Exploring Attractions: Part 8 – Beyond Attraction

As explained in the introductory post for the series, I started writing this because I think that (at least for me personally) attraction plays a pivotal role in what motivates me to get to know somebody and in what context. Physical attraction, while I do experience it, is not as much a motivating factor as other kinds of attractions. Emotional attraction, while widely recognized, is a concept I can’t fully grasp, mostly because I can’t relate to the concepts classified under it (romantic, platonic, and alterous). But folks in the ace and aro communities have defined a whole host of other attractions that I found useful to explore. I took the liberty to tweak the definitions of some of these and introduce some of my own. In this series, I covered mental attraction (which includes psychological, intellectual, and spiritual attraction), social or interpersonal attraction, familial attraction (including partnership, parental, and approval attraction). I also discussed how I can understand emotional attraction best if I think about limerent and affectional attractions as the components. I should note that this is not a comprehensive list. I am not aware of all the different kinds of attraction currently defined. And I am sure more will be defined in the future. I also am aware everyone uses and relates to attraction terminology in different ways.

I know that in this whole series I’ve had a bit of an “attraction fixation”, but that was because I personally found attraction a useful concept in understanding myself. But I do not think exploring attraction is sufficient in trying to understand myself, nor do I think attraction is the sole determinant of orientation. I’m not sure how to think about “orientation” as a broader term. Coyote has described 5 norms of how to think about this. I had started out thinking of orientation as composite sexual (because that is how society at large talks about it). After I discovered romantic orientation, I began to think about it as a RO-SO dyad. And then after learning about other kinds of attractions, I started thinking of it as orientation by axis, and I presented orientation on my first post on the topic as an “orientation matrix”. If you visit that post and scroll down to the matrix, you’ll see that (1) it is consistent with what I’ve described over the course of this series, but (2) it lacks so much nuance and context.

The trouble with orientation matrices or attraction layer cakes or relationship webs (or the purple-red scale of attraction or even the genderbread person) are that they are reductive by nature. There is of course value in reduction; reduction is, after all, necessary for any model; however, any single model cannot capture the entire breadth and depth of an individual’s experience. A model can only shed insights on certain shared characteristics within a population. So, as I continue to explore myself, it is worth thinking about all sorts of models that are out there.

I saw a quote by Ela Pryzbylo in this post by Em that raises a great question:

Is asexuality really reducible to an absence of sexual attraction? What is lost when we hinge asexuality, as well as other sexual orientations, to the mechanism of “attraction”? What is the relationship at play between attracting and relating, attracting and desire, attracting and sex?

Ela Pryzbylo in Asexual Erotics: Intimate Readings of Compulsory Sexuality

I don’t have an answer to these questions, but I will at least briefly discuss a few other concepts that could be useful to explore:

Academic Models of Orientation

The ones I’m familiar with are, the Kinsey Scale (which I knew about long before I knew I was ace), the Storms Model, and the Kline Sexuality Grid. These have all been useful visual guides, and the KSG has been more helpful than others, but they are also very focused on sexual orientation. These models are made to help classify people based on with whom they want to (or potentially want to) have sex. The KSG is the only one that makes a reference to emotional and social preferences, lifestyle, and identification. While these feel more rigorous than the other informal models (purple-red scale of attraction, attraction layer cake, the genderbread person), they are still somewhat reductive. If we take the time to examine all the models though, we’ll see that each one has something new to add, reminding us that no one model captures everything.

Bonding and Attachment

Bonding and attachment follow naturally from attraction. It can be conceptualized as something like this: attraction can draw one person to another, after which they may engage in a bonding process that may result in an attachment.

In sociology literature, much attention is paid to maternal bonding, paternal bonding, and pair bonding; but if you go into it, you can come up with several classifications of bonding that will describe various types of human interactions. Many of these would correspond with the different types of attractions. For instance, I use the term “familial bond” to describe the bond I share with family and relatives, “intellectual bond” to describe relationships with certain friends with whom I have a debate-and-discourse relationship, and even “emotional bond” to describe the relationship with people with whom I’m very close.

In psychology literature, much attention is paid to attachment theory, which you will very likely hear about from any behavioral therapist. I’d like to think I have a secure attachment style, but then again, attachment theory is practically usually only applied to traditional romantic relationships. If it were studied more in other contexts, I might find it more useful. For example, I think when I was going through the worst of my depression, I had developed an “anxious preoccupied” style of attachment with my parents whereas it had always been secure previously.

Regardless, in my post about emotional attraction, I had explained that although I have difficulty articulating the experience emotional attraction, I can articulate how I experience an emotional bond or an emotional attachment. When I had first learned about emotional attraction, it had made more intuitive sense because I had actually conflated these concepts and had thought of emotional attraction as having an emotional bond or emotional attachment with someone.

I’m not sure how useful it is to apply other attraction language to attachment, like “psychological attachment” or “interpersonal attachment” or “limerent attachment” or “affectional attachment”, but I think it should be theoretically possible.

Desire and Libido

There is this really great video by sex educator Hannah Whitton explaining the difference between sexual attraction, desire, and arousal. I know people tend to conflate all of these concepts because most people assume that my asexuality means I have very low to no libido. (Which is actually true in my case, and for many years I had affirmed that belief of theirs because I had conflated the terms myself and was unaware that aegosexuals existed.) A good follow-up to the video is this article at the Asexual Blog that defines a sequence for these feelings.

I do think desire and libido are worth thinking about when considering one’s orientation, but I’m not sure whether people with low libido are considered to be the ace spectrum if they do experience sexual attraction (regularly). They might have been considered nonlibidoist if that term still existed. But maybe terms like orchidsexual or lithosexual could apply to them. (Please comment below if you know more about this!)

(As an aside: I’m not sure whether analogs to desire and libido exist outside the sexual spectrum. There are definitions for lithoromantic and orchidromantic, but then again, I’ve noticed that for every microlabel on the asexual spectrum there exists a corresponding microlabel for the aromantic spectrum, but not necessarily for the other axes, possibly because the others are not as widely used. There isn’t really a 1:1 correspondence between sexual and sensual and aesthetic and romantic and alterous and platonic. But the ace and aro spectrums, when it comes to microlabels, are treated like they do have a 1:1 correspondence for some reason.)

Classifications of Love

In my “breaking down love” post, I had alluded to the ancient Greek classifications of love because those were the first I learned about and thought they were cool. While that is not the most scientific way of thinking about love, turns out psychologist John Allan Lee actually did draw on this classification to come up with the color wheel theory of love, which seems to be intended strictly for “romantic” love. If I try to apply this theory to myself, based on Lee’s “recognizable traits”, I’d say “pragmatic storge” appeals the most to me. But tbh, I think this is just a fun model and not necessarily all that useful.

The triangular theory of love developed by Robert Sternberg, I think, is more useful. Sternberg thinks of love in all interpersonal relationships and defines 3 components: intimacy, passion, and commitment, and goes on to describe what each combination of the three would look like. If I were to think about what I value most, I would probably say intimacy and commitment are much more important than passion. Anyways, this is by no means a perfect model either.

There are also the 5 love languages by Gary Chapman, which have gained a lot of popularity. I discussed this in detail in another post, so I won’t repeat myself here.

Finally, Blue Ice-Tea wrote about “The Colours of Love”, identifying the major kinds of love from personal experience and labelling them each with colors.

These are just the models I’m familiar with. I’m sure there are more out there. Please share others you may be familiar with in the comments! I like to learn about these!

Relationships

The goal of all this exploration of oneself (as described in this post) is to understand what kinds of relationships (if any) we want in our lives. Society’s narrative tells us we’re supposed to be in a heteronormative marriage and form (at least in the West) a nuclear family. And if this doesn’t work out on the first try, then keep trying. Exploring alternatives is not viewed enthusiastically. But there are so many alternatives we can consider. Meg-John and Justin offer an overview of the concept of relationship diversity on their blog/podcast. Often, when we think of relationship diversity, the first thought that comes to mind is polyamory. But there are so many other ways to think about relationship diversity.

In my case, when I was in college, my best friends and I lived together as a family unit. We coordinated shopping, we planned our meals together, we kept each other updated on our daily plans and routines, we got to know each other’s families and spent time with them, and so on. It was like an asexual polyamorous queerplatonic partnership, although we didn’t think of it that way. But if I could have that with the right group of people, and if it wouldn’t come at the expense of my work or my family, I would love to be in another arrangement like this.

Speaking of my family, as is evident from my previous post, I hold my family very high in prioritization. When I think of my “immediate family” I’m actually not only thinking of my parents and my sibling, I’m thinking about my parents’ siblings and their children too; that’s how tight we are. Our “extended family” are our parents’ cousins and second-cousins and so on. I do come from a very family-oriented culture after all. My family isn’t necessarily happy that I don’t seem to be following the traditional script, but idk, I think I’m just going to work on getting them to accept me by sheer willpower. The fact that I’m willing to prioritize my family and be intimately involved with every member gives me some leverage. I recognize that I am extremely privileged in this aspect and I am very grateful for it. And if all goes well, I can envision a future in which my parents and I live together or nearby, possibly close to one of their siblings, and explore alternatives for having a “next generation”. It’s a dream that might not come to fruition, but it’s not totally unlikely either.

Marital and romantic relationships do get a disproportionate amount of attention in our society. There exists specific services for marital and relationship counseling, but few to none for, say parent-child counseling. The concept of “DTR” (define the relationship) is widely applied only to romantic relationships. This kind of amatonormativity can have negative consequences for everyone, as I’ve written about in a previous post. I think we all can benefit from DTR-ing for all kinds of relationships in order to evaluate where they stand in our lives. To that end, there are some helpful rubrics: (1) the anatomy of relationships at Intimacy Cartography; and (2) the 5-factor relationship model by queenieofaces at The Asexua Agenda; these may or may not be extensions of Robert Sternberg’s triangular theory of love, but all 3 models can be useful.

The Invisibilia podcast also recently did an episode about friendships ending when people don’t feel comfortable discussing where the relationship stands and an episode about “friend therapy” or about rare services to get counselling for a friendship.

Gender

I don’t think one’s own gender or gender identity factors into orientation (but if it does, please tell me more in the comments), but gender is a salient aspect of orientation when considering to which gender one feels attraction. However, while orientation used to refer to WHO one is attracted to (same gender, opposite gender, etc.), nowadays people also use it to describe HOW they experience attraction (demi-, gray-, etc.). I came across a rather interesting post by The Thinking Aro that points out that when the terms heterosexual, homosexual, and bisexual were first popularized, they referred to which (biological) sex one is attracted … attracted in general: not necessarily sexually attracted. It’s very possible that at the time these words were popular, sex and gender were viewed as one and the same, so the “sex” in heterosexual and homosexual and so on are referring to biological sex or gender, and not the particular kind of attraction.

Similarly, when Shively and De Cecco conceptualized orientation (summarized here), they thought of it as comprising of one’s physical preference and affectional preference. They use the terms homosexual and heterosexual to talk about both kinds of preference, so they were clearly not thinking about sexual attraction solely when they used such terms. This conceptualization is similar to the “ROSO” dyad (referencing Coyote’s 5 norms), but with different language.

So that leaves me still wondering whether I should think of orientation as to whom I feel attraction or how I feel attraction. Personally, I think how I feel attraction has been more illuminating with regard to understanding myself. But with regard to to whom I feel attraction, while that is also useful, I wonder if it isn’t rather limiting to restrict it to thinking about to which gender only. Gender certainly plays a role in what attracts me to someone, but it is far from the sole determinant.

Conclusion: Orientation

Why even think about orientation? Rotten Zucchinis has an eye-opening post about how the origins of orientation are in neoliberal identity politics and created in response to state-sponsored violence. The post makes me question whether I need to be thinking about orientation at all when trying to determine my identity. If yes, then I don’t know if I should be thinking about to whom I feel attraction or how I feel that attraction; and I don’t know if I should try to incorporate everything that I talked about here. I think, maybe thinking about orientation is less about my identity and more about helping me inform myself about what in life it makes most sense to prioritize. Let me explain.

Of all the concepts discussed, I think right now, at this time, I like Shively and De Cecco’s conceptualization the most. I think it could be useful for me think about my affectional preference and physical preference, but a little differently from their original conceptualization by Shively and De Cecco.

This is how I’d like to interpret them: my affectional preference is for anyone with whom I have a strong emotional bond (friends and family); and my physical (which I interpret as sexual) preference is with someone (if I ever happen to meet them) with whom I’d want to have a traditional heteronormative monogamous marriage. I would probably need to feel all kinds of attraction for this person, but most importantly: sexual, partnership, and parental (experiencing which are contingent upon experiencing other forms of attraction).

I recognize that my physical preference is heavily influenced by my upbringing and the media, but it is what it is. It is unlikely that I will meet “the right” person, but my past experience tells me it’s not impossible. But for right now, I’m better off not prioritizing my physical preference, because it’s more of a “nice to have” rather than an actual need. I’m better off focusing on my affectional preference (which is a real need) and plan my life such that I can be around those people who are important to me.

7 thoughts on “Exploring Attractions: Part 8 – Beyond Attraction

  1. “I came across a rather interesting post by The Thinking Aro that points out that when the terms heterosexual, homosexual, and bisexual were first popularized, they referred to which (biological) sex one is attracted … attracted in general: not necessarily sexually attracted. It’s very possible that at the time these words were popular, sex and gender were viewed as one and the same, so the ‘sex’ in heterosexual and homosexual and so on are referring to biological sex or gender, and not the particular kind of attraction.”

    Oh, interesting! I’d never come across that idea before.

    “But for right now, I’m better off not prioritizing my physical preference, because it’s more of a ‘nice to have’ rather than an actual need. I’m better off focusing on my affectional preference (which is a real need) and plan my life such that I can be around those people who are important to me.”

    Like a lot of what you write, I can really relate to that sentiment. But it’s also cool because you seem to be hinting at a different way of thinking about orientation. It’s not just about whom we’re oriented towards, but how we’re oriented – and how we prioritise our different orientations. For you (and me), affection is more important than sexuality, so perhaps you could say that you (we) are more affectionally oriented (i.e. oriented towards affectionate relationships) than sexually oriented (oriented towards sexual relationships). Does that make sense?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. you (we) are more affectionally oriented (i.e. oriented towards affectionate relationships) than sexually oriented (oriented towards sexual relationships)

      I love that! That’s basically what I was getting at, but I really like the way you put it and it was something I could immediately relate to!

      Regarding the idea that originally “homosexual”, “bisexual”, etc. were referring to which sex/gender one is attracted rather than talking about sexual attraction exclusively … now that I think about it, it ties in with your recent post about “old” and “new” ways of using gendered words .

      Liked by 1 person

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