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.

Guest Post! An open letter to men who date women

[Hey, remember how I used to talk about feminism? Maybe one day I’ll get back into that. In the meantime, though, here is a guest post by Spice, who I’m hoping might actually be a recurring guest blogger here! Because, y’know, I am a lazy blogger and I like it when other people do the writing for me.]

An Open Letter:

I am a woman. I am also a feminist. A feminist who happens to find herself mostly attracted to straight cis men. And, this is cool. Cis men can be awesome! Especially when they are also feminists.

And yet. And yet, while we live in a society that is finally starting, in bits and pieces, to unpack sexism, and while I date men who are either feminists or want to be, and while these men tend to be intelligent, sensitive people with good intuitions, relationships are still a confusing thing to navigate.

Because there are mixed messages. How are we dividing relationship responsibilities? Is it heteronormative? If it is, is that okay? And what often happens is that guys – particularly those with feminist sensibilities – worry about doing anything that is sexist. And this is understandable. And great! And also, at times, deeply frustrating. Sorting what is ok from what isn’t is already pretty hard when you know what it’s like to be a woman. I also think that what’s ok and what isn’t varies from relationship to relationship, and person to person. And so one thing I really want to say is that we should probably just get more used to talking this shit out, instead of avoiding things or guessing or making assumptions or whatever.

But, I also want to put something out there, something that is based on my own lived experience. And while this probably won’t represent women *everywhere* (because women are not a monolith) I have had enough positive feedback from women regarding what I’m about to write about that I am pretty confident that this will be pretty useful for at least some of us.

In my first relationship I ever had, I had an argument with my boyfriend about the fact that he never told me he thought I was beautiful. “Of course I think that. But I shouldn’t have to say it. I wouldn’t be dating you if I didn’t think so,” he claimed. He also didn’t feel comfortable saying those things, he said. It wasn’t his style.

I have such compassion for my younger self, because looking back, I knew he was wrong, but I couldn’t for the life of me articulate to him what was wrong with what he was saying. But since then, I’ve come across similar tendencies in my own partners and in those of my friends, and so this is my attempt to write a public service announcement.

“But!” You might be thinking. “But reducing women to their looks is bad right? We don’t want to value people just because they are attractive. I don’t want to offend my girlfriend or feminism.”

And yeah. I get it. I get where this impulse is coming from. And look. Sexism is a thing. Women’s value being reduced to their appearance is a thing. And, there are some seriously fucked up beliefs that help to form it. And these are beliefs that I, and you, and many other people have consciously tried to undo. And consciously unpacking them is one way of attacking them, and goes some way to undoing the problem, but it can’t possibly fix it entirely. And this is in part because pretty much since we were born, we have been sent fucked up messages. As a woman, I have been sent messages about what being a woman means, how one’s appearance forms a huge part of that, and how I should be doing it. I am sent these messages all the time, every day. These messages are ubiquitous and pervasive and come from so, so many directions: advertising, movies, television shows, billboards, window displays, cosmetics stores, magazines, clothing stores, the way women talk about themselves, the woman behind me in the coffee shop right now moralizing about her work out habits, my friends on facebook talking about how they hate their bodies, how women police other women…. just so, so many aesthetic things that permeate everything.

Because capitalism is actively invested in maintaining a lot of sexist beliefs. It’s how it makes a LOT of its money. As long as women keep feeling badly about themselves, then women will keep buying things to try to fill in their perceived inadequacies. Now, in general, ads often abuse ideas about ‘dreams’ and ‘happiness’, so like, ‘hey buy this and you will actually feel happy!’ etc. They try to give you a sense of some lack in your life that needs to be filled.

But saying that someone doesn’t *have* something is very different, I think, from being the target of ‘hey, you should *be* this, but you aren’t are you? Well, this product will help solve your failings!’ – because the latter thing is attacking not just how we feel, but who we *are*, and insinuating that there’s this ideal that we’re not living up to, and who we are will always, no matter what, be tied to how we match up (or don’t match up, realistically speaking) to that ideal. And once that gets instilled in women – and it does – then that is an easy thing to prey upon, and to manipulate. And so I spend most days putting a lot of energy into fighting it. Into thinking: no, no I don’t believe this. I will not allow my sense of self to be reduced to this, because this is bullshit. At least, I do that when I realize that I’m thinking about it, which sometimes (often?) I don’t.

And I think I do a pretty good job, quite frankly. And my self-esteem is also related to other things, like the fact that I’m funny and interesting, that I am good at teaching and that my own work is going well, and I sometimes write things people think are interesting and fun to read. My friends and family reinforce positive reflections of myself to me. I think of myself as a confident person.

And that is an achievement. It isn’t easy or straightforward to get that. But general confidence is not the same thing as confidence within a relationship. You can be extremely confident but that doesn’t mean that everyone is going to find you attractive, or like you. And needing that security within the context of a romantic/sexual relationship isn’t weak, or needy. It actually makes a whole lot of sense.

Certainly, acquiring a general sense of self-confidence as a woman is elusive. I’ve spent *my entire life* hearing/seeing/being told that the most important thing I can contribute to the world is being attractive and that I should place a huge part of my self-worth on that. And that being attractive is really important because it will make men want to sleep with you and by the way if men don’t want to sleep with you all the time you must be doing something wrong because that’s basically how men are wired, etc. (Even though… apparently you also have to work really hard at making them want to sleep with you by wearing makeup and the right clothes and and and?) And one major way to gauge your value, we are told, is via male desire. The importance of this cannot be overstated, because it has gone towards who I have built myself to be as a person, for better or worse. I can’t just decide to go back in and extract those pieces of myself because now I realize how fucked up those beliefs are. It doesn’t work like that. None of us is bigger than our culture.

And then I start having real relationships with real people (amazing!) and then I realize that these things are not true: my entire value is not based on my attractiveness, that my attractiveness is not entirely based on my physical appearance, and that men don’t want to have sex all the time. And sometimes I will want to have sex more than my partners do. And it’s confusing and I have to recalibrate how I’m judging my sense of self and desirability in a relationship and that is more work.

(And this is a great example of why sexism hurts men too, because all of a sudden a bunch of women are like, what do you mean you don’t want to have sex all the time, what’s wrong with me that you don’t? And the men are all confused, like, of course there’s nothing wrong with you, what is happening? And then the men are upset and confused and sad because women have these weird expectations and why would they have those expectations if they weren’t reasonable?)

And I know that many of these messages are wildly inaccurate. And so there is a programme in my brain devoted to fending off this tide of bullshit, and that is just so damn wearying. And I manage to keep my shit together, but then sometimes things leak out of the cracks in the dam that I build up against it. I’m *already* doing the work of constantly reminding myself of the fact that of course I’m attractive even though I don’t live up to (and couldn’t possibly live up to) all of these standards. And then, then to hear men express frustration with the fact that there’s so much pressure on them to reinforce women’s self esteem because sometimes we would like to be told that we’re beautiful? That somehow that is onerous? That we should just know that we’re attractive because otherwise they wouldn’t be dating us?

Are you kidding me? No. Just no. All of the No’s to that.

Despite the pervasive cultural voices telling me that I’m not good enough, and my own internalization of that, I’m supposed to just brush all that aside like it doesn’t matter very much and somehow choose to feel confident anyways? No. I need more than that. I deserve more than that. I cannot possibly reinforce this all for myself, I have no idea how I would do that. I have no idea how anyone would do that. And no one should have to.
Because our sense of ourselves is not divorced from our surroundings. It’s not as simple as just deciding to see myself in a certain way from inside a vacuum. And I take myself to be a pretty confident person, but I’m not a superhero. I cannot bootstrap myself up. I am a human being, who needs to hear that she is beautiful and desirable and admired and loved from the people around me. And again there is a distinction between how I feel about myself generally, and how I feel within the context of a relationship. You can be confident and still need positive feedback from your partner. I don’t think those two things are mutually exclusive. In fact it’s pretty damn normal. Confidence doesn’t come from nowhere.

So, compliment your girlfriend if she wants you to. Don’t make her deduce that you desire her. Don’t cop out by saying it’s ‘not your style.’ Don’t make her feel like it’s out of line with ‘feminism’ for her to want that. Or that you feel ‘weird’ or ‘awkward’. This isn’t hard, it basically means taking the things you think anyway and saying them out loud. And isn’t the point to make each other feel loved and desired and safe and comfortable? We’re on the same team here, so let’s do what we can to help each other feel happy and loved.