I think about aesthetic attraction frequently, because it comes up in my daily commute. I… see people. All the time. And I find it very strange, particularly since I used to not experience aesthetic attraction at all.
I think about this a lot, but have only ever talked about it in broad terms. One big reason is that I don’t like when other people talk about it. Growing up without aesthetic attraction, conversations on the topic were always a source of dissonance and distance. This is still true now. The details of attraction are too detailed. They are fundamentally incomprehensible and unrelatable.
And worst of all, I suspect that my internal experiences, while fascinating to me, are simply boring to anyone else. But perhaps not to this audience. Read on if you’re interested.
What it feels like
To me, aesthetic attraction doesn’t feel like anything in particular. It’s not like feeling hot or cold or angry or happy. It’s more like, people pop out in a crowd. I notice them even if I wasn’t initially paying attention, like hearing someone say my name, or running into someone I recognize. It’s unmistakeable, and it’s either there or it’s not.
When it happens, the only thing it makes me want to do is look at them, similar to how I might want to scrutinize someone I think I might recognize. I suppose it feels good to look at them? I’m not really sure about that. Of course, since this happens most often on public transit, I find it more polite not to stare.
I have only described my own experience, and it’s worth noting ways that other people have described aesthetic attraction that fail to match my own.
Many people say of aesthetic attraction, “I can appreciate the beauty of a painting without wanting to have sex with it.” I am not sure for how many people aesthetic attraction is literally akin to art appreciation, and for how many people this is simply a useful analogy. For me, it is not even a useful analogy.
When it comes to art, I like art that despises art. I like my art contemporary, my music noisy and atonal, and my stories horribly self-aware. On conventional beauty, I have a mixed feelings at best. When it comes to people, I can sorta tell when people are conventionally attractive if I think about it, but I definitely don’t appreciate it, or even care enough to make that assessment in the first place.1 None of this has anything to do with my aesthetic attraction, which targets conventionally attractive men without me really wanting it to.
Another thing, people often speak of varying degrees of aesthetic attraction. There are some people who are very attractive, some who are mildly attractive, and some who are average. It doesn’t work like that for me. I am aesthetically attracted to a few people, but not to most people, and I couldn’t otherwise say who is more or less attractive.
Finally, people use different words to describe aesthetically attractive people–pretty, cute, hot, attractive. Somehow I feel the most appropriate word for me is “cute”, and the word “hot” feels like it must be describing a distinct experience. It’s hard to say what the distinction is between “cute” and “hot”, or whether there is any distinction at all, but the disconnect is there.
Conscious and reflective patterns
Who does my aesthetic attraction target? It tends to target young men, usually with facial hair, and usually overweight. Kind of like the “bear” type? It helps if they are topless, but any other degree of nudity does not help. It seems to come and go, in that there are some weeks where I notice many people, and other weeks when I don’t even think about it. Also, it is racist. There is a bias towards people with darker skin (eg Middle Eastern, Southeast Asian).
Another interesting thing is that it disappears with familiarity. Once we had a bus driver I found to be cute, but after seeing him over a period of months, the feeling dissipated. This kind of thing has happened multiple times in a predictable manner. I have never felt aesthetically attracted to anyone I dated, except once which was coincidence. This didn’t really impact our relationship.
Some of the patterns I’ve noted above are what I call “conscious” and others are “reflective”. By “conscious” I mean that I am aware of it as I see it. I can immediately tell that when I’m attracted to someone, it’s because of their face, their body shape, or because they’re topless. All the other patterns I’ve noted are “reflective”, meaning that I only recognize the patterns by reflecting back on who I’ve been aesthetically attracted to. Reflective patterns are things I could be wrong about, because brains are bad at statistics. For instance, maybe my aesthetic attraction doesn’t really come and go, and it’s just Poisson statistics. I’m not going to make a spreadsheet on it, so I guess I’ll never find out.
Many allosexuals say they have “types”. I have long wondered whether these types are conscious or reflective. Nobody says. Maybe it’s hard to tell when you’ve experienced it for so long that all the patterns are immediately obvious.
Sexual vs aesthetic attraction
If you ever asked allosexuals what sexual attraction is like, you quickly realize that they all give different answers. In some cases, their descriptions sound like aesthetic attraction, plus a desire to get to know the person or to have sex with them. But there are also allosexuals who insist that they do not immediately want to have sex with the people they’re attracted to. I have a theory about this.
What is the difference between an ace who finds people attractive but doesn’t want to have sex with them, and an allo person in the same situation? The difference, I believe, is in the anticipation. Allosexuals can anticipate that if they get close to someone who they are aesthetically attracted to, it usually develops a sexual component. Thus, even when a particular instance of aesthetic attraction never ends up developing a sexual component, it is still identifiable as a part of sexual attraction.
I’d argue that aesthetic attraction is even one of the most important components of sexual attraction, since it’s what people tend to describe when asked to describe sexual attraction. I think this is a source of ace/allo friction, as asexuals often describe sexual attraction as a feeling that leads you to want sex with people, while many allosexuals actually don’t want to have sex with every person they are attracted to.
An unwanted feeling?
I mentioned earlier that I have mixed feelings about conventional beauty. Among those feelings, is scorn. I don’t like that my brain subconsciously conforms to beauty standards of gay male culture. I don’t like that it is apparently racist, not to mention ableist and sexist.2 For me, aesthetic attraction doesn’t serve the function of selecting partners, but you know I think I’m fine with not having an irrational prejudice towards partners with traits that orthogonal to our relationship compatibility.
But aesthetic attraction is also a source of fascination and validation. It is so real. When people often question the reality of ace experiences, it is immensely satisfying to have one feeling that is so real that no external validation has ever been necessary. In contrast, I still don’t know if I experience sexual attraction, or what that even means.
1. In contrast to how I perceive attractiveness, I find that ugliness tends to be more immediately obvious. This makes me think perception of ugliness is a distinct phenomenon, and not merely the opposite of beauty. (return)
2. Yeah, I said it, sexualities are sexist. This is a radical statement, because we’re used to only ever criticizing things that could hypothetically respond to our criticism, and nature is not among those things. But nature is basically an uncaring asshole. (return)