A jaded look at sexual attraction

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!

About Siggy

Siggy is an ace activist based in the U.S. He is gay gray-A, and has a Ph.D. in physics. He has another blog where he also talks about math, philosophy, godlessness, and social criticism. His other hobbies include board games and origami.
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21 Responses to A jaded look at sexual attraction

  1. epochryphal says:

    Nice! I love the way this opens up opportunities for alliances.

    I’d really love to hear more about what pieces of the pie you do and don’t have. And from other grey and demi folks, and people who later realized there was more pie hiding in the back of the fridge (*waves*) who still find value in talking about pie expectations. And ambiguous flavors of pie!

    • Siggy says:

      I think I’ve described a lot of slices of pie before. For me the major things missing are limerence and passionate love. Also aesthetic attraction fades in and out (currently out), and seems unattached to anything else.

  2. It’s funny, for a long time I’ve found myself wondering if sexual attraction really exists (which is a silly thought, I know). But I’m pretty sure what I’m really thinking there is just that sexual attraction doesn’t exist as an individual, separate emotion from all other emotions- or basically that it’s some particular combination of emotions/feelings/etc. that asexual people have (but never in that combination), so basically theory number 2.

    But if I’m actually trying to define sexual attraction the best I can do is usually to just say that it’s one particular reason someone might want to have sex (basically, it’s one factor that goes into the “pro” side of pros/cons of having sex with someone). But of course, this doesn’t distinguish sexual attraction from any other reason someone might want to have sex, and merely describes it as a member of a larger category- meaning this “definition” doesn’t actually help us understand what sexual attraction is.

    • Siggy says:

      If I were asked to define sexual attraction in an essentialist way, I’d say it was a feeling that intrinsically causes you to want sex with particular people. By intrinsic, I mean that it’s not mediated by any other motivations (such as wanting kids). And it only creates a “pro” which could be outweighed by other “cons”.

      But I also feel sure that normative sexual attraction comes with aesthetic attraction, fantasizing, sexual desire, crushes, and all that other stuff. Without these items, it’s practically unrecognizable and I’m not sure I would choose to describe it as sexual attraction at all.

  3. L says:

    I think I came to the conclusion that sexual attraction is just one sort of “more than the sum of its parts” that non-aces feel. Sort of like a “sixth sense”– biologically speaking, humans have a huge number of senses beyond the basic 5, and when people talks about “the sixth”, they’re not all talking about the same thing.

    I think aces probably have our own “more” that we feel when putting the constituent parts, or pie pieces, together that is more subtle and less understood. Intense forms of platonic love or kinked love and so forth.

    • Siggy says:

      One of the problems with the pie thing is that when it comes to pies, having a whole pie is a good thing, whereas we would rather not make the same normative judgement about feelings.

      As a naturalist, I don’t think there is any such thing as a “completed whole” of feelings, whether for asexuals or non-asexuals, because none of it has any real purpose.

      • L says:

        No, I’m not saying that there needs to be a defined “whole”, but there are features, parts, and everyone I’ve ever polled on the subject would agree on that. It’s a combination of x, y, z, attractions, plus a -little something extra-. But without x, y, z, that extra thing doesn’t happen.

        • Siggy says:

          I guess you didn’t poll me.

          • L says:

            I don’t think I’m explaining myself correctly because I’m not really saying anything that you didn’t yourself conclude in the OP.

            There are different attractions, yes? Most of which are relatively easy to define and differentiate to the experiencer, yes? Though some of which are not, like sexual and romantic attraction? My conclusion is that for the people for whom they are difficult feelings to pin down, as opposed to someone who defines it for themselves, as say “I want to have sex with that person right now”, or “I want to have a candlelit dinner with that person right now and talk about our feelings”, or what have you, then they are indeed a conglomeration of other attractions + something else that I’m not going to bother trying to figure out anymore because if the aforementioned jadedness and also most experiences can’t explain it themselves.

          • Siggy says:

            No, that doesn’t really clarify it for me, and I don’t see how I said that. But I think we’ve lost the thread.

  4. Isaac says:

    This is an interesting hypothesis

  5. I’ve always thought of sexual attraction as being one of the slices of the pie, as independent from the other slices as they are from each other. Except that all the slices have different filling, and you only ever get one bowl of pie, so if you end up with a slice of apple (aesthetic attraction) and a slice of blueberry (sexual attraction), you might be able to keep them on separate sides of the bowl, or they might have got squished up together so you’ll know what apple and blueberry pie tastes like, but you can only really approximate what either one might taste like on it’s own.

    … I want some apple and blueberry pie now.

    Or, to go back to the elephant thing, I’ve always suspected that there is no ‘sexual attraction’ as a single thing. Like, the elephant metaphor assumes that there’s a lot that you could say about all elephants if you could see them all that would be roughly true (four legs, big ears, trunk). But I suspect that one person’s invisible ‘elephant’ has four legs, a ringed tail and opposable thumbs and another person’s invisible ‘elephant’ has four legs, hooves and a mane, and we just assume that the animal everyone else sees is roughly the same type as the animal we see.

    …that might be as much as I can persuade myself to care about the definition of sexual attraction nowadays. *wanders off to think about something else, probably pie*

    • Siggy says:

      To be clear, that is a *different* explanation of why non-asexual descriptions of sexual attraction are inconsistent. In one view, people are actually experiencing sexual attraction differently, and never thought to compare notes. In another view, expressed in the OP, people describe the first or strongest component of their attraction, which does not necessarily correspond to sexual attraction as we understand it. (in fact, it cannot correspond to sexual attraction, because they are describing just one slice of pie, one that we’ve already eliminated.)

  6. Isaac says:

    I wonder how mismatched orientations (like homosexual heteroromantic) fit in this model.

    • Siggy says:

      I think one of the important components of normative sexual attraction is not just having all the parts, but having them connect together. If people have mismatched orientations, that’s something alright.

  7. Eponine says:

    I’ve also been scoffing at the idea of defining sexual attraction, as well as the attraction-based definition of asexuality. I very much agree that a combination of asexual experiences can make a non-asexual person, and vice versa, according to the attraction-based definition. If someone likes, desires, and seeks out partnered sex, but claims to be asexual because they don’t experience the mysterious thing called sexual attraction, I’m not going to say they can’t ID as asexual, but it’s just so baffling to me (and to most people, I believe). On the other hand, if someone experiences sexual attraction, but has no libido or desire for partnered sex, I’ll definitely consider them as asexual.

    The “there’s no pie left” idea is also consistent with some sexual people’s experience. They can’t define what sexual attraction is, but they know they’re sexual because they have some other slices of the pie, mainly enjoying and desiring sex. They also don’t care if a romantic partner is “sexually attracted” to them, as long as the partner is emotionally attracted to them and desires sex with them. I think it’s important to listen to what sexuals say about sexual attraction. If they can’t define it or don’t think it’s important, then maybe it’s not a good idea to define asexuality based on sexual attraction.

    • Siggy says:

      I think there’s some major connections between this conversation, and the conversation about asexuals who like sex. Liking sex is not itself sexual attraction, but it seems like a pretty major slice of it, in terms of how socially important it is. It is not surprising that most aces who like sex consider themselves gray-A or demi, rather than asexual. I presume that asexuals who like sex feel that they’re missing another component which is even more important to them.

      I’m always talking about how the definition of asexuality is overly specific, but I have trouble actually opposing it because I guess the specificity serves a purpose for people who are dealing with a lot of doubt.

    • Z says:

      This is one of the reasons I constantly go back and forth about id-ing as asexual. I like sex. It’s a fun activity. It’s interesting. There’s lots of way to do it. Orgasms. But I’m never actually sexually attracted to people. There’s a total disconnect between the act of sex and, like, using sex to express a connection with another, specific, person. (which is sometimes how I see sexual attraction described) Everyone seems pretty much sexually the same to me. Baring logical things like hygiene and safety concerns I have no idea why someone would be interested in one person over another person. Why does it matter who my partner is anymore than when, say, I play a board game with someone, as long as we both have fun. Now, according to a lot of people I’ve run into, this is somewhere between a weird way to think about sex and a sign that there’s something wrong with me. (which is why I don’t actually have a lot of sex, you bring up the ‘not sexually attracted’ thing and some people really freak about it) And I don’t know. Maybe I am hideously fucked up. (fucked up pansexual is my alternate orientation to go to… maybe I’m low grade sexually attracted to the majority of people) But it also makes total sense to me that this would be me lacking, specifically, sexual attraction to people. (I’m not romantically attracted to people either, but, with the exception of open mouth kissing, I still like some “romantic” things… but it’s because I like the activities, not because of anything to do with the other person. which, I know, sounds really horrible. but it’s not like I think anyone’s terrible, or that I don’t care about them, there are people who I think are adorable or funny or who seem like they’d be good to talk to or work with… but if there is any affection (I guess would be a good word?) it’s not connected to any sex or romance, I wouldn’t be any more likely to do sex or romance activities with them). I don’t know if that makes any sense.
      It just seems like, from everything I’ve heard from other people, there’s an actual attraction… there’s something about that person that makes you think about sex or romance in conjunction with them. And that makes sense to me. (way more than someone just not liking the activity of sex, which I think is still valid just different) Like, I have this kink (I guess, it’s not sexual just something that makes me happy in a ‘wrapped in a warm blanket’ way when people do it) and while it’s sort of neat to see anyone do this thing, there are definitely times when I see someone and the thought of them doing the thing just pops into my head. Out of nowhere. Sometimes it’s instant, sometimes it’s only after I learn something new about them… but anytime it’s focused on a specific person it makes it better. And this seems similar to what sexual (and romantic) attraction would be like. The activity is better because it’s that person.
      So I can see how asexuals who like sex can be baffling because it seems like most people have to be sexually attracted to someone in order to enjoy sex (or, I suppose, why have ‘okay’ sex when you can have ‘better because it’s that person’ sex…) And for me it’s like I can see all these clearly drawn lines where everything’s separate and specific but where the lines are all scribbly and overlapping for most other people.

      Sorry for the total word vomit.
      tl;dr For me sexual attraction seems like a very specific thing that I don’t possess, totally separate from my personal feelings about sex.

      • Siggy says:

        I totally get it and I don’t think you’re fucked up for feeling that way. When people imagine lacking sexual attraction they usually think it’s on the opposite end of promiscuous. But under a certain view, if sexual attraction causes you to want sex *with particular people*, then lacking this quality can mean you like sex but don’t care about the particular people it’s with. And this doesn’t necessarily lead to lots of sex with everyone, because it might just be too bewildering to potential partners, and to oneself.

  8. Cam says:

    Thank you so much for writing this. I’m only 21, soitsnvery reassuring to know someone much older than me is still unable to define this obscure ‘feeling’
    I’m probably going to continue looking, and see what I may turn up with in the hopes of helping others. But thank you for sharing your experience

  9. Pingback: A Better Understanding of What Typical Heterosexuality Really Is – From Fandom to Family: Sharing my many thoughts

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