Comparing Additive & Subtractive Constructions of Attraction

This is a metadiscursive post — a post talking about ways that people talk about “attraction” as a construct, either expanding it or shrinking it in various ways. Below the cut, I examine additive approaches in ace discourse and subtractive approaches in lesbian discourse, each used as different means toward a similar end.

Crossposted to Pillowfort. Preview image: Scissors by James Bowe, licensed under CC BY 2.0.

Additive attraction in ace discourse

In ace discourse, the concept of “attraction” is notoriously broad. Different individuals stretch the concept to different degrees, but generally speaking, “attraction” is conceived here as extending well beyond the specific subtype designated as “sexual attraction.” Expanding the “attraction” construct is controversial, and while people vary in where they draw the line, particularly strong objections to additive attraction began to crystalize around 2015. But we’ll get to that.

What makes additive attraction unusual is not really the substance of what it describes as much as the decision to apply the term “attraction” at all. Initially, I believe this was because individuals recognized their feelings as “attraction” and only later ran up against dissonant expectations about what their attraction should entail. Within a few years, the focus on attraction had become so entrenched in ace discourse that “attraction” may have functionally become the go-to term for feelings (though not without pushback).

A broad view of attraction has generally gone hand-in-hand with attraction subtyping, or making distinctions within the concept of attraction. For example, early subtypes included sexual attraction, romantic attraction, aesthetic attraction, and sensual attraction. These and other terms have been visualized in secondlina’s attraction comic (2012) and some of the ace community’s most terrible graphs.

This terminology has not been unanimously embraced, of course. As indicated by this 2006 wiki edit, some people do not consider the latter two to be “attraction” because those are feelings they experience toward nonhumans and objects. This suggests a perspective in which “attraction” is reserved for humans only (possibly based on the idea that “attraction” necessarily pertains to partner choice). Outside the ace community, “sensual attraction” also became an object of derision among early anti-ace bloggers such as Partysoft.

Broader uses of the term “attraction” increasingly became a target of ire in the “SAM” blogging that began on Tumblr in 2015. “SAM” blogging involves a lot of things, and it has generally overlapped with calling asexuality a “modifier,” objecting to narrow/specific definitions of “sexual orientation,” and defining orientation as “who you’re attracted to, not how.” For more context on that, see “The SAM” and its critics, A Timeline of Anti-Ace Blogging, A Modifier, and Don’t Make Me Choose. With that said, the scope of these objections definitely includes terms like “aesthetic attraction,” “sensual attraction,” and “platonic attraction,” as shown here, here, and here.

The main objection centered in “SAM” blogging has generally involved describing “the SAM” as anti-gay. It has referred to attraction subtyping and various other things as “grotesque and homophobic,” written that it “encourages the maintenance of internalized homophobia,” and attributed it as an impediment to gay identity.

Within these arguments, there has often been a focus on lesbians in particular. For example, accusations have involved specifying “homophobia and particularly lesbophobia,” invalidation of “lesbians in particular,” the prospect of “confused young girls” being “forced” to “include attraction to men as a part of their orientation,” and “confusing young wlw and defining lesbians out of existence” [cw: radfem talk].

So on that note, let’s talk about attraction in lesbian discourse.

Subtractive attraction in “comphet” lesbian discourse

One of the patterns in online lesbian discourse, at least in recent years, is a shrunken/subtractive approach to conceptualizing “attraction.” This has involved (mis)appropriating the term “compulsory heterosexuality,” shrinking its scope, and repurposing it for reclassifying certain experiences as not-attraction. In this way, this area of lesbian discourse attempts to reconcile a rigid, attraction-based definition of lesbianism with an expansive view of lesbian experiences.

“Compulsory heterosexuality” is a term popularized by a 1980 essay by Adrienne Rich — more on that here. This essay discusses the idea that heterosexuality isn’t strictly natural and innate, but rather, something externally imposed by society. So in one sense, “compulsory heterosexuality” means something similar to “heteronormativity” (a systemic, structural force). In another sense, the point of identifying “compulsory heterosexuality” is also to de-naturalize the concept of the heterosexual woman entirely.

In online lesbian discourse, the more recent uptake of “compulsory heterosexuality” has abbreviated it to “comphet” and redefined it as an internal, individual experience where lesbians (and lesbians only) mistake their feelings for attraction. Functionally, then, the concept of “comphet” is being used to make a distinction between “fake” attraction and “real” attraction. Examples from within this discourse include defining “comphet” as “what makes lesbians feel a fake attraction to men.” See also this post which talks about figuring out “if it’s comphet or if it’s real attraction,” where “comphet” is described as feeling “fake” and includes “attraction to only unattainable men.” In the course of these descriptions, real “attraction” is narrowly defined as something experienced toward real, nonfictional, “attainable” people, something that feels “positive,” and something which does not feel “uncomfortable.”

I find this development interesting for how it relates the concept of “attraction” to the concept of orientation/identity. In this area of lesbian discourse, defining “real” attraction more narrowly and subtracting experiences from its scope serves to dismiss certain experiences as irrelevant or outside-of-sexual-orientation. In ace discourse, defining attraction more broadly and adding experiences to its scope (while making more fine-grained distinctions within that category) generally serves to… also let you place certain experiences as outside-of-sexual-orientation. They share an end result, in that regard. They are functionally just different ways of accomplishing the same thing.


3 responses to “Comparing Additive & Subtractive Constructions of Attraction

  • sildarmillion

    Wow, the discourse can get so … messy … I wonder if that’s the case with most kinds of discourse…

  • aceadmiral

    This is maybe tangential, but I have never understood why “comphet”-supporting lesbians are not all over the idea of multiple attractions. As an ace socialized female and primarily interested in women, I feel like have at least some insight into the situation at hand, and what I would say about it is that you can’t make something from nothing. A conceptualization grounded in ace thought and terminology very easily would allow someone like me to articulate things like, “I did feel a spark with that person, but it turns out it was platonic, and I confused that for something else because everyone around me was expecting us to get together,” or “I did feel a pull towards him when I looked at him, which I assumed must must mean I wanted to do physical things with him because that’s just what that sort or thing means, right? But it turned out I didn’t want to be with him so much as I wanted to steal his look.” You could still totally support your beautiful sapphic vision of amatonormative bliss by dismissing non-romantic-and-sexual forms of attraction as “lesser,” which arguably the ace community does, and still forward your narrative of being tricked by society into thinking you were heterosexual when you weren’t, with the added bonus of being able to explain any genuine feelings the innocent lesbians had but were gaslit into thinking were something they weren’t. How is this not a win-win-win? I mean, it’s not for me, a person who has no such refuge-in-amatonormativity available to them, but I don’t think that would count for much in the strategic calculations of the people who are invested in advancing this.

    I don’t know, I don’t have any great love for either of these approaches, as you know, so maybe this is just cynicism talking. I just think that you are very correct in juxtaposing the two because they are more similar than different.

    (Note for passers-by: I do not have a romantic orientation and ask that you refrain from ascribing one to me.)

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