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.” Asexuality certainly isn’t & 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.


22 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

  • raavenb2619

    You seem to be good at research and history, so maybe you can answer this for me. A lot of exclusionists claim that experiencing same-sex attraction is what makes queer people queer, and thus that being ace or aro doesn’t make one queer. Speaking historically (like before the 2000s), has the queer community always been laser focused on attraction as the most important/defining feature of queerness? I feel like it’s a recent trend, and that the aspec community’s current focus on attraction is linked to this trend, but I don’t have any evidence either way.

    • raavenb2619

      Oh also, is it okay if I quote/heavily paraphrase “Your orientation labels for yourself don’t need to be based solely on “attraction.”” in a meme?

    • Coyote

      You seem to be good at research and history, so maybe you can answer this for me.

      You flatter me. I’m just a kid with access to a few libraries.

      Speaking historically (like before the 2000s), has the queer community always been laser focused on attraction as the most important/defining feature of queerness?

      I think I would first need to ask the question: speaking historically, how do we even locate a “queer community”? What does “queer community” even refer to? What place and time and formats are we considering within the scope here? Is “in the United States” being assumed? If so, why? Are we trying to look at anything and everything that explicitly uses the word “queer”? Or are we getting at something more narrow than that? What is our defining criteria — and how might that criteria be predetermining any conclusions we come to in the first place? Is “the queer community” referring to absolutely anybody related to the term “queer,” or is the “community” angle important? Is “the queer community” meant to encompass “the gay community”? Is “the queer community” meant to encompass “the LGBT community”? Where do we draw the lines? What counts as a source document for the purposes of this question? What do we do to reconstruct narratives of a community that barely has a written history and whose oral histories are mired in dispute? What *is* “the queer community”? How would we even know how to go about answering such a question in the first place?

      Queer histories and archives really aren’t my area, to be honest. Luckily, I do know at least one person who specializes in this stuff, and I can ask them once I see them in person again next week, but my guess is that they might just be a little bit confused by the question. From what I’ve little I’ve read of queer archival work… I mean, I don’t know how to explain this, but the tentative impression I have of them is that… “attraction” just… isn’t a Word That People Use A Lot, in the way that ace and aro communities use it a lot, by comparison. That’s just… not part of the lexicon. I’d say if anything, that’s part of a break/disjuncture on the part of aces, first, and then non-ace aros following in their footsteps. Feels like we talk about attraction more than anybody. But don’t quote me on that, because it’s not really an answer to your question — arguably people do talk about things that can be interpreted as “attraction” without necessarily using the word “attraction” per se. I’m just saying I wouldn’t expect it to make a very good key word search.

      I’m interested in the question here, don’t get me wrong. I’d like to follow up on it. This is all just to say, if you’re looking for some kind of historical proof that you can use as rhetorical fodder to directly counter claims in the context of… Those Arguments… I can’t help you, because my point of divergence there starts even before we start sorting people into “inclusionists” and “exclusionists.” This is why you never see me using those words, as such. The whole framework “Should _____ be included or excluded from the _______ community?” isn’t something I answer with “yes” or “no” — it’s something I answer with “What the heck is this this question even asking?” So many people who let themselves get sucked into that vortex seem to take that starting point for granted, but it’s actually a really obfuscatory question. Communities and alliances and coalitions aren’t just static containers that people can be put in like a pencil in a pencil holder. They’re actively *created* through networks of relationships and ongoing decisions to associate with each other. And given how nebulous and dynamic these things can be and nigh impossible to pin down transhistorically, I wouldn’t know how to do a discourse analysis of “the queer community” at all.

    • Coyote

      Oh, by the way — I finally got the chance to ask a queer scholar I know about this. As I expected, she mostly just seemed confused by the question and went with a definite no. She also mentioned Queer Nation being an important part of the word’s reclamation in the 90s, so I looked them up and found The Queer Nation Manifesto — possibly of interest here.

  • raavenb2619

    That’s a fair frame challenge. Maybe a simpler/better starting question is “Has attraction historically been important in various different ace communities, or is the importance of attraction a relatively recent phenomenon?” I’m thinking in particular of an image that was floating around Tumblr a couple months ago from the 70s or 80s, that showed some sort of queer community/meeting and included the word “asexual” on a board with other identity terms. (I don’t think there’s enough historical aro sources to be able to answer this)
    I am slightly interested in seeing if this question could turn into another reason for inclusionism, but definitely the main motivation is understanding our own community’s fixation on attraction.

    • Coyote

      Maybe a simpler/better starting question is “Has attraction historically been important in various different ace communities, or is the importance of attraction a relatively recent phenomenon?”

      I’m afraid you may encounter another obstacle there, because in that case I would first start with: Have there historically been ace communities? …Because I’m not sure there have. People have used the word “asexual,” yes, but I wouldn’t be able to identify any asexual “communities” pre-1997.

      I’m thinking in particular of an image that was floating around Tumblr a couple months ago from the 70s or 80s, that showed some sort of queer community/meeting and included the word “asexual” on a board with other identity terms.

      You’re thinking of the Lesbian/Feminist dialogue photo.

      My impression of how feminists were using the word “asexual” in the 1970s is probably something along the lines of The Asexual Manifesto, which… well, it’s more in the vein of a political celibacy kind of thing.

      definitely the main motivation is understanding our own community’s fixation on attraction.

      Hmm. In that case — I think what you need to look into is the 2001-onward history of asexuals defining asexuality. For example, the LJ Asexuals community in 2001 and the Offical Asexual Society in 2003 are instructive cases here. People like Nat Titman started putting an emphasis on “no sexual attraction or libido” in the creation of the LJ Asexuality Community, formed in direct response to the LJ Asexuals Community, as an alternative to the elitist political celibacy of the first group. Similarly, on AVEN the “no sexual attraction” definition ended up becoming salient in the conflicts with the nonlibidoist elitists, who argued that the only true asexuals were the ones with no sex drive at all. It’s… a story that hasn’t been told much, it seems, because for a long time, the people active in asexual communities were the people who already knew — because it was still happening or had just happened a few years ago. …Now, though, it’s been over a decade. How much of Ace Tumblr even knows about the whole Official Nonlibidoist Society thing? That was a kerfluffle big enough that a whole other forum was created in order to get away from it.

      • raavenb2619

        I’m afraid you may encounter another obstacle there, because in that case I would first start with: Have there historically been ace communities? …Because I’m not sure there have. People have used the word “asexual,” yes, but I wouldn’t be able to identify any asexual “communities” pre-1997

        Hm. I was under the impression that David Jay and AVEN was the start of modern ace communities, but that there had been small pockets of communities before that. Maybe I’m mistaken.

        You’re thinking of the Lesbian/Feminist dialogue photo.

        Yep.

        My impression of how feminists were using the word “asexual” in the 1970s is probably something along the lines of The Asexual Manifesto, which… well, it’s more in the vein of a political celibacy kind of thing.

        Interesting. I read through it, and there’s some stuff there that’s connected to how we think about asexuality, but less than I thought/was hoping there’d be.

        I knew the nonlibidoists were a thing because I read through basically the entire AVEN wiki when I discovered asexuality, but I think it’s only come up once since then?

        • Coyote

          I was under the impression that David Jay and AVEN was the start of modern ace communities, but that there had been small pockets of communities before that. Maybe I’m mistaken.

          Yeah, I mean, maybe? Who knows. I sure don’t. But I know people have been looking for a good, long time, and so far, The Asexual Manifesto and that one photo are about as much as anyone I know has found. So even if any such “pockets” did exist, they didn’t leave easily rediscovered records of themselves.

          …less than I thought/was hoping there’d be.

          …Yeahhh. Hence why Redbeard’s tag on it was “you’re gonna be disappointed.” So you see what I mean about… you can’t necessarily draw a direct easy throughline from the contemporary asexual community to the past. That’s not what a lot of people want to hear, because they’re entranced by the idea of tapping into some kind of rich long legacy that feels good to read about and makes them feel more personally secure in themselves, or something (& unfortunately I think the queer debate increases the rhetorical pressure to do this). But as much as I’m sure that humans have always had a range of sexual diversity… the contemporary asexual framework, specifically, as a way of understanding ourselves, is a pretty new creation — and I think that’s something worth celebrating, actually! We’re blazing a new trail here. It offers us a lot of agency for establishing something new, and we shouldn’t squander that.

        • raavenb2619

          Will read. I haven’t seen anyone saying anything on Tumblr, so I don’t know how recent or widespread this is, but at least for me, Arocalypse is down right now. You’re connected to the core tech/admin team, right?

          I don’t know how to include a screenshot of the error page in WordPress, so here’s the error page in full.

          An error occurred (500 Error)

          We’re sorry, but a temporary technical error has occurred which means we cannot display this site right now.

          Table ‘./erken1_AroForums/core_sessions’ is marked as crashed and should be repaired

          You can try again by clicking the button below, or try again later.

          Try again

        • Coyote

          Yeah, it’s been down today for me too, and also lol no I don’t have any connection to the admin, actually. I’m not sure where you got that.

        • raavenb2619

          I know someone recently posted on Arocalypse about having checked with some tech/admin person about the technical feasibility of adding another text field/identity/option, in addition to romanticism and sexuality. Was that you, or someone else?

        • Coyote

          Yep, that was me. I was referring to the fact that I’d sent a PM to Blue Phoenix asking if it was possible and he said yes. I don’t actually know the guy as a person though.

  • luvtheheaven

    I’d never gotten around to reading this post of yours until now but now I have all the comments too. Yeah it all makes a lot of sense and is good that you’ve spelled it out. I both relate to what you say and yet at the same time I think I’ve… Adjusted to the ace and aro community norms so much that I’ve reframed a lot of things as attraction or an orientation thing in my own language. I’m dating someone who uses at least three orientation labels themself and I use like 4. We discuss squishes and friend strong attraction though as separate from a less intense desire to be friends that one can also have – in both of our own experiences with other people in our lives. Etc etc. It’s all more complicated than most people would understand. And attraction was not actually my basis for wanting to date Asher, my partner, at all in the first place. A few types of attraction grew with time after I knew from the facts that we were compatible and after we started to take grow intimate in certain ways that weren’t necessarily romantic and definitely weren’t sexual.

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