When I first discovered asexuality, I spent a lot of time worrying about what exactly “sexual attraction” is, and whether it was something I felt. Now I’m an ancient and cranky old man (in internet years), and I practically scoff at the idea of defining sexual attraction. You’re never going to find a satisfying definition, kids! You’ll just become disillusioned, like I was!
But then I realize I probably shouldn’t be a jerk about this. No, not everyone is going to go through the same process as I did. And no, my view on “sexual attraction” is not better just because it’s had more time to ferment. Really I’m speaking from a sort of privilege–not white or male privilege, but the privilege of having access to the ace community for such a time that I have gained confidence and security. There are people out there who are interested in defining “sexual attraction”, so I will make my best effort to seriously consider the question.
If you really want to know what “sexual attraction” is, the first thing you do is ask a bunch of people what it’s like for them. This is perhaps the only way we may ever know what sexual attraction, but we encounter problems whether the answerer is asexual or not.
I’ve seen a lot of answers from non-asexual people, and they seem to disagree with each other. I suspect they may not know themselves! And I think here’s why: a typical person experiences sexual attraction along with a whole bunch of other feelings, not necessarily all at the same time. If you ask someone to describe their sexual attraction, they’ll probably describe the first feeling they have towards a person, or describe the most powerful feeling they have towards a person. Neither of these feelings may in itself be sexual attraction.
Non-asexuals may describe desire to have sex, horniness, fantasies, or they may just describe being obsessed with someone, liking how they look, wanting to touch someone, or wanting reciprocated interest. Sometimes I see asexuals describe sexual attraction as seeing someone and thinking “I would like to have sex with that person.” I suspect many non-asexuals would not agree with this characterization, and even find it offensive. They may not necessarily want sex with a person immediately after seeing them. Liking how someone looks may be associated with wanting sex, but not they’re not necessarily simultaneous feelings!
Asexual people have a different problem describing sexual attraction. Sciatrix famously described it as painting around an invisible elephant, since we can only speak of the experiences we have, not the experiences we lack. But allow me to switch metaphors to a cake–no wait, a pie. Let’s go with a pie.
Somewhere on the pie is the bright red maraschino cherry of sexual attraction–or so we’re told. Many of us receive a slice of the pie; that slice tells us what feelings we feel. Let’s say, hypothetically, that I’ve received the slice known as “romantic attraction”. I think I’m asexual, because it would be pretty obvious if there were a bright red cherry on my slice, right? I dunno, I’ve never seen one, maybe they aren’t as bright as I’ve been told. But I talk to people and actually there are a lot of people who have a very similar slice of pie and who can’t find any cherry on it.
Furthermore, we’ve found lots of people who got different slices of the pie, and also don’t have a cherry. Some people have aesthetic attraction–no sexual attraction here. Some people have crushes–not sexual attraction. Some people have sensual attraction–not here either. Some people have sex drive–nothing. Some people like sex–nope. By systematically looking all these different groups who have different slices of pie, but no cherry, we eliminate a very large section of the pie. So where is the darned thing?
I propose two views (and I take the second view):
1) There’s a slice of pie somewhere that contains sexual attraction.
2) There’s no pie left. We’ve eliminated everything, or we eventually will. Maybe there never was a cherry, maybe the cherry is just a metaphor for the entire pie. Or maybe the cherry is in the precise center of the pie, and it just falls off if you only get a slice or two.
Under the second view, sexual attraction is not aesthetic attraction, is not romantic attraction, is not sensual attraction, is not limerence, is not passionate or companionate love, is not sex drive, is not sexual desire, is not sexual fantasizing, is not liking sex. But if you experience all these things, and if they are link up (ie they tend to lead to one another, not necessarily right away), then you may be experiencing sexual attraction. Can a combination of asexual experiences make a non-asexual person? I think so!
Otherwise, we have to consider the possibility of a person who experiences sexual attraction, but who is missing every single slice of pie that any asexual has ever eaten. Such a person would likely find a lot in common with the ace community, despite being constructed as the very essence of a non-asexual.
This model has a problem when people have a significant fraction of the pie, but are also missing a significant fraction. I think this is a good problem to have, because I think it describes my own ambiguous experience. That is exactly the problem I’d want a good model to have.
Given my view on sexual attraction, I hope it makes more sense why I’m disillusioned, and why I scoff. You’re never going to find a satisfying definition! There’s nothing to be found!