What even is attraction? A constructionist view

This is a submission to the October 2021 Carnival of Aces on “Attraction”.

Within ace and aro communities, “attraction” is a concept that receives a great deal of attention. It’s in the definitions after all–or at least, some of the definitions. There are always lots of people asking, “Am I asexual?” or “Am I aromantic?”, and if people are being appropriately respectful, they’ll answer “Only you can answer that,” and then how is it that you answer this question for yourself? You go look at the definitions, and then think way too hard about what attraction even is.

I went through that journey too, but at this point, I have little personal investment in defining “attraction”. I’m in a committed monogamous relationship, and at that point, our wants and needs can be privately communicated without reliance on “attraction” language, or even any language that would make sense to anyone but ourselves. To me it’s more like a familiar old riddle, often accompanied by a slightly newer riddle: Does it even matter?

At some point I was persuaded by the constructionist theory of emotion. I read a book about it, and wrote some articles. In this framework, emotions occur on multiple levels. We have physiological states, which are detected and predicted by our brains. These underlying feelings then get interpreted as emotions, often by placing them into emotional categories. Emotional categories are socially constructed, frequently based on social function, so that two entirely different sets of feelings (even as felt by the same person) may be placed into the same category if they fulfill a similar function.

Thus, a feeling might fit more or less into the “attraction” emotional category, but whether it’s actually “attraction” has no objective answer. Attraction isn’t one single feeling felt identically by everyone, it’s a category whose bounds are determined socially.

And how could it be otherwise? If two different people talk about their respective feelings of attraction, neither really knows what the other is feeling. Occasionally, people may talk about feelings, such as turning red or “butterflies in the stomach”, but these feelings are not considered necessary to attraction, nor exclusive to attraction, they are just imperfect guides that often aren’t even mentioned in conversation.

The ironic part is that, thanks to the great deal of thought that ace and aro communities have given to “attraction”, we could say that attraction is a category primarily constructed by ace and aro communities.

This is hard to understand without some broader perspective. In the past I’ve looked at how people normally define “gay” or “homosexual”. The finding was that people provide a variety of different definitions, most of which don’t use the word “attraction” at all, much less any of the more specific categories such as “sexual attraction”. “Attraction” was just one word among many (“like”, “love”, “into”, “sexual preference”, “affection”), used loosely and interchangeably to gesture vaguely at a category that everyone takes for granted. Now, I’d wager that this is less true today, that more and more people would define “gay” in terms of attraction precisely because of influence from ace communities.

It may also be informative to look at the history of the definition of asexuality. From the beginning, there was disagreement on whether asexuality was best defined by sexual attraction, sexual preference, sexual desire, lack of sexuality, low libido, and so on. In my interpretation of events, all of these terms are synonymous (e.g. see Wikipedia describing “sexual desire” as synonymous with both “sexual attraction” and “libido”), but the ace community had a need for more granular emotional categories to describe diverse experiences. The community would collect every pre-existing connotation, scrutinize allosexual accounts, and create whole new models, until each term was widely accepted to have a distinct meaning. But there wasn’t consensus on which of the newly distinguished terms best described asexuality. The attraction-based definition was a compromise, a public-facing tool used by AVEN.

AVEN’s front page definition caused a whole generation of aces to see that definition first, from the moment they learned about asexuality. This is arguably what led to asexual identity prescriptivism and attraction-based essentialism. And now attraction is a popular framework to apply to social interactions that were previously never understood in terms of attraction, such as platonic relationships.

Most discussion of attraction occurs under the guise of “discovering” new aspects of the human experience, but in my view we are creating new emotional categories.

That “attraction” is a socially constructed category doesn’t mean it’s entirely up for grabs. Rather, it is a public category, a conglomeration of all the things that different people with different feelings have said about it. Although, often there isn’t much said about some of the more specific categories, such as “sensual attraction”. And what is said, is communicated through the internet medium, often through text, and sometimes other media.

In Secondlina’s highly influential comic about attraction, sensual attraction is depicted with two people touching each other, hands to chin, and the text refers to “tactile sensuality” and “cuddling”. Note that the emotion is basically defined in terms of its social function, i.e. what you do with it or what you want to do with it. And if you think about it, there’s no way that everyone who talks about sensual attraction is actually talking about the same underlying feeling. Rather, each person who claims to experience sensual attraction is identifying a set of feelings that fulfills the depicted social function. There is no way to know whether my feeling is the same as yours, and given the complicated nature of bodies, every instance of the emotion may be unique.

Thinking about attraction in terms of social function leads in some interesting directions. For instance, suppose I am repulsed by sex. No possible feeling I could have would ever serve the function of causing me to want sex with someone. Suppose that I sometimes find someone who makes me flustered and anxious for their attention, but this instead serves to social function of making me want to be friends with them, because I hate the thought of any physical relationship. Does that imply that I cannot experience sexual attraction, and instead feel some sort of non-physical attraction? That’s certainly a way you could think about it.

On the other hand, attraction may be defined in reference to a social function, but it is not equivalent to that social function. One can speak of an emotional category that suggests a certain social function, but fails to actually fulfill that function. For example, suppose I have a feeling towards a person, which I categorize as sexual attraction based on similarity to past experiences. But I don’t actually want to have sex with the person at all, because I know that’s almost always a bad idea, and I don’t even think about it unless there are specific circumstances in its favor. In other words, I have a feeling that I have associated with a certain function, but it almost never actually fulfills that function for other reasons.

We can also talk about other ways the same social functions may be fulfilled, without classifying it as attraction. For instance, suppose I want a romantic relationship because I desire the stability and support. Classifying that as romantic attraction seems odd, because it seems more like an intellectual reason than an emotional one. Or perhaps I could understand it as romantic attraction after all, because it’s based on my emotional desire for stability and support. Or perhaps it is not romantic attraction, because to the extent it is an emotion, it’s not one that’s directed at any particular person, and it’s one that could be fulfilled equally well by a non-romantic relationship.

People who don’t experience a particular kind of attraction tend to come from different places. I might just never want a particular kind of relationship, and therefore no emotion ever suggests to me that I might seek such a relationship. Or, if I do want a certain kind of relationship, that desire arises from something that doesn’t fit my conception of “attraction”. For example, it might be an intellectual reason, or it might be an emotion that isn’t targeted at anyone in particular.  Or maybe I just feel dissonance with the way other people describe the feeling. Yet another path is to say that this emotional category just isn’t useful to understanding my experiences, so I don’t apply it to my life.

I think one of the reasons attraction-based definitions are so successful, is that they end up being umbrellas for all these different experiences, from “do not want that” to “do not feel that way”. At the same time, I am cognizant of how attraction is just a social construct. I think it’s a bit too restrictive to require everyone to accept that construct and apply it as an interpretive lens to their lives–especially when this often occurs under the fiction that attraction is an essential category of human experience. There comes a point (or many points) where I ask, “But what even is attraction?” And though I may question common frameworks, it stops being a question of deep relevance to my personal identity, and becomes more and more of a philosophical curiosity that stands apart from identity.

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.
This entry was posted in Articles, asexual identity, Language, Modeling. Bookmark the permalink.

8 Responses to What even is attraction? A constructionist view

  1. Thanks for your submission! I’ll try to have to roundup posted by tomorrow night (or by Tuesday, Nov 2, at the latest). And also thank you for this very insightful piece! It might take me a few days to process all of it, but even from my first read through it’s incredibly helpful and has shown me new ways to think about this!

  2. I’m not familiar with Dr. Barrett’s work, but your discussion reminded me of a fascinating story I heard on this podcast about an anthropologist who had heard of an unfamiliar powerful emotion from a remote tribe but couldn’t quite describe or understand it until he felt those strong feelings himself one day and he was able to channel those feelings into an expression of the emotion only because he had witnessed other people doing it. That kind of blew my mind, and the more I think about your article, the more I realize there is a social component to attraction kind of like that. As in, some responses to certain feelings may as well be learned responses, and others more inherent to the individual. We see people around us say they feel a certain kind of attraction and we see them react to it and that tells us how we’re supposed to feel and supposed to react, some times not realizing that inherent individual reactions can be very different.

    • Correction. Just realized, I have heard of Dr. Barrett on a different episode of the same podcast. Had to click around to refresh my memory. But, yes, truly fascinating topic!

  3. ettinacat says:

    I mean, if I say I’m angry, do we really know that what I’m calling anger is the same experience you would describe as anger?

    • Siggy says:

      We don’t know that. In fact, we know that anger is felt and expressed in a variety of different ways, and a lot of reading anger (in both ourselves or others) requires also reading the situation to judge reliably.

    • KaeS says:

      Anger is a really interesting parallel. At least in American culture, we seem to do a lot of work teaching people differences between appropriate and inappropriate anger, that hot-takes motivated by anger are not necessarily the best, how to respectfully communicate anger without resorting to abuse, where are the appropriate situations for using violence to express anger, the different degrees of violence, rituals for practicing violence (such as martial arts sports) that rely on controlling anger, ritual practices for group expression of anger such as protests and punk rock, the relationship between anger and fairness, individualized anger vs. group anger. And these structures and how we teach those structures can change radically from culture to culture.

      On top of that, you can be angry at a person, angry at a theory, angry at social constructions, and angry at an entire class of persons, angry at yourself, even angry at inanimate objects. And, anger is only desirable if it’s considered justified by both violated boundaries and context.

      I experience sexual attraction the same way. “Desire (for) sexual contact” is one of the most intensely regulated emotions in American culture. Everything I’ve described above as cultural rules for anger and violence has parallels for sexual attraction and sexual activity. Sex is so highly regulated that even “deviant” sexuality has its own language and rules. And we do a lot of work to communicate those rules. We have dozens of novels, some of which have received dozens of cinematic adaptations involving good/bad examples of attraction. (Pride and Prejudice comes immediately to mind.)

      And, we talk about sexual attraction not only in terms of people, but also to “types,” similarities of features and personalities, even abstract ideals. Sexual attraction isn’t always desirable. Sometimes (frequently), the response to sexual attraction is to say “heck no, brain” and double-down on personal and social boundaries.

  4. epochryphal says:

    one million snaps. very much dig this discussion. it feels like a lot of what i was trying to get at with that greyness 301 topic list from years ago.

    especially interested in discussions of functionality. the whole “do i want to be *with* them or *be* them” that is an archetypal queer confusion, and what that says about our models. how useful the framework of gender envy has proven.

    and if i am only interested in toy-based sex, and only with kink-compatible people, but do find myself drawn to some folks based on appearances/vibes/energy – is that in the hopes they will match, will be safe enough compatible enough in desired actions? certainly a way to conceptualize it. definitely why i’ve leaned toward “kink attraction + sex only in a kink context” explanation often, personally.

    anyway, i think you’re very much right about the umbrella-for-experience nature of attraction-based definitions. interesting to think about where that umbrella differs from the sort of nonlibidoist + sex-repulsed umbrella of the past.

  5. Pingback: Roundup of Submissions | October 2021 Carnival of Aces | Attraction (#2) – sildarmillion

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