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 are 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)
(I think) I see what you mean. You’re supposed to think about art, where as aesthetic attraction is just attraction…
But I can sometimes feel something akin to aesthetic attraction with some art, where I’m touched by the delicacy of a petal or colours of a sunset in a painting or something without “appreciating” it because I’m not really thinking about it. I
I definitely feel the same way as you about “hot”. I feel like there are sexual connotations to that attraction descriptor?
For me, I can describe things as “cute” or “beautiful”. Hot, and sexy… Nope.
I second this distinction for ‘hot’. It has always carried a sexual element for me and thus doesn’t apply to aesthetic attraction for me. I usually go with “pretty”, but “beautiful” and “cute” definitely work for me as well.
Thirded. Aesthetic attraction most often comes to me with a sense of “whee, cute” and “I must watch this person a little longer”. “Hot” does have a distinctly sexual component that just isn’t there for me (as in “hot and bothered”).
Thank you for writing this. I always feel like there’s never enough discussion about aesthetic attraction, which for me plays a large part in my identity. I’m a heteroromantic grey-ace so that gets read as straight, especially since my one sexual partner is a straight cisman. However, I’ve always thought that my aesthetic attraction towards women and some non-binary individuals pushes me to the grey area, not necessarily because there is anticipation of sex but because there is a connection to arousal and desire.
I also appreciate your discussion of the anticipation of sex, as that is ultimately how I figured out I’m somewhere in the grey area, leaning towards the ace end. Because my aesthetic attraction is so strong and I do call people “hot” and “sexy”, it’s hard for me to express what a lack of sexual attraction is. So I think I’m going to start focusing on anticipation since basically, I would never anticipate sex if the world hadn’t taught me expect it at some point in a romantic relationship (I’m pretty sure that’s why I come across as demi but don’t really see myself that way).
Sorry for all the rambling, but this is super interesting and helpful for me!
… asexuals often describe sexual attraction as a feeling that leads you to want sex with people, while many allosexuals actually don’t…
Speaking as an allo… I believe most allos don’t distinguish between sexual, romantic, aesthetic, etc. attractions, and unfortunately ‘sexual attraction’ covers all of that when discussing attraction to a person. But although it’s possible to experience all these forms of attraction at once, they do have different head-spaces.
I like your thoughts on anticipation. I feel possibility and anticipation do play a strong role in how sexual attraction (specifically) develops.
“I believe most allos don’t distinguish between sexual, romantic, aesthetic, etc. attractions, and unfortunately ‘sexual attraction’ covers all of that when discussing attraction to a person.”
That’s exactly how I got into my late 30s without even realising I didn’t have sexual attraction. I had everything else on that list of the types of attraction – but nobody ever showed me the list, so I never suspected I was missing one of them!
I’m apparently weird in that I do use “hot” to describe people that I’m aesthetically attracted to. There’s nothing romantic or sexual about it though, it’s just a code-word for “I find this person very handsome/beautiful/visually appealing.” I realize that it has sexual/romantic connotations to other people, but I can’t be bothered to change my vocabulary for that. The art analogy actually works pretty well for me, as the feeling of seeing a person I am aesthetically attracted to is basically identical to the feeling of seeing a piece of artwork that I find very beautiful.
Thank you for this post. Our experiences seem to be very similar.
You mention “growing up without aesthetic attraction”. Could you say more about this (if you want to)? I also grew up without aesthetic attraction, though I generalized it as face blindness at the time (which was almost true, but still not quite.) It was my formal introduction to photography that eventually led me to “seeing” human aesthetics.
Yeah, I just never got crushes or understood the concept of hotness. When I identified as ace, I zeroed in on that particular difference, and spent a lot of time looking at passersby to see if I could spot aesthetic attraction. It was kind of an obsessive way of questioning. And I just didn’t see anything for about a year, not even in retrospect really.
I don’t have face-blindness. My boyfriend has mild face-blindness and our facial recognition is just miles apart.
I’m still figuring it out but I don’t think allosexuals have to google what a crush is and ask a straight, younger brother ton of times what it feels like. I do kind of feel that way as well.
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