Attraction, sex, and gender: what’s going on here?

As a queer person of the omnisexual variety (I’m attracted to people of many different genders), the nature of attraction for people who identify as straight, lesbian, or gay is a bit of a conundrum for me. The discussion that follows is my attempt to parse and understand the experience of what, for the sake of ease, I’m going to call ‘monosexuality’ here (though I in way mean to imply that the sexuality of straight and homosexual folks is in any way monotonous, or uniform.)

My major questions are: Does monosexuality imply that one is attracted to people of a single gender, or people of a single sex? And what qualities of gender and sex are required to make a person fall into the sex/gender category to which a monosexual is attracted? I suspect this varies greatly from person-to-person, actually, but I still want to explore some of the configurations this might take.

For starters, as a nonbinary/genderqueer person who is generally read as female, it happens straight-identified men often find my attractive. Now, there’s a lot of things going on here, of course, and sometimes simply being informed of my gender identity is enough to scare a guy off, other times, it isn’t. And I want to be the first to say that I don’t think this should in any challenge their conception of their sexuality as straight. The fact that I do not identify as a member of the group to which they purport to be exclusively attracted doesn’t really matter to me.

The thing is that, of course, no monosexual person is attracted to all members of the same (or opposite) sex, as the case may be. Each monosexual person is attracted only to some subset of that group. And the alchemy by which such attraction is produced is the result of the interactions of any number of difficult-to-define qualities encompassing appearance, personality, and many other factors. The way I conceptualize it, when someone identifies as straight, lesbian, or gay, what that means is that the combination of qualities to which they are attracted is somehow tied to the sex (and/or gender) of the person in question. And it is simply possible that I possess whatever inherently necessary quality that is connoted in their sexual identity, without actually having to be a member of the group that contains the overwhelming majority of people to which they are attracted.

But then, what baffles me is what that inherently necessary quality may be. Because I’m not actually certain that there is a quality that can be identified that differentiates universally between men and women. Chalking it up to being attracted to primarily masculine or feminine traits certainly doesn’t cut it: there’s plenty of lesbian-identified women who are primarily attracted to masculine-presenting women, but whose interest in masculinity does not extend to include men. There are also straight men who are more attracted to androgynous or masculine women, and straight women who are primarily attracted to androgynous or feminine men. And the are people of sexual orientations who find themselves attracted to gender-benders.

So, is the difference simply sex-based? Does it come down to genitals? I mean, I know that base-level attraction has nothing at all to do with genitals, since most people establish some level of physical attraction long before clothes are removed or genitals are discussed. I also know that discovering that a person’s genitals are different from the ones that were expected can signify an end of attraction for some people.

Or, rather, I suspect it ends the desire to have sex, but not the attraction that was already felt. I suspect that what happens here is that whatever sexual fantasies a monosexual person may have been having about a person to which they were attracted are disrupted when they realize that whatever they had been picturing might not be a physical possibility, and lacking a model for what they might do with that person instead, default to not fantasizing sexually about them any more.

This tends to be the way that such negative reactions to trans folks are conceptualized by those who view them as symptoms as anti-trans bigotry, anyway. But I don’t really think it’s necessarily quite that simple. I do think that for some people, even monosexual ones, genitals needn’t be a deal-breaker. In fact, I know there are some monosexually-identified people who have relationships with Trans* folks who have their ‘original plumbing’, so this can’t be the issue in its entirety. Or at least, not for everyone.

Because really, I’m sure that there is endless diversity in the way that monosexual attraction functions, and what causes that monosexual limitation on attraction to be such as it is. But, and you’ll have to excuse me if this sounds ignorant, or as if I am disrespecting anyone’s identity or self-description, I have yet to find a way of conceptualizing monosexual orientations that doesn’t seem like it’s really just an approximation.

Like, a woman identifying as a lesbian might mean “I’m attracted to feminine people,” though we know this often isn’t what it means, and I don’t see why such an orientation would exclude feminine men. Or they could mean “I’m attracted to people who identify as women,” which, well, I have no idea what that means, since there isn’t a single quality that defines that group of people, or even that differentiates them from the group of people who identify as men, other than their self-identification. Which brings me back to, “I’m attracted to people with vaginas.” Which, again, we know that the primary basis of attraction can, at best, be predicated on an assumption about a person’s genitals, so I don’t get this delineation, either. Even any combination of these statements leaves holes. So I simply don’t understand what it means for someone to only be attracted to one sex. I don’t understand where the delineation of the group of potential partners gets places, and by what mechanism.

Like, lots of straight dudes are really heavily attracted to and invested in having really feminine partners. They value and respond to feminine qualities in the women they date. But even as I respect and comprehend that fact, I don’t understand why all of the attraction would go out the window if they discovered that a person possessing all of the valued feminine qualities was, in fact, a man. What if they were a feminine-presenting person who was assigned female at birth (i.e. had a vagina), but identified as male? Or a person of whatever gender identity, who was extremely feminine-presenting, but who had a penis?

What makes the difference here? Is it really the penis? And if so, why? What changes in your attraction when you learn that someone’s genitals are different than you had imagined? I’m really curious to hear from anyone who’s had this kind of experience. Or from anyone who has gone through any sort of evolution in sexual identity, and seriously given critical thought to the basis of their attractions. I know a lot of it may very well be “Well that’s just how it works for me. I don’t know exactly why, but I know in my gut that this is how it is.” But I’m curious if there’s really something I’m missing that would make me able to empathize with the experience of monosexuality.

I’m seriously confused about this. And please don’t take this to mean that I believe that everyone is secretly bisexual/omnisexual. I simply don’t understand how monosexuality works, and I’d like to try to. So if anyone can offer me some insight, it’d be greatly appreciated.

So monosexuals: how do you define the boundaries of the sex to which you are attracted, and what qualities are the essential ones? Can you explain what might happen if you found someone of a sex to which you are not attracted, but who otherwise possessed all of the qualities you would normally consider essential? What makes the difference? Is it even knowable?

10 comments

  1. This is really thought-provoking! I’m a hetero cis woman, and while I’ve thought about why exactly I’m not attracted to people who identify as women, I’ve never really come to a conclusion.

    In a nutshell, I find women attractive, but I can’t see myself having sex with them. That may be my socialization talking, of course, it’s terribly hard to separate it from the rest of me.

    I think it comes down to the intersection of genitals and gender-identification. If I met a female-identified person with a penis I would likely not be sexually attracted to her (although I would in all likelihood think she was attractive). Same thing for a male-identified person with a vagina.

    YMMV, of course. I speak only for myself, and I apologize if anything I said is hurtful, or if my choice of words isn’t okay. Let me know, please! I’m still learning :)

    1. Thanks so much for replying! This is one of those topics that I just have no personal experience to jump off from, and I’m so fascinated to hear how people experience this stuff.

      If I can ask, in your hypothetical situations with an (otherwise attractive) woman with a penis an a man with a vagina, do you think you just naturally somehow not be sexually attracted to them, or is it that finding out about their genitals would change how you felt about them? (This sounds like kind of a charged question, but I honestly ask it out of sheer curiosity.)

      1. Ask away! This is a fascinating topic, and I’m quite curious about it myself.

        I don’t think I would be sexually attracted to any woman-identified person, whether she had a penis or not. On the one hand I want to say that may be my upbringing and socialisation, but on the other I know many queer/lesbian/gay people say they ‘always knew’ they weren’t attracted to whoever the world says they should have seen as attractive. And as far as I know, I’ve ‘always known’ I’m only sexually attracted to men.

        [Additionally, I’m rather wary of placing too much emphasis on socialisation, because I know anti-LGBTQ people argue that you can ‘learn’, and therefore ‘unlearn’, being gay. Which is a load of bollocks.]

        Drawing on what Kerplunk said below about ambiguity, I think (for myself, anyway) it means that despite my best efforts, I still view the way in terms of a gender binary. I’ve managed to mostly eliminate that from my conscious speech and actions. For example, since I’ve realized queer people exist (I mean no offense, I had a fairly sheltered childhood) I try not to assume how people identify wrt their sexuality or gender.

        But the binary is still there for me, somewhere. So if a man I may otherwise want to have sex with reveals he has a vagina, I would be put off because in my mind, I can only be attracted to men-with-a-penis, and he does not fit into that gender binary. And vaginas do turn me off. I wouldn’t really know what to do with one- I know I have one, and I know what gets me going, but I’d struggle with the practical application of that knowledge on someone else.

        I realise that’s a very limiting (and not entirely rational) way of seeing things. But it’s hard to explain that to my hindbrain.

  2. Like the previous commenter, I in no way wish to offend or be hurtful.

    I think that one of the reasons for transphobia (not that I am excusing it or attempting to offer any kind of excuse) is that some people (many people? a few people?) are uncomfortable with ambiguity. That feeling is magnified when it comes to the possibility of having an intimate encounter (by that I mean having sex), I think because being intimate is always a little scary: it is a situation in which one opens oneself up and makes oneself emotionally vulnerable, so comfort level is an issue. As I said, I am attempting to offer an explanation and not try to excuse why some people (including myself) may not be open to having a sexual relationship with someone whose gender is not cis.

    As to why a cisgender hetero or gay person may not be be open to a relationship with another cisgender person regardless of their sex? I think that may also come down to expectations, and to not feeling comfortable enough to venture into what one is not used to, or long ago came to consider as their personal norm, whether that is right or not.

    But, in the end, I think attraction is somewhat mysterious and is probably not predicated on particular parameters. I am a hetero cis woman, and I don’t have any kind of checklist for what I am looking for in a man in order to feel attracted to him. I’m attracted to some men and not others. I don’t know why. Women don’t interest me as sexual partners. Again, I don’t know why. I’ll admit that the idea of being intimate with a woman makes me uncomfortable, so it might be due to expectations that I internalized when I was growing up, and which may not be right or fair, but which nevertheless exist.

    I hope that these thoughts were helpful and I very much hope that they are not offensive. I am trying to own up to my own prejudices. I don’t know that I could become more open. My experience (and by that I mean how I experience it) is that the feeling that wells up when someone is attractive to me is not something that I direct or choose.

    1. Your point about discomfort with ambiguity, and how that can knock up against the fact that sex is a vulnerable, intimate thing, is interesting. I’m not sure why you necessarily define, for instance, a man who has a vagina as ambiguous, though. If the person is upfront about it, it’s pretty unambiguous – and honestly, trans folks are more likely to be upfront than cis folks, who don’t as often feel the need to negotiate or discuss things prior to getting frisky. I suspect that you’re really talking about unfamiliarity rather than ambiguity?

      And yeah, I totally sympathize with the “Well, I’m attracted to some people but not to others. And I can definitely tell the difference, but I have no idea why” problem. It’s why I knew I was asking a difficult question. Because I can’t tell you what makes me attracted to some people and not to others. But that’s also why I’m so confused by the fact that some people (most people, really), can unambiguously state that they simply aren’t attracted to members of the same (or opposite) sex (and/or gender) as them.

      And my real curiosity is really about how people define and delimit that section of society to which they are definitely not attracted – I’m not sure whether it’s about sex or about gender (and I suspect that it varies from person-to-person, but I’m not sure). Please don’t feel like I’m judging you or that I think it’s wrong for you to not want to have sex with women. I totally believe that simply may be the case for you.

      What I really want to know about, is how you operationalize “women” with respect to your sexuality. Are you not attracted to feminine people at all, or do feminine men sometimes turn you on? (And, as a corollary, how do you feel about masculine-presenting women?) Are you turned off by vaginas (i.e. what about a super-attractive dude who happens to have a vagina? I guess you mentioned discomfort here, and I get that, because there’s not really existing cultural scripts for how a sexual encounter of this type should go, but I wonder if that would make you stop being attracted to them, or if it would just make you decide not to follow up on your attraction.)

      I really don’t mean to be intrusive here, and you (obviously) don’t need to tell me any of this. I’m just curious as to what you mean when you say women don’t interest you as sexual partners? How do you define women in this context?

      1. I don’t mean to leave you hanging. I have wanted to reply but felt that I might unwittingly give offense when none is intended. I’m not sure if “ambiguity” was the right word to use (especially not in the sense of being deceitful!). I think that while intellectually it’s easy for me to understand that someone who identifies as a man is a man regardless of his physical characteristics, the more simplistic part of my brain that determines sexual attraction gets hung up on the physical characteristics. That’s why, in the context of sexual attractiveness, it’s hard for me to define “women” or “men” in any other than the most conventional and obtuse way possible. I think that a super-attractive dude with a vagina would just leave that part of me confused, and I would be unable to sort out my feelings enough to determine whether I found him attractive or not.

        I don’t know if you are familiar with the fashion model Andrej Pejic. He has a penis (as far as I know), doesn’t have breasts, identifies as a man, grooms and dresses as a very fashionable and glamorous woman, appears to be a woman to a casual passer-by, and models in runway shows for both men’s and women’s fashions. Although he identifies as a man, has man-parts, and is exceptionally beautiful, I don’t feel attracted to him, because he appears to be a woman. (Not that I would have any chance with him!)

        On the other hand, I remember the girlfriend of a female friend, whom I knew many years ago, who was a cute, boyish woman, with very short bleached-blond hair and Buddy Holly glasses, and I thought she was quite attractive. I don’t think that, given the chance, I would have had sex with her, but I still remember how cute she was.

        So, I don’t think I have a response that can answer your questions satisfactorily. All I can seem to come up with is that attraction is mysterious, and that, apparently, it can be quite insensitive! I’m not sure if it’s possible to learn to direct one’s attraction so that it is more inclusive and does not come off as so intolerant and judgmental. Perhaps it’s possible and it’s just a personal failing on my part that I have not been able to do that. (I have been in a long-term relationship for many years, so it would be academic in my case, but still!)

        1. Hey, no worries! And thank you for taking the time to reply. I totally get that it’s a tough question, as I say, because I know that attraction in general is a hard thing to explain. I, too, wonder whether some of the limitations on people’s attraction stems from the fact that some otherwise attractive people don’t fit into the sexual narratives we grow up with, but I don’t know whether that’s the case or not.

          I’m a particularly terrible judge of the question, because I’m the flip-side of that; I am more interested in having sex with people whose gender identities or expressions (combined with mine) mean that there aren’t any expectations, and there can’t be any, so we get to write our own “right way” to have sex :P – it means things get talked abut explicitly and there aren’t any assumptions, which makes me way more comfortable, because I hate it when people assume things about me (and many of the existing hetero assumptions about sex don’t work for me – and not just for the obvious reasons).

          I do really appreciate you taking the time to ruminate on this stuff – I know it’s not a simple question, and I appreciate all the data I can get!

  3. I realize it’s been a while since you posed these questions and that you might not be watching for responses from it still but I thought I’d respond. I’m a quirky case. I’m a cis woman who identifies as a lesbian but I currently have a boyfriend. Some back story: I came out when I was 15 and hadn’t experienced any kind of attraction to men before I met the guy who would become my boyfriend. I still have not been attracted to any man besides him in the three years we’ve been together (we’re poly and I date women too).

    You know how in The Wizard of Oz everything starts off in black and white and then becomes colorful in Oz? For me, when it comes to attraction, it’s like living in the black and white world where men and masculine presenting people are all black and white. Feminine men and feminine presenting people are in sepia, they stand out more than average. Women, especially feminine women, are in technicolor, they pop out something fierce and draw my attention every time. Of course, I’m not attracted to all women or even all feminine presenting women but they catch my eye the most and they’re the only ones that I’m attracted to beyond, “oh that person is nice to look at”.

    I agree with another commenter, as beautiful as Andrej Pejic is I don’t think I could date him or be sexual with him because he’s a man. (to continue the Wizard of Oz, black and white versus technicolor analogy, my boyfriend who is not feminine or woman identified at all but who is staunchly feminist started out being a washed out color image but then sharpened and brightened up to be technicolor the more I got to know him) I know and like a lot of men but none of them are attractive to me like women (and my boyfriend). I’m not sure why. Part of it does have to do with bodies, I like women who are around my own height, with secondary sex characteristics that suggest an endocrine system dominated by estrogen, dislike lots of body hair and facial hair, strongly prefer vaginas, etc. But I also know some genderqueers who have these traits and I’m not attracted to them. Heck, I don’t even know why I’m attracted to some women and not others. I’m still learning about how to acknowledge my attractions without accidentally being cissexist or transphobic, if you notice any of that in my writing please feel free to let me know.

    1. Oh my goodness, thanks so much for taking the time to reply to this. Your response is really thoughtful, and I think it makes more sense to me than most other ways of framing attraction have. I’m going to have to let the new info settle in my brain before I can form any more substantial thoughts about it, though :P

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