If you fully understand all the facets of attraction you deserve a vigorous round of applause, and maybe even a medal – you definitely deserve a sticker. Dissecting the complicated expectations, interpretations, and lived experiences of attraction can be likened to successfully navigating through a complex labyrinth.
However, what I’m about to tell you isn’t new or earth-shattering information:
Sexual attraction is not the only type of physical attraction, AND aesthetic attraction is not the same as sexual attraction!
*cue overly dramatic sound effects*
To be sure we’re all on the same page here, I define “attraction” as qualities or actions that entice desirability, liking, or appeal for something or someone. E.g. “In this article, I’m going to share some ideas about the difference between qualities or actions that entice sexual or aesthetic desirability, liking, or appeal toward something or someone.”
As a verb, “attract” or “attracted to” means to cause someone (or something) to have a sexual or aesthetic interest toward another thing. E.g. “I am caused to have an interest in another person because of their specific aesthetic attributes.”
To further clarify, I define “aesthetic attraction” as something that is associated with strictly an appreciation for one’s appearance. For example, it’s “wow that person has a great butt, and that’s aesthetically appealing to me”. It’s not, “wow that person is so hot; I want to jump in bed with them, and rip off their clothes right now.” The latter is what I would refer to as “sexual attraction”, and to be clear, non-physical features can also entice sexual attraction.
It’s necessary to note that someone may be sexually attracted to another person yet they may not have any sexual desire toward that person. Conversely, someone may have sexual desires that do not arouse an interest in partnered, “traditional” sexual activity.
Still with me? Okay, good!
If we do not take the time to parse out the different types of physical attraction in detail, our expectations for relationships and sexuality may be limiting and divisive.
Because if that was not confusing enough, there are other types of physical attraction, too. For example, “sensual attraction”; which is a desire to be physically intimate with someone yet not sexually intimate. Interestingly, and tangentially related to sensual attraction, research shows that sensual needs are practically innate. Most babies need caring or intimate touch to thrive, and develop positively both physically and mentally. Additionally, skin hunger in adults is associated with increased stress and blood pressure.
Finally, there are absolutely more types of attraction that extend beyond the realm of physical attraction, and these attractions manifest differently for every person.
Surprisingly, I’ve never said aloud, “I am asexual” (I’ve written it several times), but I have had many conversations with romantic partners about my preferences, and interests. To say the least, “dating while asexual” can be complicated! In a heterosexual world, there are no social scripts to follow in non-sexual, romantic relationships. I often struggle to figure out what makes my romantic relationships different from a good friendship, and what significant moments mark "progress" or growth in a romantic relationship- in lieu of a first kiss for example. This is jump up and down, while flailing my arms, kicking, and screaming frustrating to me! I expected that the lack of a social script would be liberating, but instead it’s so confusing. I routinely feel invalidated and inferior in my romantic relationships – as if they’re missing something vital.
Sexual people typically equate physical attraction, dating, and sexual intimacy. For me, sexual intimacy is not necessary for a relationship to be more than platonic; yet I experience aesthetic attraction often. This idea is aptly, and concisely, described, in a video about asexuality featured on Riley J Dennis’ YouTube page. Milo says, “I would not want to be sexually intimate with someone. I can appreciate their beauty [and physical features], but I don’t need to do anything else.” I share that sentiment, but I should of course mention that each person experiences dating and sexuality differently – this is simply one perspective.
If we do not take the time to parse out the different types of physical attraction in detail, our expectations for relationships and sexuality may be limiting and divisive. The assumption that just because someone is attracted to someone in an aesthetic sense means they want to have sex with them is exclusive and narrow. To put this in another, perhaps more familiar, context, lesbian women may find several women’s physical features attractive, yet they’re not interested in sleeping with every person whose body they admire. Similarly, heterosexual girls may ogle at a man’s body and appreciate his physique without necessarily inviting him into the bedroom on a first date. The rhetoric of mutual exclusivity in terms of how physical attraction is enacted – i.e., sex – makes it difficult for other relationships marked by different types of sexual desire to be considered legitimate.
Sexual attraction is not the only type of physical attraction. Physical attraction can include aesthetic, sensual, or sexual, attraction (among others depending on personal preference). No type of physical attraction is required for the other to be present, or for a relationship to be legitimized.