship can be much more a question of what expectations, obligations, and boundaries you have with each other & about what you do in that relationship rather than just about what you feel.

Reminder #4: Attraction is not a source of legitimacy

Attraction doesn’t prove anything. Attraction doesn’t mean anything more than you decide it means. Attraction is not a defense of existence. It is not a part of how I affirm my worth.

It’s not attraction that makes us sentient, conscious, living beings. It’s not attraction that makes us worthy of decent treatment. And it’s not by invoking these concepts that we should make those appeals. Attraction will not allow us to dodge getting mocked or pathologized. Although we may be anxious about the umbrella being crunched or our experiences being misunderstood, attraction is not a source of legitimacy.


5 responses to “Reminders on attraction

  • raavenb2619

    Very nice article, this expresses a bunch of stuff that’s been in the back of my head for a while.

    To be clear here, it’s not that I definitively “don’t experience them,” but more like I read the descriptions and don’t really get what people are talking about. Sometimes this could be because I simply don’t understand what other people are feeling, but sometimes this could be because we parse the “same” feelings in different ways — I can relate to the “wanting to be closer to someone” description that I’ve seen given before, but it mostly wouldn’t occur to me to think of those feelings in terms of “attraction.”

    This is a really nice paragraph, and I feel like I have a better understanding of what you’re talking about when you say you don’t have a romantic orientation. I’ve been working on suppressing my instinct to expect everyone to have hyper-specific labels and this is a good reminder of why, and it comes at a perfect time for me, since I’m trying to wrap my head around some new terminology from the (self-IDing) non-SAM aro community.

    I’ve never asked someone out because they were sensually attractive, or anything like that. It’s just not meaningful interpersonally.

    I also especially like this, is it okay if I refer to this as an example of why someone might not use an orientation label, even if they experience attraction? I think a lot of people can understand this and then reason by analogy to understand why someone might identify as just ace or just aro.

    • Coyote

      Thank you. :3 And sure! I think it used to be a lot more common to list things like “not interested in acting on sexual attraction” as a reason for identifying as asexual or gray-asexual.

  • raavenb2619

    Re: #2, does the following align with what you’re trying to convey? “Attraction and orientation are different, because attraction is the literal feelings you experience, whereas orientation is the language you use to tell people information about your feelings”

    • Coyote

      Hmm. That sounds pretty close, but I wouldn’t have defined attraction quite like that. I’ve always operated on the assumption that “feelings” was a much bigger category than “attraction.” While this may not be exactly how other people use it… to me, attraction is specifically an irrational gut impulse drawing you to someone, something you can’t otherwise explain. I can’t identify “reasons” I’m attracted to some people; all I can do is identify certain *traits* that I find attractive, but it doesn’t necessary “make sense” in any way beyond that. Conversely, “liking my friends” for example is a feeling that I don’t consider an “attraction,” because I could point you to specific reasons for it. It’s a lot more cognitive that way.

      I’d also say there’s a lot of [orientation-relevant] feelings that aren’t specifically “attraction,” like bonding, enjoyment, desire, sense of connection to a community, etc. And I’d say orientation language can be based on more things than just “feelings,” too.

      So it’s complicated, because there’s no one-to-one formula for what an orientation label should express or contain. Attraction & orientation are separable in the way that you described — and they’re not even necessarily that interdependent.

  • raavenb2619

    attraction is specifically an irrational gut impulse drawing you to someone, something you can’t otherwise explain

    fwiw, this is more or less what I meant by “feelings”, I just couldn’t find a better way to express it :P

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