sexual attraction

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.

‘Reasons I Should Have Known I Was Asexual’

[This post is part of the November 2015 Carnival of Aces, a monthly blogging carnival centered on asexuality and the asexual spectrum. This month is hosted by (A)sex and the City around the theme ‘reasons I should have known I was asexual’. Check out the previous Carnivals here: https://asexualagenda.wordpress.com/a-carnival-of-aces-masterpost/]

As a demisexual person who only came to that identity in my mid(-to-late)-20s, I would have known I was ace much earlier if I lived in a culture that didn’t talk about sexual attraction as a singular monolithic experience, as if it is the same for everyone. I would have known that my experience of sexual attraction (such as it is) was not generally comparable to the the norm if people, in general, were more willing to stop using the catchall term of “sexual attraction” (or even just “attraction” as it is often even more vaguely called) and to actually break that experience down into the different ways it manifests.

I find it really interesting now to look back on the ways I struggled to frame my experiences around sexuality prior discovering the language of demisexuality (as I did here and here), and just how many times I have since felt motivated to very minutely break my experiences down in ways that deconstruct the usual (non-ace) discourses around attraction (from when I initially “came out” as demisexual, to my repeated attempts to solidify that identity for myself and push back against a culture that leaves no room for the ways I have (and have not) experienced attraction. These ideas are important to me, and useful in so many ways.

I know that there are many valid criticisms to be made of the primary/secondary distinction in sexual attraction, as it doesn’t explain nearly all of the variation in the ways that ace and non-ace people can experience attraction. There are also ways in which the distinctions among sexual, romantic, aesthetic and/or platonic attractions are inherently murky, fuzzy or otherwise forced. None of these categories should be used prescriptively, and these boxes are porous and their distinctions and boundaries are fluid and open to interpretation (as so many categories are).

But I also know that having language that allowed me to break down my own experiences in these ways and see them in a new light was revelatory and allowed me to gain a better understanding of myself and the ways I relate to other people, and why my attempts to force myself to follow standard narrative arcs around attraction to other people simply didn’t work and left me anxious and miserable. And I know I’m not the only person who felt that way upon stumbling into ace circles and learning new ways to talk about these things.

Even though some of these categories are subjective and different people use them in somewhat different ways, it is still all less confusing and more open to nuanced conversations then simply and opaquely stuffing all of these varied and complex things under the singular category of “attraction”, and pretending we all know what that means. Non-ace folks: I honestly don’t know what y’all mean when you do that, especially when you so often seem to be switching between different interpretations without even realizing (let alone acknowledging) that you’re doing it.

I would have understood my ace-ness much earlier if more people took a more nuanced perspective on how sexuality and attraction works.

And, more importantly, I really should have known I was ace much earlier. Because we should, societally, strive to bring more nuance to these discussions, around attraction and desire and sexuality generally. I think that everyone would benefit from the concepts and tools the have been developed in the ace community for talking about these things.

Ways of breaking down different types of attraction, and the different bases for those attraction (primary/secondary attractions, or the framing I prefer which considers whether the attraction is primarily based on physical characteristics or on emotional affinity, or whatever else) are useful in conversation about how non-ace people experience attraction, in the never-ending debates about sexual preferences and whether or not they are mutable, and whether racism and anti-trans bigotries are somehow acceptable when they manifest in sexual preferences.

I would like to see nuanced discussions of how non-ace attractions evolve over the course of long-term relationships, as people’s bodies drastically change with age, into things their partners would not have initially been attracted to.

I would like to see so many different discussion that are impossible without the concepts created by ace folks of all kinds.

I should have known I was asexual because we should all have known that attraction is a complicated and many-faceted thing that manifests in different ways for different people (and in different ways even within any individual’s experience) and feels different for different people, in ways that go well beyond base-line sexual preferences and orientations.

Brief Thought: Demisexuality and Hormonal Birth Control

Do you ever have a moment where two completely unrelated things in your suddenly collide in your brain and make you see something you
hadn’t before? Yeah, that happened to me last week.

I was talking to a friend about hormonal birth control, which I’ve been on in various (though all pill) forms for the last decade, with one exception. I went off the pill for about three or four months a couple of years ago, basically just because I had been on it for so long I had no sense of what my base-line might even be if I wanted to judge whether it was having any impact on me (beyond, like, preventing ovulation etc.)

The things I was watching out for included:

  • changes in libido, and also in my physical sexual responses
  • changes in who I found attractive (because apparently this can change drastically?)
  • general changes in mood, depression symptoms, etc.

Long story short, there was no noticeable impact on any of things for me off the pill vs. on it, and so I went back on and have continued on my merry way ever since.

But I was specifically asked the other day about whether it had an impact on my experience of attraction toward other people, because the person I was talking had found it completely changed the way they had felt about their partner at the time, I think?

It wasn’t until quite a bit later that I realized that it is seriously possible that the fact that the pill doesn’t affect me in this way may be related to me being demisexual? Because I very much get the sense that the thing the pill can change are what features cause primary sexual attraction to happen for a person, and since I don’t experience primary sexual attraction in the first place, my experience of it didn’t change.

Like, whoa. Of course.

Demisexuality: debunking a common misconception

So, sometimes this thing happens when demisexuality gets talked about, where someone will say something along the lines of “well, that’s just normal; most people don’t want to have sex with people they just met!”

Which, I mean, this is true for many people, for sure! I can’t say whether it is most or not, but it is certainly a large number of people! The thing is though, that demisexuality is not just about whether or not you will feel up for having sex with new people – it’s about whether you feel any sexual attraction for them *at all* without knowing them well/forming an emotional connection.

There are, in fact, a lot of reasons why someone might feel a basic level of physical sexual attraction to someone, but still not want to have sex with them. Particularly for women or members of any marginalized group, trust is incredibly important to ensure one’s physical and emotional safety, and often the level of trust required to feel safe to have sex with someone can require a strong emotional bond, much like that which demisexuals require to feel attraction.

So, for instance, if Person A is sexually attracted to Person B, Person A may not know for sure whether that attraction means they want to have sex with Person B until they know more about them. Because physical sexual attraction isn’t the only or even necessarily the most important part of the equation, for lots of people, for lots of reasons.

But I don’t think that’s the same thing as not being attracted to the person until you get to know them. And the thing that generally defines demisexuality as I understand it is the complete lack of this initial sort of physically-based sexual attraction, and not simply taking time to decide whether to act on that attraction.

I’m not saying any of this to try to invalidate anyone’s identity, either. If the way your sexuality works resembles what I’ve described above, and it is useful to you in any way to call yourself demi, please by all means do!

I just think that it is very important to make it clear that that is not all the demisexuality implies, and that the demisexual experience is very often extremely different from the way most people experience sexual attraction.

The thing is that for me, until I reach a point at which I have formed a bond with a person and suddenly all the lights of “want to have sex with this person” go on in my head, I have literally no idea whether I could ever possibly want to have sex with that person. I can’t tell you whether they are attractive to me based on what they look like, because that is pretty much irrelevant to me, I think?

There are, of course, aspects of people’s *chosen* personal presentation (make-up, hair, clothes, etc. – things that carry information about personality/interests/aesthetic preferences) that will make me more likely to want to get to know them, or make me think there’s a possibility of something there.

If I’m being totally honest, though, those appearance-based hunches rarely actually go anywhere; the sexual connections I have formed seem to have had no real correlation with whether or not I had an initial aesthetic attraction to a person.

To be totally clear, I can absolutely identify whether people are conventionally attractive in accordance with the standards of the culture I grew up in, and I’ve definitely developed certain aesthetic preferences from being immersed in that culture; it’s just that none of that has any impact on whether I have sexual feelings about anyone ever.

And I mean, I guess I’m not really sure if my experience is all that different from a majority of people. I know it is significantly different from the conception of sexuality and sexual attraction portrayed in the media, though I also know to take that with a grain of salt.

I know that in adolescence I found myself totally at a loss when friends would comment on other people’s “cute butts” or whatever, because it never occurred to me to be looking at people’s butts, and I never found the spark of any kind of attraction there when I tried (though I am extremely fond of the butts of the people I’m into, that comes along with the development of attraction, and not before).

And that could have just been me being a late bloomer, I guess, except I never grew out of it, and I am quite confident that I have bloomed as a sexual being by this point, so.

That’s what demisexuality is like for me, anyway.

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?