When people talk about attraction, they rarely discuss the idea that you can be attracted to different people in different ways. If you say you’re attracted to someone, most people take that to mean combined romantic and sexual interest. And that, dear readers, is far from the whole story!
One of my biggest stumbling blocks in connecting my own experiences with the asexual and aromantic spectrums was a very limited understanding of attraction. If I enjoyed looking at visually appealing people, if I sometimes felt myself drawn to peoples’ personalities, if I wished for sex and romance, I had to be experiencing sexual and romantic attraction, right? Wrong!
The first thing to remember here is that drive is not the same as attraction. I could’ve had a sex drive so active I wanted it three times a day, and that still wouldn’t have meant I experienced sexual attraction. Attraction is directed at someone; it’s a specific desire to have sex with this person, to go on a date with that person. Drive is just…there. And while I liked the idea of sex and romance in the abstract–part of my drive towards both, in combination with societal expectations–in reality, I had an ongoing history of not feeling the right way about anyone to actually pursue either one.
So, drive =/= attraction. That’s all well and good. But what about my habit of being drawn to peoples’ looks and personality? Well, I have more news for you, friends: there are different kinds of attraction!
- Aesthetic attraction is a pull toward looking at certain people you find visually appealing. A lot of people mistake this for sexual attraction, because hey! You’re looking at someone and thinking they’re attractive! But while aesthetic attraction can occur in tandem with sexual attraction, by itself, it is not sexual in nature. A lot of people describe it like the desire to look at a beautiful painting; for me, it’s more form-driven, and closer to my appreciation of good-looking animals, for instance. I don’t say this to dehumanize people–I just know that the way I appreciate human beauty has a lot to do with bone structure, muscle, and carriage, all things I can enjoy just as much in looking at, for example, a horse. (I do get a little extra enjoyment out of imagining what peoples’ lives might be like, but other than that, the feeling is pretty similar.)
- Platonic attraction is sometimes used to describe a strong desire to form a friendship with a specific person. It’s easily mistaken for romantic attraction, because society tells us that if we really want to spend time with someone, it must be romantic, right? Platonic attraction is sometimes acknowledged as a thing between two people of the same gender (because heteronormativity!), but it’s generally described in demeaning terms like “girl crush” and considered the province of adolescents. In reality, a lot of people of varying backgrounds can (and do) experience platonic attraction. The term for a strong platonic attraction to someone is a squish.
- Romantic attraction plays a big role in most forms of media, and in how people structure their relationships. In brief, it’s the desire to be in a romantic relationship with a specific person or to act in romantic ways toward that person. That might include going on dates, giving gifts, kissing*, holding hands, or whatever else the individual in question codes as “romantic.”Romantic attraction is usually assumed to occur in tandem with sexual attraction. It’s “supposed” to lead people to form society’s prized Relationship To Rule Them All, the romantic-sexual partnership. (Never mind that not everybody wants that kind of relationship, or wants to value it above other kinds!)
- Sensual attraction is the desire to touch someone in a non-sexual way. This could include hand-holding, hugging, kissing*, cuddling, massage, hair-stroking, or any number of other behaviors. Because so many people experience sensual attraction as linked to sexual attraction, it can be difficult to express a desire to engage in these behaviors without others assuming they’ll lead to sexual contact, which is a big problem for many people, especially aces.**
- Sexual attraction is the biggie, the one that most people use to label their orientations, for instance. Basically, sexual attraction is the desire to engage in sexual activity with a specific person. This could include behaviors such as kissing*, strip teases, mutual masturbation, oral sex, intercourse, all kinds of kink***…basically, whatever is sexual for you. Many people experience sexual attraction. in tandem with other forms of attraction, which is part of why it’s difficult for those who don’t experience sexual attraction to realize it. There’s a tendency to believe, if the other bits are there, the sexual component must be, even if you don’t feel it. This ignores the more likely explanation, that if you don’t feel something, it’s probably not there.
So, to conclude, attraction is complicated. Some people might feel all these types of attraction, some might feel none of them, and lots of people are in between. They can occur separately or in combination, which makes things even more interesting! Also, as noted above, you can have a drive toward any of these behaviors without being attracted to anyone, or vice versa. And you can engage in the behaviors without the attraction, for a variety of reasons–including “because it feels good.” That is, in fact, a valid reason. So, gentle readers, go forth and act in ways that make you happy and healthy, with the knowledge that your feelings are real and valid.
*Kissing is variously coded as romantic, sensual, or sexual by individual people. Personally, I’ve only tried it a couple of times and haven’t liked it much, but I haven’t had the chance to give it a go with one of the very few people I’ve been romantically or sexually attracted to.
**Ace=person on the asexual spectrum. I’ll talk more about specific identities in my next post.
***Some people describe their kink as non-sexual. Again, it’s a personal thing.