Societal Conflations of Primary and Secondary Sexual Attraction

A lot of the time, I see people making moral claims and/or just arguing about whether it’s better to be (sexually and/or romantically; the two are usually treated as the same thing) attracted to people based on who they are on the inside, or if it’s ok to have preferences based on appearance.

Often times these conversations get totally gridlocked, and it is pretty clear to me why that is, although the people having them rarely manage to see it. It’s that people think they’re talking about the same thing (usually sexual attraction) when they are in fact talking about two different things: primary and secondary sexual attraction.

Brief definitions: Primary sexual attraction is the kind of sexual attraction that a person might feel for another person more or less immediately after meeting them. My understanding is that it is a visceral response based mainly on superficial (or otherwise immediately recognizable) characteristics of people. I don’t totally know, y’all, because I don’t experience primary sexual attraction, so if anyone wants to help me out in the comments that’d be great.

Secondary sexual attraction is a form of sexual attraction that develops only when a person knows someone really well and has formed an emotional bond with them. It’s based on things like the ways in which those people relate to each other and positive emotions they feel toward one another.

I’m going to go out on bit of a limb here and say that most allosexual people experience both kinds of sexual attraction. The way I think about secondary sexual attraction in an allosexual context is that it’s the thing that allows people to remain attracted to each other over time in long-term relationships, as their bodies inevitably change drastically from however they used to look, and stop having the characteristics that caused the initial primary sexual attraction they may have felt for one another.

My impression is that this sort of thing, over time, can also change the characteristics to which a person is primarily sexually attracted (i.e. if an allosexual person falls for/develops secondary sexual attraction for a person with some characteristic they are not usually primarily sexually attracted, they may find themselves subsequently developing a primary sexual attraction to that characteristic, and responding to it viscerally in the person they are attracted to, and possibly in others.) I’ve seen this in action, for the record; more than one person that I’ve had a long-term sexual relationship has mentioned at some point that they were surprised by how attractive they wound up finding some characteristic in me that they weren’t usually attracted to.

So, secondary sexual attraction is important. And primary sexual attraction is, at least to some extent, and/or at least for some people, malleable.

But, that’s not the same thing as saying the primary sexual attraction is controllable, or that it is fair to moralize about people’s visceral sexual responses to people. I don’t think that most people are capable of completely eliminating their primary sexual urges, nor are they capable of somehow making them egalitarian or whatever the fuck it is that proponents of non-superficial attraction think people should do. You may be able to moralize about someone’s behaviour when they have a visceral sexual attraction to someone but the fact that they experience it (or don’t, for that matter) in response to whatever characteristic they do or do not respond to isn’t in and of itself worthy of judgment. If they use the presence of lack of primary sexual attraction as a measure of other people’s general worth as humans, or are more likely to be friends with or give jobs to people they are viscerally attracted to, that is fucked up and wrong. And that is a real pattern that we see happening to people. But the problem is not inherent to the fact that some (I guess most? this still confuses me to be honest) people do feel this kind of attraction, the problem is with what they do with that fact.

For the record, I also have a *lot* of thoughts about things like people specific preferences for (or against) certain races of people, etc. I do not think these sorts of claims are even remotely benign, and despite what I have said here, I don’t believe that sexual preferences are somehow magically above criticism, but I am going to save further unpacking of that issue for a future post. I simply want to set a foundation here for the idea that I understand that primary sexual attraction exists, and that I don’t believe that it is inherently wrong or less moral than secondary attraction.